There are reams that have been written about Luang Prabang – extolling its French colonial charm, its languidness or any other of its many appealing attributes. When it comes to travel literature, Vang Vieng doesn’t fare quite as well – some of its more choice reviews include “shithole”, “dive” and “blight”.
The thoroughly underwhelming reputation of the place didn’t deter us from visiting, as there were only a couple of reasons for us being there. Firstly, to break up the trip between Luang Prabang and Vientiane (we were still scarred by our previous experience of Lao infrastructure). And more importantly, we were there to sample Vang Vieng’s biggest tourist drawcard – tubing.
Amanda and I arrived in town after a seven hour bus trip during which I think we travelled a grand total of about 14km and the most exciting event was having to rescue someone who’d gotten themselves trapped in the hobbit-sized toilet.
Our first impressions weren’t all that favourable. The place is dusty, under constant construction, full of wasted English backpackers and most of the bars play episodes of Friends on constant rotation. There are some limestone cliffs surrounding town, but we couldn’t see them due to the smoke and dust haze.
The next day we headed into town to start our day’s tubing. In Vang Vieng, tubing involves being dropped a few kilometres out of town, sitting in an inner tube on the slow moving river (marvelling at the limestone cliffs that were invisible the day before) and stopping every 100m or so to sit at bars and drink cocktails out of buckets while watching people launching themselves into the river off swings and slides of questionable construction.
A tough day out, eh?
After our fair share of beers and buckets, we decided to paddle our way back into town. This was in spite of (or maybe to spite) the legion of tuk tuk drivers offering to drive us back to town. Exercising our best alcohol-powered better judgement we were convinced were trying to scam us.
Maybe the river was flowing a bit too slowly or maybe we were feeling a little too relaxed, but we only just made it back to town in time to return our tubes (having taken six hours to navigate four kilometres of river). Maybe those tuk tuk drivers weren’t trying to scam us after all…
That night we managed to find a bar that showed Family Guy instead of Friends and settled in for a few rounds of Beer Lao. On reflection, maybe Vang Vieng isn’t quite the hole that many have made it out to be. It’s a town that’s built on hedonism and, no matter what your opinion of Vang Vieng, it would be a shame to see it denigrated by puritanical ideas of what tourist destinations should be.