Vang Vieng has long been known as a hedonistic backpacker town discovered by travelers in the late 1990’s. Its gorgeous landscape is the perfect backdrop – hidden in the mountains of Laos with a lush river, caves, and lagoons. Oh, and the other appeal – it’s cheap, many more drugs are legal than what western cultures are accustom to, and restrictions are low which can tend to lead to the occasional disaster.
Vang Vieng was first settled around 1353 as a staging post between Luang Prabang and Vientiane. The town was renamed Vang Vieng during French colonial rule in the 1890s.
From 1964 to 1973, the U.S. dropped more than two million tons of ordnance on Laos during 580,000 bombing missions—equal to a planeload of bombs every 8 minutes, 24-hours a day, for 9 years – making Laos the most heavily bombed country per capita in history. The bombings were part of the U.S. Secret War in Laos to support the Royal Lao Government against the Pathet Lao and to interdict traffic along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The bombings destroyed many villages and displaced hundreds of thousands of Lao civilians during the nine-year period.
Up to a third of the bombs dropped did not explode, leaving Laos contaminated with vast quantities of unexploded ordnance. Over 20,000 people have been killed or injured by the bombs in Laos since the bombing ceased.
The shell of the city depicts a mixture of French colonial bungalows, wooden houses, and small concrete buildings. The town has evolved into a backpacker bazaar catering to the estimated 170,000 who arrive every year. The two main streets are saturated with restaurants, bars, internet cafés, travel agents and 3 Euro a night guesthouses. Most tourists are European and Australian, but other nationalities have found their way here – including Packed Perfectly.
Drugs are plentiful. (Never really get to say that when traveling) Nearly every restaurant offers “happy” pizzas and “magic” shakes or “teas” with marijuana, opium, and mushrooms or your options can range to Nitrous oxide balloons. Most places advertise on blackboards outside or secret menus depending on where you are.
A good comparison is to Thailand’s infamous full-moon parties, except for the party in Vang Vieng doesn’t occur only one night every six weeks, the party here never ends. I call it the revolving black board.
Vang Vieng became an infamous party city because of tubing. Backpackers jump on innertubes and float down the river stopping off at bars that line the river banks. Combining the river with drugs and alcohol resulted in 24 annual deaths. Along the river was a slide called “The Death Slide” – true to its name, as a backpacker broke his neck on it.
In 2012 enough was enough, local officials shut tubing down completely. There would be no more river parties. With the tubing gone, the backpackers went too. For months, Vang Vieng was a ghost town. The economy suffered, and locals worried about the future.
About a year later, officials allowed tubing once again but enforced more stringent rules. Now, only three bars can be open at once, and there are no more river swings, drugs, death slides, or dangerous activities. And, with a midnight curfew, the party doesn’t rage all night.
The locals have begun to cater to another group of tourist, wealthy Chinese and Koreans who spend more money in town rather than on river parties. Boutique hotels are starting to pop up, rather than river bars.
No longer is Vang Vieng the hedonistic jungle town it was once was. It is now a calm center for outdoor adventure, jungle hikes, and lazy days cooling off in the river – well sort of. Every party I went to was wild, and I felt footloose and fancy-free within having the obvious respect for the locals.
It’s been said that Vang Vieng sells joy and a total illusion of freedom. The Laotians are very peaceful and tolerant and do not tend to complain. Disrespectful backpackers don’t think there is notice taken to them because the impact on tourism, but the for Laotian villagers living near the river, the deaths have brought bad karma. The Nam Song was once a central part of family life, a serene spot for bathing, playing, fishing and washing clothes. Today, very few locals will go near it. As in much of rural Asia, animist-Buddhist beliefs in powerful spirits that inhabit the natural environment are still woven into everyday life.
Read more from this locals perspective and a very interesting article about Vang Vieng on The Guardian and support investigating journalism.
Upon first sight of my first river bar – and the slow speed of the small craft I was supposed to have taken across the river, I immediately jumped in and swam to the other side. But I am a strong swimmer. Two men followed me and were swept downstream. So, I wouldn’t do that if I were on the sane side. Yet there I was, rolling up solo to a massive party with water basketball upon entry. A water fountain spewed above the goal and a full game of pickup basketball was taking place. As I crawled up the river bank, a nice Irish guy threw me the ball, and I made a shot (Let me preference with I have 10 years of experience playing basketball) I joined in the game. Water basketball makes every other kind of basketball game obsolete. Try pivoting while slipping and a jump shot with water in your eyes. After that, I start dancing, my friends begin to roll in. I notice around me the volleyball courts, the bar who serves up amphetamine in the drinks to keep you drinking more, and the fire pit. All of this fun nestled in the mountains of this remote slice of earth.
Later as dusk began to settle in I tubed down the river back to town. I noticed unused zip lines and rope swings but that didn’t deter me – there is always something to do in Vang Vieng.
The concept is simple: rent a tube, catch a free ride up the river, and float your way back down. There are still several bars open along the route and lots of fun to be had. Enjoy the scenery as you float down or stop off at bars along the way.
Cost: 55,000 kip (~$6.75) for tube rental; 60,000 kip (~$7.35) deposit (given back in full if tube returned before 18:00 (6:00 PM)
Tips and Tricks: The best time of the year to go tubing is during the dry season (November to March) when the river flows a little slower, giving you more time to enjoy floating along. Best time of day is around midday when the crowds are a bit bigger and you can meet lots of people.
Hot Air Balloon Ride
In Vang Vieng, the company Balloons Over Vang Vieng (BOVV) has been taking visitors on aerial flights for many years.
Cost: $80 per passenger through Wonderful Tours
Tips and Tricks: Every time I get in a Hot Air Balloon it is for sunrise.
Blue Lagoon & Cave
The Blue Lagoon is a great place to cool off in the Laos heat. The water flows down from mountainside streams and is a beautiful blue color that is very refreshing. Make sure when you visit to check out the cave in the mountain nearby. The climb is not very difficult and takes about 15 minutes. Once at the entrance, enjoy at least an hour or two exploring the cave. Flashlights are available to rent for a few thousand kip that can help you explore some of the deepest, darkest parts of the cave. Afterwards, climb back down and jump into the lagoon off the overhanging tree or swing.
Cost: Admission to the lagoon and cave is 10,000 kip ($1.23). There is also a toll bridge on the way that cost 5,000 kip (~60 cents)
Tips and Tricks: Rent a bicycle and take in the stunning Laos countryside on your way to the Blue Lagoon. The journey is not that far and is mostly flat. Bikes can be rented for about 30,000 kip ($3.68) from places in town who will also provide you with a map.
Bars and Nightlife
At night, Vang Vieng picks up a bit as people come back from days out tubing or exploring the surrounding areas. The most popular is Sakura bar, partially because they give out free whiskey drinks between 8:00 – 9:00 pm every day. After that, the party picks up with dancing and some more happy hour specials.
Water Cave (Tham Nam)
There are many caves to choose to explore when visiting Vang Vieng. One of the most popular caves is the water cave because you get to go through on a tube. When you arrive you are given a tube and then pull yourself along a rope into the darkness. Once inside, you continue to float along in the utter total darkness, but it is possible to get a headlamp in order to see all around you. The cave isn’t very large, and you can make it through in about 30 minutes.
Cost: 10,000 kip (~$1.23) which includes entrance fee, tube, and head flashlight. Day tours that include this cave average 100,000 kip (~$12.25) depending on what you want to do.
Tips and Tricks: This is one of the most popular caves to visit in Vang Vieng and can get very busy with tour groups. To avoid them, go earlier in the day or later in the afternoon on your own.
Elephant Cave (Tham Chang)
Located above the town of Vang Vieng, this cave is just a leisurely 20-30 minute walk from the town across the Nam Song River and past rice paddies. The climb is not at all difficult and the view you get from the top of the town below is beautiful. There is a small lagoon located at this cave that visitors can splash around in if they desire. The inside of the cave is well lit and easy to explore, a perfect place for beginners looking to get a good introduction to Laos caves.
Cost: Before getting to the cave, visitors must pay a toll of 2,000 kip (~25 cents) to cross a bridge. The entrance fee to the cave itself is 15,000 kip (~$1.84).
Tips and Tricks: It can be very wet inside, so wear good shoes. I also would go early in the day or a bit later in the afternoon to avoid walking in the midday heat and other tourists.
Vang Vieng is a four-hour bus journey on mostly dirt roads from the capital Vientiane and about the same amount of time from Luang Prabang. You can either buy your tickets directly from a bus station or go through a travel agent. The travel agent will even throw in transport via a tuk tuk from their business or your guesthouse and take you to the bus station.
For decades Vang Vieng was a sleepy farming and fishing village popular with hippies and rock climbers drawn to its towering limestone cliffs, its caves, its idyllic farmland, lagoons, and its peaceful location on the Nam Song River. It revamped as a drug-induced party town for backpackers and is slowly morphing for the wealthier spectrum of tourist. Whatever year you catch yourself here, it will intrigue you with the expat community, the locals, natural beauty, and the fun times you will inevitably find.