After a couple of slow, relaxing days in Vientiane, we woke up early to catch our bus to the infamous river town of Vang Vieng.
Up until 2012, Vang Vieng was well known as the party capital of Laos (similar in status to the Full Moon Parties down on Koh Phangan in Thailand.) Backpackers flocked to this small haven to go tubing down the Nam Song River, stopping at the plethora of riverside bars to binge drink along the way. In addition to the tubing, rope swings, ziplines, and water slides lined the river…their lack of safety precautions giving them the affectionate nicknames of “death swings” and “death slides,” etc. In combination with other easily accessible illicit substances, it was…for lack of a better word, a shit show.
After 27 backpacker deaths by drowning and diving into rocks in 2011, (though the proposed number is actually higher, as many of them were sent directly to Vientiane before being recorded) and 5-10 backpackers ending up in the emergency room daily with serious injuries, the government finally cracked down on Vang Vieng in 2012, closing down the riverside bars and attempting to regulate the situation.
We couldn’t say how Vang Vieng compares now with how it was before the government crackdown, but we can attest that Vang Vieng is still (or at least, once again) a place of absolute madness. Many of the riverside bars are back and bumping, and you see advertisements everywhere for “magic pizzas,” “space brownies,” “happy balloons,” and other obvious euphemisms. There are also these charming billboards everywhere:
Despite its ugly history, tubing down the Nam Song is really just something you have to do, and is widely considered a rite of passage by Southeast Asia backpackers. Against our better judgment, we made our way to the tubing center, got our tubes, and loaded into the tuk tuk with all of the other twenty-somethings to be driven up to the starting point of this ridiculous activity.
Now to be fair, tubing down the river is awesome. The scenery is stunning and there’s just something everyone loves about lounging in an innertube. Also, you don’t have to stop at any of the bars. You could easily just relax down the river and call it a day. But, as previously stated, we were in Vang Vieng, and we wanted to do it right.
After only a few minutes of floating, we came to the first bar. Locals standing by the edge of the river threw ropes to us, so that we could pull ourselves to the side and get out. The bar had a large deck to chill on, along with sand volleyball, and of course, a full bar. We opted to stick with beer because the mixed drinks here are notoriously and deceptively strong. But, the whiskey costs less than the soda so…yeah, it makes sense. We each drank one on the deck, then bought another to drink in our tubes.
The second bar was pretty similar to the first, a large sitting area in a jungle type of setting next to the river. It was also very close to the first bar (we hadn’t even finished our beers) so once we finished those, we decided to splurge and split a mojito before returning to the water once again.
By the time we reached the third bar, we were feeling the buzz and so was everyone else, clearly. We walked up the steps to find the deck full of wobbly white people awkwardly attempting to dance to terrible pop music and woo each other into some kind of romantic encounter. It looked like everyone was having a lot of fun, and it was quite entertaining. At this point, a French guy we had sort of met on our sleeper bus from Hanoi to Vientiane spotted us and proceeded to exclaim, “HEYYYYYYY, I KNOW YOUUUUUU!!!!!” before making his way back over to the bar.
We agreed that to endure this situation, we must needs more booze, so we decided it would be a good idea to take a shot and then get a bucket: your choice of liquor and soda with ice in…a plastic bucket. We had made it our entire trip avoiding buckets, but this seemed to be the time to get one, if there ever was one. We sipped on our bucket while we watched the soft core fornication taking place on the dance floor, then decided it was time to move on. This is where things started to get a bit fuzzy.
We climbed unsteadily back down to the river where we reentered our tubes and continued to the final bar. The final bar is where some more drinking and some…other stuff happened.
Perhaps limboing under a gasoline soaked rod is a bad idea whilst intoxicated (or ever?), but aside from narrowly avoiding a hair-on-fire incident, it was fine. Plus, the photo is undeniably awesome.
And then there was the obligatory train…
After we had had enough of this blasphemy, we got back in the river with some new Canadian friends we had made and set off for the end of the tubing run. We spent the last leg of the river enjoying the scenery (it really is beautiful, despite the debauchery taking place) and chatting with the Canadians.
Now, at some point we got separated from the Canadians…and then we also got separated from each other…and then all of a sudden it was pitch black outside and completely silent. After coming a little further back to reality, I realized that this was an unacceptable situation, but was unsure of what the right thing to do was.
At this point, I started wondering if somehow I had missed the part where I was supposed to get out or if I just hadn’t made it there yet. Should I get out or should I wait? If I wait, will I end up floating so far down that I don’t know how to get back? After another 10 minutes of being paralyzed with confusion and indecisiveness, I decided to try finding Jojo again.
After calling his name a few times, he finally responded, to my immense relief! At least if we were lost, we were lost together, which didn’t feel quite as lost. We ended up getting out of the water and thankfully Jojo (who actually possesses navigation skills, unlike myself) got us back to the tubing center in town. It turned out that we hadn’t gone all the way to the end of the stretch, so we had to walk quite a ways back into town. To our surprise, the center actually gave us part of our deposit back when we returned our tubes, despite getting there after 6pm.
Despite the removal of the death swings, slides, and other dangerous activities, it’s still easy to see how easy it would be to injure yourself (or worse) while participating in the Vang Vieng tubing. To make matters worse, most of the people we saw at those bars were at least twice as drunk as us, and on god knows what else. Nonetheless, we were still happy that we had done it, and even happier that we had come out unscathed.
We celebrated our successful tubing adventure with some savory street pancakes, a ton of water, and getting ourselves to bed.
Breakfast: 40,000kip ($4.93 USD)
2-Coffee: 10,000kip ($1.23 USD)
Water: 5,000kip ($0.62 USD)
2-Tubing: 150,000kip ($18.47 USD)
Tubing Bars: Approximately 245,000kip ($30.17 USD)
Dinner: 60,000kip ($7.39 USD)
2-Water: 15,000kip ($1.85 USD)
Total Spent: 525,000kip ($64.64 USD)