I feel a bit guilty about Vang Vieng. I was armed with prejudice about the town before I even arrived here, making it quite difficult to make a final, unbiased and independent decision on what the hell I think about it.
Vang Vieng is a Laotian city that many backpackers seem to know about before they arrive. Most people learn about it from other backpackers who have recently undertaken the unique (and – by heavily regulated, Western standards – dangerous) tubing experience.
Backpacking climbers seem to know about it for its dozens and dozens of bolted climbing routes in and around beautiful caves (a quieter and less well-known alternative to the popular Tonsai in Thailand).
Some tourists read and plan for it in the various editions of Lonely Planet, and some – particularly older tourists – use Vang Vieng as a stopover town between Luang Prabang and Laos’ capital, Vientienne (a journey that could otherwise take between 10-12 hours by bus).
My preconceptions of Vang Vieng were heavily shaped by a short film documentary I watched on YouTube before I left London. It was taken by an independent online film company called Journeyman Pictures. Though you can view the documentary from their own website directly, I chose to watch it from YouTube where dozens of (often quite unfair and rude) viewer comments were also available to read (I’ll embed the link to the post for anyone interested to view).
Admittedly, it didn’t paint a positive picture of the town at all. Though I’m tempted to agree with the majority of the documentary’s findings, having now been to Vang Vieng, I do feel it can lead a certain type of person to opt against the tubing experience. What worries me most is that it could lead some travellers to avoid Vang Vieng altogether – and I’m not so sure how I feel about this.
The landscape of Vang Vieng is truly phenomenal. Resting beside the Nam Song river with a spectacular view of dramatic limestone rocks hiding dozens of nature’s least known caves, it is no wonder the town is home to dozens of activity tours from kayaking to tubing to rock climbing to caving to rafting. There really is a lot one can do in quite superb natural surroundings at a relatively reasonable cost.
But let me zoom in on the tubing experience for a moment. ‘Tubing’ is everything the word itself suggests it is: an experience whereby a large, inflated, circular ring is used to transport you from a drop-off point (in this case, 3 km away) to be carried by the current back to town along the river.
In Vang Vieng, the first kilometre of the tubing route is home to dozens of ramshackle, stilted and wooden bars offering everything from cheap beer to ‘happy’ pizzas to weed to games to playful swings you can use to drunkenly fly back into the river. These bars are – fortunately and unfortunately – most easily accessed by tube (or kayak or boat or fins – what have you). Therefore, most of what goes on here often occurs in the absence of the police or any other authoritative figure that may be in place in Lao society.
Hundreds of thousands of travellers go tubing in Vang Vieng annually. Some travellers go tubing with the aim of getting incredibly drunk, stoned, ‘slashed’, ‘wasted’ – or, whichever past participle derivative of a verb you can think of to describe extreme intoxication. Some travellers aim to cool down from the heat, having a romantic view of holding a cold BeerLao whilst slowly floating timelessly 3 km downriver. Some want an ‘in-between’ experience, where they have a few casual drinks in a bar or two… tube a bit… have another quick drink… and then tube for the remainder of the journey. And, of course, there are those who like to go by the name of ‘party-goer’; they have no clear intentions at all, but simply wish to meet people, socialise and do whatever other party-goers are doing.
Of course, anyone with a ‘tubing objective’ in Vang Vieng needs also to create a tubing strategy. For example, if you want to have some sort of control over your tubing experience to enjoy your BeerLao on the river, there’s little point in commencing your tubing journey at 16:00 o’clock when bars are full of young, loud and incredibly drunk travellers (some of whom may be on whoever knows what kind of drugs). If you’d like a few beers but less chaos, go earlier. If you’re not sure whether you want to drink at all, but you’d like to tube with a book on the river instead, go earliest. If you want to experience the chaos, go latest: you might even be lucky enough to find yourself on that last tuk-tuk home… filled with 12-15 severely loud and drunk travellers, many of whom have lost so much of their wits that they’re returning home half-naked and barefoot with marker ink smothered all over their river-drenched bodies. Otherwise, in the worst instance, you might even be dead. Sadly, you may become the next statistic to plague Vang Vieng’s tubing industry.
Notes: To quote Lonely Planet, ‘Vang Vieng is one of those places that everyone has an opinion on’. I suppose I’ve added my voice to the opinionated discourse on tubing currently available in travel books and on the net.
Having now written my post, I’m not sure whether I’ve succeeded in my aim of sharing an ‘independent and unbiased’ view of Vang Vieng. Nonetheless, I’d like to conclude by saying that I ended up enjoying my tubing experience. With a clear vision of how we wanted to experience tubing in Vang Vieng, we went early – at about 11 am. To be precise, we were the 15th and 16th customers of the day (as our number on our hand revealed later). We absorbed the sunshine…. relaxed… appreciated the stunning views in what felt like pure isolation… stopped for a beer and played a board game. We then returned to tube our remaining 2 km home – happily, safely and soberly. We were so well in tact we may have even contemplated going climbing again straight afterwards!
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