Natural wonder, backpacker mecca, party central, Lima Site 6: Vang Vieng, 155 kilometres north of Vientiane on the road to Luang Prabang, has endured many labels. Ever since Laos reopened to foreign visitors in the 1990s, the small town’s striking river landscape lined with towering karst has lured travellers. There are mysterious caves to explore, lagoons of turquoise water to dive into and sheer cliffs to climb.
Gaze at the tranquil Nam Song river that gracefully flows through town and it is hard to imagine that from the 1950s to 1970s Vang Vieng was used as a base and airfield for Air America, a cargo and passenger airline secretly owned and operated by the CIA. The airstrip, known as Lima Site 6, was used to support covert paramilitary operations in Southeast Asia. In spite of an international agreement at the Geneva Conference that Laos would remain neutral, 1965 marked the start of the CIA directed Secret War in Laos that amassed a death toll upwards of 50,000 people and ended when the Americans beat a hasty retreat after Vietnam fell to the Communists in 1975.
Lima Site 6 is now a patch of crumbled asphalt flanking the eastern edge of town and Vang Vieng’s bloody history has faded, overshadowed by its more recent history. For years Vang Vieng was the highlight of many a fun-loving traveller’s trip to Laos. Backpackers flocked here for tubing. Considered a rite of passage on the so-called banana pancake trail, the activity’s popularity had little to do with floating down the river on an inner tube. It was about the non-stop party at roughly constructed bars along the Nam Song where people could indulge in bucket drinks, free shots and liberal amounts of bad judgement. Drugs were openly for sale on menus. Rope swings, flying foxes and slides would wildly catapult people back into the river. At its peak, 400 people a day would go tubing; many travellers would plan to stay here for a few days and would end up staying for weeks, even months, a never-ending cycle of sleeping and partying hard on the river. Some never left.
In January 2012 two young Australian men died within a few days of each other, finally igniting wider attention to the scene and other deaths; one news outlet reported as many as 22 deaths in 2011. Faced with an outcry and pressure, the government took action and the bars were shut down, the blatant sale of drugs quashed and curfew enforced. Today there’s still tubing and a few low-key stops along the river, but the mania is gone, leaving the area to those more interested in enjoying the immense natural and rural beauty. So Vang Vieng has turned its attention to luring a different sort of traveller.
Within a couple of years Vang Vieng has seen a meteoric rise in Korean and Chinese travellers, specifically with tour groups that sometimes bring in more than 100 tourists at once. Large, bland midmarket hotels are being built and restaurants that once showed endless Friends episodes and advertised “happy pizzas” now have signs touting Korean and Chinese food and free WiFi. Drunk bikini-clad women no longer traipse down the streets; the new demographic appreciates different activities. Kayaking has exploded in popularity. ATVs are another new phenomenon and it’s not uncommon to see (and hear) ATVs racing through the countryside kicking up plumes of blinding dust.
What this means for the average traveller is that you are now spoiled for choice and value when it comes to accommodation, from fun backpacker havens and riverside bungalows to classy boutique hotels. A change in local government two years ago ended the outdoor adventure monopoly; now there are 14 kayaking companies alone vying for your business.
Getting out of town is the only way to experience anything remotely close to real Laos. It takes a few minutes on a bicycle or motorbike to find yourself in a peaceful world of dirt roads, farmland, villages and locals knee deep in mud hard at work planting rice. There are caves galore, as well as waterfalls, lagoons and rivers to cool off in – the Water Cave is a magical combination of the two. Here you pull yourself into the cave and up the underground river on an inner tube.
Vang Vieng is an excellent place to learn rock climbing year round. There are also hot air balloon rides in dry season, from the end of October to around mid-May. The ride lasts 45 minutes, costs US$80 and is operated by a Chinese company; we cannot vouch for the safety, pilot licensing or service. To date there have been no major hot air balloon accidents in Vang Vieng. A common complaint is that there is no communication between the pilot and passengers as the pilots, Chinese nationals, cannot speak English. If you’re concerned about safety and serious about having a great once-in-a-lifetime experience, we suggest you skip this and splurge perhaps on a balloon trip over Bagan in Burma.
Vang Vieng is the wrong place if you’re looking for traditional Lao culture and good Lao food. But as you sink yourself in a chair beside the river and watch as the sun disappears behind the mountains, a wondrous peace and calm blankets the town. Cattle are gently nudged home, children venture into the Nam Song looking for fish and the water glitters in the last bit of light before the amphitheatre of karst fades to dark and you are overcome with the understanding that Vang Vieng remains well worth the visit.
Vang Vieng town lies in between the Nam Song river and the old airstrip, now a large empty patch that runs parallel to Route 13. The main arteries are two roads running north-south – one of them along the river – and small streets connecting the two like rungs of a ladder.
Countryside, karst and caves sprawl out west of the river. To cross, use the toll bridge (10,000 kip round trip) in the south end of town. In dry season, there’s also a free bamboo bridge in the middle of town, replaced by ferryboats in wet season.
The bus station is two kilometres north of town on Route 13. As a major tourist destination, the town is serviced by everything from songthaews and local buses to VIP air-con buses and tourist minivans. Destinations include Luang Prabang, Kasi, Phonsavan and Vientiane. If you are travelling with something other than a local bus, you may be dropped at the station or if you’re lucky, directly in town. Tuk tuks from the bus station are organised meaning the newly arrived get loaded up into one and charged about 15,000 kip per head. If there are a lot of people, you should bargain it down to 10,000 kip. If you’re alone expect to pay around 20,000 kip one-way.
Vang Vieng has ATMs throughout town and a BCEL Bank branch on the same street as Green Discovery and the tubing rental office. The maximum is 1,000,000 kip per withdrawal. Guesthouses and tour agencies do money exchange at fair rates but it’s easy to compare rates with a quick walk around.
Even the cheapest of hostels and guesthouses offer free WiFi, at minimum in their lobby. Vang Vieng has good 3G coverage. Telecom companies include Lao Telecom, ETL, Unitel or Beeline.
The Hobo Map of Vang Vieng is excellent and worth purchasing if you have any plans for exploring by bicycle or motorbike. The map shows dirt roads through the countryside and the popular caves to visit. It’s sold in shops, or you can pick it up at Monument Books in Vientiane.
The Tourism Information Centre has helpful English speaking staff but there are no free brochures or maps. Open Mon-Fri 09:00-12:00, 14:00-16:00.
The Vang Vieng Municipal Hospital has seen many grisly backpacker injuries, which probably explains why they have a treatment fee chart in English on display. Facilities are extremely basic and they can patch up minor ailments, but for anything serious, you’ll want to get to Thailand or at least Vientiane ASAP. Ground transport to a Vientiane hospital accompanied by a nurse costs 1,800,000 kip.
Vang Vieng once had a laundry list of travel warnings: spiked food and drinks, rape, theft, motorbike scams and accidents, extortion, drownings, river related injuries and drug related deaths. The party scene may have been tamed but it would be foolhardy to assume these troubles have disappeared. It would be wise to exercise caution and good sense in this tourist town where there is an obvious gap between the haves and have-nots.
By Cindy Fan.
Last updated on 12th October, 2016.