Tubing in Vang Vieng

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First published 28th January, 2010

Like a SE Asian Goa, Vang Vieng offers the constant debauchery that marks any infamous destination on the now well-worn backpacker/hippie/party-people trail. It just doesn't have a beach, nor, frankly, does it even need one. The famed attraction has become, incorrectly but perhaps appropriately, immortalized on t-shirts and tank tops as: "Tubing In The Vang Vieng Laos."

Party time at Vang Vieng

Far more accessible and much less demanding than mountain trekking or Mekong island hopping, the relaxed trip down the Nam Song river is appropriately Laotian in its calmness. Peaceful and tranquil aside from the occasional rock or rapid, the 4km ride is certainly a highlight of many a holiday. However, "floating the river" is merely a shallow facade for the massive daily orgy of the senses that occurs just outside of town.

We took the slow approach, one afternoon ride to survey the scene, and another all-day affair to be fully enveloped by it. The start of the float, it turns out, is where the majority of the party resides – as you emerge from your tuk-tuk (included in the tube rental price) you are surrounded by rope swings, zip-lines, and an abundance of beer-drinking Western travelers. Party music blasts, spanning the range from Fatboy Slim-style electronica to the latest remixed club hits that have most likely been pilfered from Thailand. The bars are haphazard affairs, dedicated to drunken fun and little else. With free shots readily available everywhere, ample entertainment, and plenty of people to mingle with (and then try and take home later), everyone's focus, bar staff and owners included, is on having a good time.

Vang Vieng party town

VV, it seems, is a place best stayed at for an indeterminate amount of time. Can you really experience everything the river offers in one day? It'd be quite difficult to actually drink a beer at every bar, and if you managed to, in then you'd be in no condition to be safely riding slides and zip-lines repeatedly. Plus there's mud volleyball, at least a few dance parties, a fire to warm-up by, and whatever other drugs you might choose to dabble in. The party starts, weather permitting, around noon, and continues until just before dark – that's when the frantic and drunken dash to return the tubes by 6 pm begins, and often fails. Then the drunken, scantily clad masses return to town, Vang Vieng's bars fill up in a rotating fashion, the sandwich/pancake stands multiply, and the streets gain a festival-esque atmosphere. Festival in the sense of drunken and wasted people wandering about in various degrees of ridiculous: like a music festival minus the bands and schedule, or a street festival without the performers and artisans.

Mushroom shakes of dubious effectiveness are available for only 50,000, the same price as two joints, a hash brownie, three to five beers, or a cup of opium tea. Prices do vary significantly, so it pays to do some investigative research. Space pizza is prominently advertised even in town, but more diverse special menus are in abundance across the river, where the late-night scene rages across shaky wood and bamboo bridges, at bars named Bucket, Rock, Smile, and Sunset. In the darkness there's bonfires and dance music, though the average sound-system was hardly tolerable even when relaxing in a hammock garden.

The days in Vang Vieng pass both slowly and quickly. Drinking and tubing, or just drinking, or drinking "something else" are the three top choices of activity. For sure, kayaking, caving, and hiking trips are available, but the town exists to soak up the malaise of travelers, no matter how worn or weary they might really be. Westerners come for a weekend visit and stay for weeks, bars accept volunteer workers in exchange for food, drink, and drug, and now (thankfully) Family Guy is an equally constant brain vortex alongside the traditional Friends.

The town itself seems to only serve the river, and its endless clientele. Remove all the guesthouses, restaurants, sandwich/shake shops, t-shirt vendors, and internet cafes, and remaining in the dust would be a 'Hopital,' a 'College Ethnique,' a post office, and a few other random buildings. Plus a pair of over-worked government-run ATMs, of course.

From one perspective you'd be a fool not to experience the drunken (and dangerous) delights of the relentless river party. Truly, where else in the world can you drink the afternoon away for about $10, ride endless water rides that never seem to have a line, and then go eat a cheap sandwich before continuing the debauchery at bars that don't close until dawn? Even the Full Moon Party doesn't offer the variety of entertainment and excess that the Laotian government has, somehow, allowed VV to get away with.

Is this real Laos? Not in the traditional sense, but for better or worse it's one aspect of the up-and-coming country, and hopefully completely sacrificing a town to tourism is well-worth the economic benefits despite the social costs. As Laos continues to develop and modernize, perhaps VV will eventually be phased out, in which case you owe it to yourself, or at least your inner-party-child, to go "Tubing In The Vang Vieng Laos."

Tube rental cost (if I remember correctly...) = 65,000 + 60,000 deposit. 20,000 late charge after 6pm.

We'll be running a new entry from Anderson and the team every week for the duration of their trip across Asia. We hope you find it an interesting view into what another's journey through Asia can be like. There's a delay of a few weeks between where they are and the story appearing on Travelfish, so if you want to know where they are right now, be sure to check out their blog. Comments, as always, are welcome.

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Read 3 comment(s)

  • Yes, thank goodness for the "Family Guy" shows. I got very tired of all the "Friends" bars. Other entertainment included watching the locals getting a haircut at the open air barber shop. Didn't notice any Farangs taking advantage of the reasonably priced trims.

    Posted by Don on 20th April, 2010

  • I recently spent some time in VV, and although we thoroughly loved it, I put my medic skills to work more than once bandaging fellow backpackers up (including my husband, who dragged a fresh would through an open sewer). Be sure to tend to these things with proper cleaning and antibiotic ointment, or you may be bringing home a different kind of souvenir.

    Posted by Joanna Eriksmoen on 15th May, 2010

  • I think a lot of backpackers miss on the real beauty of Vang Vieng by spending their whole time tubing. Tubing is fun and certainly an experience well worth takig part in, but the region, in my opinion is one of the most spectacular in the country and probably gets ignored by the majority of revelers. Rock climbing, kayaking, caving, cycling are all excellent ways to see this towns real natural beauty.

    Posted by Backpacking Southeast Asia on 30th September, 2011

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