It’s easy to see why Vang Vieng went from an undiscovered paradise to a hedonistic party pit-stop on the Banana-Pancake Trail. Luckily, it’s been cleaned up quite a bit (including, for example, by removing the zip lines and rope swings that used to exist), and what you’ll find now is a nice mix of adventure tourism in a karst-studded landscape and (mostly) good-natured fun.
Vang Vieng is best known for its popular tubing activity, where tourists rent inner tubes and use them as transportation to bar hop among the aptly named Bar One, Bar Two and Bar Three along the Nam Song river. This is a backpacker rite of passage we are very glad not to have missed.
You rent your tube in town, and then a tuk-tuk takes you about three or four kilometers up the river. There is a bar set-up just beside the Organic Farm (which we had heard is good and has delicious mulberry shakes, but unfortunately we couldn’t peel ourselves away from the fun zone) where people hang out drinking alcoholic slushies, cheap whiskey shots (free at the door!) and Beerlao. There is a table set up for playing beerpong, blankets laid out on the ground, little cabanas with shaded seating and of course good tunes. This is technically Bar Zero, just getting you warmed up for the long ride down to Bar One. It takes about five minutes. If you’re noticing that the focus is on drinking rather than tubing, you’re very perceptive. Our only complaint with the tubing is there is not enough tubing!
Bar One had a little dirt soccer pitch where Alan played with a veritable United Colors of Benetton group: an American, two Brits, an Indian, a Spaniard and a guy from Brussels. OK, maybe it’s a highly European group but it’s still a diverse crowd. If you had any doubt that the alcohol imbibing was taking effect, know that Alan essentially dove into a brick sidewalk to try to save the ball and barely flinched. Not that he isn’t always this manly and macho 😉 There was also a spirited game of Polish Horseshoes taking place. We played this at Kenny’s birthday bash in Longmeadow years ago. Apparently it’s also known as Frisbeener or Beersbee, among other names.
Another five-minute tube ride takes you to Bar Two, where there is a volleyball court, lots of drunk men in mank tops with necklaces made of beer can tabs (when exactly did the mank top trend explode?), girls in neon bikinis, and some cheap eats.
There are guys standing at the water’s edge at each bar who throw out ropes with water bottles attached to the end to pull you in. They keep your tubes stacked by the river while you get your drink on.
The Vang Vieng locals are smart with their pricing policies, maximizing their chances of capitalizing on drunken tourists’ inability to return the tubes before the six o’clock cutoff when part of your deposit is forfeited (or all of it if you can’t manage to get back before eight). Not to mention it’s nearly impossible to make it back to town before sunset if (read: when) you lose track of time at Bar One, Two or Three. We’re told it takes about three hours without stopping to float from the drop-off point all the way back to town. We’ll never know. We didn’t even make it to Bar Three, as we wanted more tubing during our tubing. And we kicked with fervor trying to make it back from Bar Two via the river before six. We got picked up by a tuk-tuk driver with over a kilometer to go, and still didn’t make it back before six.
We’d heard rumors of how crazy this place used to be. While we can’t compare the present situation to what it used to be, we thought it a healthy mix of non-drinking kayakers and other adventure seekers and partiers who were more or less in control of themselves.
Our second day in town we checked out the next most popular tourist attraction around: the Blue Lagoon and Poukham Cave. It’s about thirty minutes away via tuk-tuk on a rough dirt road (including a stop to pick up a monk we passed along the way), though some people do bike or walk it (we got too late a start in the day for this). The Blue Lagoon is a really cool spot where you can swim and rope-swing or jump off a big tree into the water. There are ladders leading up to limbs about 8 and 20 feet above the water. We watched some impressive and far more brave people doing backflips and the like for a while. For those on the spectator side there are tables and shaded cabanas, a volleyball court, and a little restaurant where you can get beers and pretty cheap Asian noodle and rice dishes. All in all it’s a very chill scene and much more mellow (and sober) than the tubing, but if you have only one day in Vang Vieng we’d definitely say you should opt for the tubing.
The cave is also pretty impressive. It’s a steep, 5-10 minute hike up the hill. You can hire headlamps (torches) or bring your own, and we recommend doing this. For some foolish reason we brought only one and quickly discovered that one torch does not suffice for two people. There is a reclining Buddha near the entrance of the cave, and you can explore deep inside. We didn’t make it too far given the lighting issue, but what we did see was pretty impressive, this coming from two people who visited Carlsbad Caverns only a few months ago.
Lest you think every spot in Vang Vieng is filled with people wearing an “In the Tubing” tank top, we can confirm that there are again lovely French and other restaurants to dine in. Highlights for us were pizza at Luka (looks like a backyard, with a handmade clay pizza oven and a tiny bar. Order the eponymous pizza), and Le café de Paris (a fantastic bistro with jazz playing and a more mature crowd. The duck terrine is wonderful. And the French owner is quite friendly, lending Alan his bike to visit the ATM when we realized we didn’t have enough cash to pay).
Of course, there are also solid cheaper eats around town. Our favorite find was Phonepadis’ breakfast. They take pride in their work. And Jenni ordered the mango with sticky rice, which came in a portion large enough to feed a small Lao family (Lao families have on average 3-7 children).
We felt that the locals were noticeably less friendly here, but you can’t exactly blame them when it’s necessary to have signs imploring tourists to respect the Lao people for their efforts to be properly dressed and follow their example and warning that your hosts can’t be blamed if some crazy farang comes and steals your shoes. Even the bus station had a sign requesting that people wear shirts. We were surprised that signage to this effect was necessary. We were even more surprised that it didn’t work. It’s easy to see how drunk and drugged tourists dressed immodestly and counter to local culture invading the Laotians’ slice of paradise could have a jading effect. That said, the meatheads on our bus ride to Vang Vieng and the girls wearing no pants in the center of town were among the minority, and in our experience we met a lot of really cool, friendly and interesting people while in Vang Vieng. And given what we’d heard about the town’s former reputation, it seems to have been cleaned up well. We didn’t notice any drug use on the tubing (and were very surprised by this), and the vibe was fun, not seedy or belligerent. This is part of a larger theme we’ve been noticing through Laos. It’s so backpacker and traveler friendly with the cheap and convenient transport, accommodation and food options. This was the first country on our trip where we’ve left our plans so open-ended and we’ve been really pleased with the ease with which we could get around and fill our time. And to top it off, we’ve met many great people during our time here.
We decided to see what all the fuss was about with the bargain hotels, and so we stayed at the deluxe room at BeeBee Guesthouse. For $15 a night we got this view from bed:
Best hotel room view for $15? We think so. Show us a better one. We had only a few complaints. One: it’s clear that someone punched through the panel in the door next to the handle to break into the room. They barely tried to disguise this, as the panel was actually taped to the door. So, not exactly an inviting place to store all of your valuables, but alas we had nothing stolen. Second: there’s no way to know if this is par for the course or an unfortunate coincidence, but we were staying just down from the main strip of the town where the loud, late-night parties are. In fact, we’d read that this hotel is a good option because it’s a bit quieter at this end. Well, our first night there happened to be what looked like a Lao high school graduation party with blaring cheesy Lao music and a DJ who could at best be described as abrasive. And our last night, there happened to be what looked like a Lao wedding across the street with blaring horrible karaoke style singing of, wait for it, cheesy Lao music. Actually, this might have just been drunken yelling. It’s hard to tell. I’m fairly certain you are required to be tone-deaf to obtain a job with a microphone in this country. It doesn’t help when the door is secured by masking tape. Alas, this is part of the experience, and we thoroughly enjoyed watching the sunset, drinking some Beerlao and listening to the world’s worst concert from our balcony.
That said, we’d probably recommend spending a few extra bucks to stay at one of the river view guesthouses like Elephant Crossing. Before arriving we’d thought the hotels on the opposite side of the river would be inconvenient, but there is a footbridge you can cross that makes them closer to some of the action than even our hotel was.
Transportation: We took a VIP bus from Luang Prabang that departed on time at 9:30 am and arrived at 3:30 pm, also on time. It cost 130k Kip each and included transfer from our hotel at 8:40 am to the bus station. We bought our tickets from Ms. Teep at All Lao Travel Service on the main road in Luang Prabang. They accept credit cards with a 3% surcharge. The road is hilly and windy but not in bad condition for a developing country. The bus was pretty nice, the driver was unimpeachable and the scenery varied from good to excellent with stretches of dramatic jagged peaks. We broke for toilets (2k Kip to use) and snacks at 11:15 am and then stopped at 2:15 pm for the included lunch of hot noodle soup.
On arrival at the north bus station in Vang Vieng, you can grab a tuk tuk for the 2 km ride into town or to your hotel for about 10-20k Kip each.
There are several options each day between Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng and Vientiane. Mini-buses/vans sound nice but we hear they are crowded and less comfortable than the VIP buses. There are also non-VIP buses and sleeper buses. The sleeper bus from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng sounds terrible as it arrives around 2 am, thus offering the chance to see none of the countryside, be on the road when it’s more dangerous and still need a hotel on arrival. But the sleeper from Luang Prabang to Vientiane would be a time- and cost-effective option, albeit you would miss the scenery. We inquired only once and did not try to bargain, and we were told a private car from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng would cost 1MM Kip, which is surprisingly expensive. It is even possible to arrange a kayak trip from Vang Vieng to Vientiane, but be sure to inquire about details. We met someone who did this and it sounded like a few hours of kayaking came with a lot of driving in less comfortable vehicles…like more combined driving hours than the whole bus ride from Vang Vieng to Vientiane.
Accommodation: We stayed at BeeBee Guesthouse on the main street but a little south of the action. Once we got past the blaring music the first night it wasn’t so bad. Until the blaring music on the third night. In fairness, the music seemed to be from specific Lao events and not from a touristy bar that would be loud every night. There is WiFi downstairs but not in the rooms. For $15/night it’s a decent choice. We requested a front-facing room (got #12) and the view of the karsts out the window and from the shared balcony is superb. We met backpackers staying at Pan’s Place and at Nana, both near BeeBee, and they had nothing bad to say.
I would recommend staying closer to the river or even across the footbridge that is near Roung Nakhon Vang Vieng Palace hotel because you can walk the whole town area easily. Chez Mango across the river is well-reviewed. Riverside Boutique Resort on the town side is #1 on TripAdvisor. We did not see the interior but from a drive-by the location and pool area look great. Elephant Crossing is well-reviewed and conveniently located, if unimpressive-looking from the road. We met a couple who stayed there and they said the WiFi did not work well but otherwise the property was nice.
Food: There are street carts everywhere serving Thai-style pancakes, sandwiches and more. Fresh baguettes are ubiquitous in Laos. Pancakes from these carts cost ~10k Kip and sandwiches usually are 15-25k Kip. Pizza Luka has a handful of outdoor tables and thin crust pies. Jenni’s goat cheese pizza was OK while my Pizza Luka was great. Proving yet again that it’s usually advisable to order the namesake item. Each pizza cost 60k Kip.
Another night we dined at Le cafe de Paris, a bistro with an affable owner and jazz soundtrack. The goat cheese salad was OK, the duck terrine was great, the duck breast was good but quite gamy, and the Philly cheesesteak was very good. It is a classier joint with nary an “In the Tubing” tank-top in sight (practically the uniform of tubers), but that didn’t stop Jenni from plopping her Beerlao roadie on the table to avoid littering outside. And the owner lent me his pink bicycle for an ATM run when I realized I didn’t have enough cash.
Bamboo Tree had pretty good WiFi but mediocre service. Luang Prabang Bakery is popular though we were underwhelmed at breakfast, especially for the price. Phonepadis has no sign yet but is on the main street just north of Molina Bungalows on the same/east side of the road…a few spots up from Pan’s Place. It is basic but the breakfast was very good. They take pride in their craft.
The Organic Farm and its mulberry shakes come recommended, but we couldn’t tell if the in-town cafe is permanently closed or not. The farm itself seems to be a few km north, where tubing begins.
Drinks: Tubing without drinking is like Sasquatch. Allegedly it exists, but there is no documented evidence. We covered the tubing bars above.
In keeping with our M.O. of straddling both the backpack and champagne scenes, we never went out after dinner so cannot really comment from personal experience on the nightlife. But a couple places that seemed popular based on conversation include Fat Monkey’s, Milan Pizza and Kangaroo Sunset.
Activities: Drinking and tubing clearly rank one and two. There is only one place in town that rents tubes. I’m pretty sure this stems from the recent clean-up of what had become a legendarily raucous and dangerous scene, and that now it is regulated and communally owned. Tube rental costs 55k Kip and you must leave a 60k deposit, of which you lose 20k if you return the tube after 6 pm and you lose the full 60k after 8 pm. I believe you can only commence rental of a tube between 9 am and 4 pm. Dry bags can be rented for 15k. With at least a couple other passengers (and in the high season I think that will always happen), the rental fee includes the 10-minute tuk tuk ride a few km up the river to the starting point.
There is also mountain biking, kayaking, caving, go-karting and more. You could take a hot air balloon ride. Sunset motorized dugout canoe rides are popular; it appeared these leave from just the other side of the driving bridge, and we could not tell whether the main appeal is viewing the karsts or the drunken tubers trying to return by 6 pm.
February 7-10, 2014 (Friday-Monday)