Famed for its previously raucous drunk tubing activities bringing many deaths, Vang Vieng wasn’t high on our list of ‘must-sees’ in Laos.
We’d first heard about the place 18 months before from some New Zealand travellers we’d met on another backpacking trip. They had talked of bobbing down the river on large inner tubes being thrown ropes by the riverside bars and drinking copious amounts of cheap buckets of alcohol. Then sliding down slides or Tarzan swinging into the river in your drunken state.
How very Laotian.
On further reading, we discovered that partygoers trailed into town after the river parties bikini-clad and shirtless to continue partying on in some of the ‘shroom-happy bars in town.
Hmmmm. Is that us?
We seriously questioned whether it was really worth visiting Vang Vieng.
On face value it didn’t sound like a place we’d usually visit but we figured we should check out this Laotian backpacking ‘right of passage’ as we were passing through and form an opinion ourselves.
It has also now supposedly ‘cleaned up its act’. OK, how bad could it be?
We travelled through Laos as a group of six, three guys, three girls.
So, when we reached Vang Vieng, the six of us set up camp in neighbouring bungalows-on-stilts. We found ourselves a quieter part of town with a resident puppy that relentlessly yapped at our ankles when we were en-route to have a wee.
We stayed at Riverside Garden Bungalows and would recommend them for quietness, the beautiful views, price, cleanliness and location to town. We loved staying there.
Plus, by the time you arrive, the yappy puppy will have grown up a little!
Exploring the town over the first few days was an interesting experience.
It instantly seemed to us that Vang Vieng town itself had ripped out its soul, aggressively trodden on it and then sold it on.
Every which way we looked was a mix of bars and western restaurants offering ‘shroom shakes and carbonara.
Really? Is THIS what people travel to Laos for?
The people roaming the streets were either Korean or Westerners and wearing a ‘Vang Vieng uniform’ of various styles of vests.
At aged 30, I felt old.
In the evenings, the bars and clubs came alive with different offers for cheap alcohol. And, although it wasn’t the most cultural experience, when in Rome…
Hot Air Balloons
Something Vang Vieng does offer, which is a little different, are hot air balloon flights at sunrise.
We were celebrating six months on the road while in Vang Vieng and so treated ourselves to a hot air balloon flight one morning.
Neither of us had been in a hot air balloon before and it was amazing to just float up into the sky so peacefully. Now, it was no ‘Balloons Over Bagan’ in experience we witnessed in Myanmar, but it was a fraction of the price at £80 and a groovy thing to experience.
Tubing was obviously on the agenda (we had to suss this shizz out for ourselves) and so, we signed up to a company on the side of the road one afternoon.
We were driven with tubes to the riverside and guided off down the river by a local. It was pretty relaxed and eventually we reached the first bar. Paddling over we were hoiked out and onto a deck to be served more-expensive-than-normal alcohol.
And then we expected the debauchery to commence.
However it didn’t.
The next bar took ages to float to, was pretty empty and the third one we were expecting didn’t exist.
And, our guide had somehow disappeared.
Before we knew it the whole thing was over.
Confused and wondering what all the fuss had been about after all these years, we headed off back to town. Later that night we met people who had been tubing that day who said it had been SO good they’d been twice.
It turns out we were sold a different river tubing experience to the one we wanted, on a totally different part of the river. A red one, when the fun happens on a white one!?
Well, at least we didn’t die.
Despite the ‘lack-lustre’ activity, the whole experience left me a little on edge.
While tubing down the river, we spotted local fishermen stood in the water by the banks and local children playing. Our polite ‘hellos’ seemed to fall on deaf ears and were not returned. They seemed bemused by our presence.
And, why shouldn’t they be!? We were a bunch of barely-dressed, loud tourists and floating down their river with one aim – to get drunk.
I wouldn’t want to see that in my back garden either.
So far, for us, Vang Vieng wasn’t anywhere close to the reason we wanted to explore Laos. and we really questioned whether it was worth being there at all.
Until we headed out of town.
Wanting to escape the weird mix of Korean shops, tourists, western food and ‘happy-this’ and ‘happy-that’ signs all over the place, we hired a moped for a couple of days to get out and explore the countryside.
And, then we struck gold.
We discovered that Vang Vieng’s real gems lay on the outside, in the countryside away from the town.
Vang Vieng’s Blue Lagoons
There are a few creative and inspirationally-named lagoons around Vang Vieng to relax in; Blue Lagoon 1, 2 and 3. On mopeds, we headed to check out number 1 and number 3.
Leaving town there is a toll bridge to cross which will cost you between 4000-8000 kip. If you’d rather keep that in your pocket, like we did, there is a route across a free bridge just before – directions below.
But, be warned, it’s nervy!
The roads were largely awful – standard for Laos – and the free bridge to cross to leave town was so terrifying that I wished Byron ‘good luck’ as I opted to walk over it rather than drive.
Post-bridge-survival, getting out into the countryside is fantastic.
Just you, a whole load of dusty potholed roads, limestone karsts to ogle at and azure-blue pools to mess around in.
We headed for Blue Lagoon 1 at first, but swiftly made an exit as it was chocka-block and waaahaayy too touristy for our liking.
Instead, we decided to drive further out to Blue Lagoon 3.
Less developed, fewer people, more relaxing.
We paid to park and then made use of the free floatation devices dotted around the pool to relax in.
Heading back to town and abandoning the others in our group, the FaB tour of the countryside continued, crossing back over the river (and that rickety bridge) and out of town to the north.
Heading towards Ban Nampo and Pakpo will reward you with some stunning views.
Rice paddies, soaring limestone karsts, beautiful rivers and local life.
We periodically stopped along the way to take photos of plants potted in old toilet bowls and incredible views such as these…
We also had to dodge herds of cows in the road
If you want to experience local Laotian life and see spectacular scenery then the countryside around Vang Vieng is where you need to head.
Sure, tubing and drinking is on the agenda if you really want, but we don’t think it is worth visiting Vang Vieng for that.
We think Vang Vieng’s speciality is her nature, the scenery and her local life and culture.
Not the manmade tourist malarky that it seems famed for.
This should be the REAL reason people visit.
And so, yes, it is worth visiting Vang Vieng. Purely for the beauty and local culture in her surrounding countryside.
Let us know what you think, do you think it’s worth visiting Vang Vieng?