About four hours north of Vientiane, the capitol of Laos, lies Vang Vieng, a city well known amongst backpacker and flashpacker circles.
Up for dramatic scenery, diverse culture and a developing tourist industry? Heard of Vang Vieng? If you’re like me, Laos is a complete mystery until you start doing some research. Unlike other parts of southeast Asia, there isn’t really anything to light that initial spark that gets you interested enough to dive a little deeper. Cities like Bangkok and Siem Reap have huge draws, but what’s going to get you to make the trip somewhere like Vang Vieng?
Located about four hours north of the Laotian capitol of Vientiane lies the small town of Vang Vieng. Tubing along the Nam Song is why it’s a popular destination and has become a rite of passage among backpackers traveling through the area. However, the city has much more to offer. If you’re a fan of so called “Adventure travel” there’s plenty of things to do here, including caving, kayaking, tubing, mountain biking, trekking and world-class rock climbing. There are plenty of tour outfits, but I recommend my fellow flashpackers stick with Green Discovery. They offer a diverse set of tours, have a good reputation and are in the center of town.
What to Do
Check out your guidebook for what to do while you’re there. You’re pretty much guaranteed to go tubing at least one day, but there are plenty of other options available. I rented a motorbike and drove 16km north to a series of three caves that were pretty interesting. Another possible route is listed in Lonely Planet as roughly a 40km loop that visits caves and a couple of villages.
The tubing experience is something else. For about $7U.S. you get a tube and a ride 4km north. Before your tube even touches the water, you’ve got a beer in hand and a group of friends to float downstream with. Both sides of the river are littered with bars offering cocktails by the bucket and more. There are zip lines, rope swings, and water slides available for use, and you’ll see the results at night as more than a few travelers limp around town. It should take you about 2-3 hours to get back to the town proper, but it takes most much longer due to pit stops along the way. FYI: There are also a variety of drugs on offer at certain spots, but I’d suggest you avoid them as 1) you never know what you’re getting and 2) most of the accidents and, yes, rare deaths that have occurred are typically drug or rope-swing related. Be careful.
Where to Stay
It took me a while to find a place that was clean, comfortable and had a good Internet connection, but I found Babylon Guesthouse after staying at two other places that didn’t work out. A couple doors south from Babylon is the Organic Farm Café, by far the best food I had during my stay. I normally don’t follow food recommendations from guidebooks, but since most places you’ll eat have virtually the same menu, it was nice having good food from somewhere that offered something a little different.
Word of Warning
I initially planned on staying in the city for a little over a week to get some work done, but that turned into a longer stay due to a bout of food poisoning. Word of warning: only eat and drink from trustworthy sources. Fruit shakes are very popular everywhere, but a bad mango shake put me out for two days.
Lastly, there’s a strange phenomenon in Vang Vieng that I’ve yet to see elsewhere. 80% of the restaurants in town have virtually identical menus offering fruit shakes, lao versions of pizza and burgers, and some local food as well. The seating is all on risers with pillows facing a giant TV playing Family Guy, or occasionally Friends or the Simpsons. People will sit there zoning out for hours on end. I understand the idea of taking it easy, but it was still a strange sight to behold.
Based on my experience, here are some recommendations:
Must do: Tubing
Tours/Activities: Green Discovery
Eat: Organic Farm Café
Transportation: Rent a Motorbike
Avoid: Mango Shakes, Bed Bugs