Chicken/bacon sandwiches, Family Guy, Friends, beautiful mountains, drunken 20-somethings wearing matching singlets, magic shakes and hundreds of tubes.
That pretty much describes Vang Vieng, Laos.
I’m not sure how I ended up spending a week there, but I did.
It’s a vicious, vicious cycle. Go tubing on the first day, because that’s what you’re there for. Wake up the next day with a terrible hangover and go to one of the town’s many restaurants with plans to do nothing but watch Friends or Family Guy all day and eat chicken and bacon baguettes. Meet people with similar plans, then one of you has the bright idea to start drinking again. Eventually get caught up with a group of smiling first-timers and follow them back to the top of the river for another ride.
Rinse and repeat.
That’s Vang-Vieng in a nutshell and if you don’t make an effort to get out, you’ll end up spending way more time than you probably should there inevitably handing out flyers for Q-Bar in return for booze and food, because you’ve run out of money.
Luckily, I made it out alive, which some people actually don’t. Here are some things I learned.
It’s impossible to actually tube back to town
Trust me. I tried four times.
The whole idea behind tubing is to be dropped off a few kilometers up stream and to actually tube down to where you originally picked up your tube. Unfortunately in Vang Vieng, people need to overcome endless bars offering free booze, half naked hotties and a time limit (tube shop closing time).
It’s not gonna happen. Plus it gets a bit boring.
It can be very dangerous
Any time I’ve ever heard someone mention tubing in Vang Vieng, it was quickly followed by “this many people die each year.” It’s true. A few people do die each year tubing in Vang Vieng and it’s obvious why.
People get completely wrecked on more than just booze. Being that intoxicated is probably never a good idea when swimming is involved. On top of that, the river can be aggressive at times. Further, unseen rocks give you more than just a bruise when falling onto them from a very high rope swing or zip line.
Finally, be careful with drugs in Laos for health reasons, but also legal reasons. Despite advertisements for “magic pizza” or the fact that opium shakes are listed on the menu at normal restaurants, drugs are illegal in Laos and the retribution for breaking this law is very harsh.
Every now and then a foreigner shows up in the newspaper, because he or she was sentenced to so many years in jail, or even execution, for being caught with drugs or trying to smuggle drugs out of a country. Don’t let this be you.
It can still be good fun
As usual, if you’re careful you can have an amazing time tubing in Vang Vieng. Massive slides, mud tug-of-war, wild people, it has pretty much everything anyone with a pulse would want to try out just once in their lives.
Just don’t be an idiot. Watch how much you drink and pay attention when participating in activities like zip lines or rope swings. I did just about every activity offered on that river, and did them after a few buckets. I knew my limit, I was careful and I left perfectly fine.
Oh and one last thing, if you can’t swim, just don’t tube. I met a guy who never learned to swim but thought this would be a good time to try for some reason. It’s not. If this is you, take a taxi to the top of the River and walk each bar. Like I said, don’t be an idiot!
It has more than just three bars
The migration of people from bar to bar on the Nam Song River works very strangely.
Basically, there are quite a few bars located directly on the river where the owners only income comes from people tubing between about noon and 8 p.m. Those people will do the best they can to keep you at their bar, from crazy deals, to activities, to music, to free booze. But really how good a bar gets depends on the amount of people that wander to it.
When I arrived at the starting point, other tubers and I were greeted by a wigged man in pink glasses handing out free shots and directing us to go to Q-Bar.
Q-Bar bar was crazy, but didn’t have many good things to play with, so I think it was a massive zip line that lured me and most of the other people from Q-Bar to the next bar.
On my best attempt to actually make it back to town via the river, I got down to about the sixth bar to find it had the BEST slide I’ve ever seen.
At some point, if you can, just ditch the crowd. Sometimes they stay at Q-Bar all day. Keep floating and try somewhere different.
It’s more than just tubing
A lot of people have a heavy hatred for what Vang Vieng has become. It was once a quiet town, placed amongst vast natural beauty.
Today, it’s really hard to explain.
It’s commercial, but in an odd way. It’s still beautiful and no major hotels or restaurants have invaded it, but there are a lot of hotels there that don’t quite look like they belong and TVs mounted in every restaurant blaring American shows.
The area has a bit more to see. Try a home stay with a local family. Visit a local blue lagoon. Go kayaking or hiking. Quite a few adventure tour companies operate out of Vang Vieng. Take a day off from the river and get to know the rest of the area.
Vang Vieng is a place that people don’t truly understand until they see for themselves. Nowadays, it’s almost a right a passage for backpackers in southeast Asia. Regardless of your thoughts on its dangers or what’s it’s become, it’s worth a visit, for more than just getting pissed on a river.
Prices: 8,000LAK= about $US1
55,000LAK to hire a tube for the day, which includes a taxi to the starting point of the river.
60,000LAK deposit on the tube, which you’ll get back upon return. (MAKE SURE THERE IS ALWAYS A TUBE AVAILABLE FOR YOU AT THE BAR. It’s a free-for-all with those tubes at the bar. It can turn into musical chairs by the end of the day.)
20,000-30,000LAK for buckets on the river.
5,000LAK for a single drink.
10,000-20,000LAK for a sandwich.