Amsterdam + Halong Bay = Vang Vieng!

We finally left Vientiane on Wednesday morning bound for Laos’ infamous party town, Vang Vieng – 3.5 hours bus ride away. The ride was pretty uneventful (if a little bumpy as we approached the town) but the scenery got more and more spectacular as time went on.

Vang Vieng is surrounded by the most stunning mountain backdrop we have seen so far in Laos and we were looking forward to being right in the thick of it whilst tubing down the river – the main reason we were in town!

As the bus pulled into its final resting place we spotted the guesthouse we’d booked on the internet so didn’t have to waste any time wandering around. Before we could begin to enjoy Vang Vieng we went in search of some bus tickets to Luang Prabang for the next day. Since our schedule was now so tight we wanted to be super-organised so that we could move onto the next place without any last minute hitches (plus we didn’t want to have any excuse to stay in Vang Vieng any longer as we could tell that we would want to!).

Bus sorted we then went to find out about this tubing malarky. We had heard so much about it and it’s purported to be some sort of backpacker right of passage in Laos. Walking around the town we noticed just how many young people were milling around and the fact that every bar and restaurant was selling cheap beer and playing re-runs of Friends and Family Guy. It reminded us of a purpose built Spanish holiday resort with the added addition of ‘happy pizzas’ or ‘magic mushroom shakes’ for those who were that way inclined!

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This was a bit of the shock to the system after travelling past lush bamboo forests and through dusty villages with barefoot children and animals running around the chilled out streets, but I guess every country has a ‘resort’ such as this.

We found a tubing outfit and asked the staff there how it all worked. Basically you pay 55,000 Kip for a big rubber ring plus 60,000 Kip as a deposit. If you return the ring by 6pm you get the full deposit back, if not you forfeit 20,000 Kip. You can also rent a dry bag for your money, camera and clothes for 20,000 Kip. A tuk tuk then takes you several miles up the Nam Song river where you then get off and begin your epic floatation down stream stopping at numerous bars along the river bank!

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As soon as you walk to the river bank the bars begin – there are two right at the start offering cheap bucket drinks and free shots. We waded in and the current soon grabbed us and starting pulling us downstream. The bars continue all the way down the river ‘strip’ with the busiest ones being relatively near the beginning. We’d vowed not to make the same mistake that tens of young tourists make each year and get totally wasted before ending up face down floating in the river, but it was obvious that most of the people there didn’t share the same thought!

The most popular bars are on the first corner and were absolutely heaving with people dancing, drinking, wearing body paint and jumping off the rope swing and zip wires. As we floated past, people from the bars threw out plastic bottles attached to rope to real you in to join the rest of the revellers. Every single bar along the river does the same thing and they all pump out the loudest music in competition with eachother – completely drowning out the sounds of the nearby forest of course.

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We struggled to describe the place to ourselves – the river acts like a sort of Magaluf Strip along with bars that offer more kinds of ‘happy pills’ and pitchers than you can find in Amsterdam, but all the while you’re surrounded by spectacular scenery reminiscent of Halong Bay. Huge limestone karsts covered in greenery tower high over the clear waters of the Nam Song. It’s absolutely gorgeous here and floating down the river in a rubber ring is certainly a unique way to experience it – with or without the bars!

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I wouldn’t have minded floating down it for hours on end, except for the fact that it got rather cold as the day went on! By the time we had floated past the quieter bars we were shivering and quite glad to be getting out the other end. It was an awesome experience and well worth the trip to Vang Vieng.

We could see how drunken revellers could get into trouble here however – the water is extremely shallow in parts and we had to abruptly lift our bums out of the water a few times to avoid some painfull collisions!

After we’d returned the ring we went back to the guesthouse to get showered then headed out for dinner in one of the numerous restaurants scattered around town. Then it was time to see what the infamous nightlife was all about!

We went to a couple of places in town before ending up at the Bucket Bar across the river. This is accessed via a rickety old wooden bridge which was quite scary in the dark, especially after a few bevvies. One of these bevvies was a shot of Lao Lao, a ‘whiskey’ made from sticky rice which completely knocks your socks off! I had the foresight to mix some lime with it so it was bearable, but Richard drank it straight which wasn’t the most pleasant of sensations!

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Approaching the Bucket Bar our jaws dropped as we witnessed some more of the Vang Vieng madness – aka a bunch of twenty-somethings, slightly off their heads, dancing around and jumping over bonfires. It looked like a scene from Lost Boys on ecstasy and the music was pumping from massive speakers sat on the ground. We immediately ordered ourselves a bucket of Whiskey, Red Bull and Coke (a lot nicer than it sounds!) and went to join them on the ‘dancefloor’! I have to say, we had a brilliant night – it was so good to hear ‘proper’ music after weeks of traditional Lao or Cambodian ‘pop’ and considering we had a bus booked for early the next morning, we stayed there way too long!

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Vang Vieng is certainly one place that stands out from most cities and towns in Laos. Unlike the others, its appeal doesn’t lie in its ‘quiet charm’ and friendly villagers – most of this (unfortunately) has been overshadowed by a Western thirst for ‘fun fun fun’. It’s all ‘go’ in Vang Vieng and whether you are looking for somewhere to party, kayak or rock climb, everything here is based on a ‘rush’ of some kind!

Whilst we enjoyed indulging in this for a while we couldn’t help but feel a little sorry for Vang Vieng. We got the sense that the local people and its outstanding beauty now come second-place to the tourists and the old way of life here has been overshadowed by the ‘Lonely Planeters’. Our thoughts were confirmed by a young waiter we met at Aussie bar, who told us that 10 years ago the place was a sleepy, quiet farming town with rice fields as far as the eye could see, but that now, farmers have had to move further out of town and their children no longer learn their trade but instead serve drinks to Westerners in order to support the family. He also told us about the fishermen who have been forced to move further down stream (away from the tubing strip), who now spend more time fishing out rubbish and beer bottles from the river than they do fish.

While the town may now be benefiting from an increased tourist trade, it’s a shame that it isn’t more known for its beauty and abundant nature rather than just a place to go to get your kicks.

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