Vang Vieng; the town the culture forgot. At least, that’s the way it was when we visited in November 2009 as part of a five month trip through Asia.
(Here, again, our camera failed us so we have few photos, and mostly of us dancing in a bar, a little worse for wear.)
You know that scene in zombie or bodysnatcher films with brain-dead beings wandering shopping malls. You know the ones, they all look vacant and walk into things. Vang Vieng is a lot like that. Every morning happy, smiling backpackers would leave on 4x4s, clinging onto large tire inner tube’s, and every evening they would return soggy, grazed bruised and dazed. The rest of us sat, undead, in the video bars.
Dotted throughout the tourist town, you could hear familiar voices emanating from the cafes. Ross and Rachel got together and broke up, got together and broke up in one, Peter and Brian Griffin sang swing numbers in another, and abrupt shouts of “Doh!” erupted every so often from a third. Basically, these places specialised in cheap grub and comfy tables surrounded by cushions. Above hung screens, constantly replaying DVDs of popular American TV shoes.
When all you have done all day is watch a whole season of family guy and inhale a bowl of cheap chicken super noodles, you have to wonder if you’re really making the most of your travelling experience.
This is the main reason people visit Vang Vieng. If you’ve never heard of tubing, let me try to explain. You take a giant rubber ring and get driven to a river, in this instance, the Nam Song river. Then you get really drunk in the bar that is next to the river. After an hour or so of imbibing your poison of choice (ours was Pimms and lemonade) out of a small plastic bucket, you make your way slowly down to the water and jump into your rubber ring. This carries you downstream.
Soon another bar comes into view and helpful staff toss out a rope to pull you in. You order another bucket of alcohol to swig on and play on the rope swing, slide or greasy pole that they have. Repeat this process again, and again, and again, moving along from bar to bar throughout the day.
Back in your rubber ring, further downstream, you start to realise that the sun is beginning to set and a huge number of mosquitoes are excitedly surrounding your unprotected flesh. You start to think that it is time to get out and take your 4×4 of shame back to town, soggy, grazed, bruised, dazed and with an arm full of colourful string. (More about that string later).
The Bike Trip
Hating ourselves for wasting two whole days staring at a TV screen, we decided to hire two bikes and pedal to a nearby cave. We whizzed through the zombie-filled streets and crossed a small bridge that leads straight into a field. The hills opened up in front of us. It was an immediate relief.
The path was bumpy and despite the bike’s soft seats, quite punishing on our backsides. Halfway to the cave, we stopped at a cafe for a cold drink. They kindly offered us a seat but we needed to give our battered bottoms a rest.
To be honest, I don’t really remember the cave and have no photos, but I do remember the joy of saying goodbye to the bicycles and climbing into the cool darkness of the cave beyond.
Nightlife in Vang Vieng
With such a concentration of backpackers, there was a party every night in Vang Vieng. Some bars/pubs adorned tubers arms with string during the day, which they could use to get free drinks in the evening. We visited a few bars during our time in Vang Vieng, some serving cheap local booze, and some claiming to serve “happy” products. A “happy” pizza, banana shake or toastie is something that contains magic mushrooms. Contrary to this seemingly relaxed stance on drug taking, Laos actually has very strict drug laws; you can lose your life if the charges are serious enough. There was no way we were going anywhere near that nonsense!!
Instead, we went for good old fashioned cheap, local, nasty booze!
The evening of our tubing experience, we hit the bars for our free drinks. It was hot and sticky, and the bar we chose had a slightly rank sheen to the walls, but the drinks were cheap and the music loud. We were up on the benches in no time, dancing and meeting new friends…like this even drunker lady.
Local Nightlife in Vang Vieng
On another evening, we saw something setting up on the defunct air strip. Our guesthouse backed onto the area so we were in prime position to check it out There was a market going on and so we went to have a look. Secondhand clothes, shoes and trinkets were on sale. All things that locals might actually buy, and none of the tourist tat, or waterproof phone cases, that were on offer in every shop we had seen thus far.
We played a game that involved throwing a dart at a rack of balloons. Pop and balloon and win a red bull. A very simple game that wasn’t clearly rigged like most games in U.K. fairs. …we still didn’t win though. I don’t think hand/eye coordination is our thing.
Leaving Vang Vieng
Vang Vieng has to be the strangest place we have ever visited, and yet, we didn’t even visit it. As our double decker, backpacker bus wove its way out of town, the cityscape chaanged dramatically. Gone were the perfectly maintained streets with their clean pavements and video bars. Instead were mud roads with no discernible pavements or markings. Ramshackle food stalls, and dwellings crowded the side of the road and local faces gazed after the bus, probably wondering why none of us had been to visit their side of town. I felt a horrible guilt that I had made no effort to go beyond the backpacks borders. It was somewhat of a learning curve and we vowed that we would try harder in future to leave the safety of the easy and expected.
Apparently Vang Vieng was all but dismantled from the zombie-land we visited. The town took back its personality and started to rebuild its tourism industry from the ground up. Gone were the video bars, and the tubing and accompanying bars were regulated. It has reinvented itself as a place for adventure activities. You can raft the river, whizz down a zip-wire, rock climb or explore magical lagoons.
I hope that if/when you visit, you will find a place that speaks of its Laotian life, as well as throwing the occasional booze-fuelled party, just for old-time’s sake.