How do I describe Vang Vieng, Laos? Well, it’s the one with the Friends bars. The one with the tubing. The one with the famous nightlife that got toned down a few years ago because backpackers kept accidentally dying. I’m going to be honest with you, reader, in case you’re a discerning tourist who neither drinks heavily nor enjoys Friends: you don’t absolutely need to visit Vang Vieng unless you really want to go tubing or have enough money to do an eco-tour type trip.
A brief bit of history: Vang Vieng had an infamous toxic party scene in the late 1990s and 2000s, because someone had the idea to rent old tyre tubes to backpackers who could spend a couple of hours floating on them down Nam Song, the Song River. Backpackers were well into the tubing, so a bunch of bars opened up along the riverbank for them to get sloshed and high while they took a break from bobbing along the fairly shallow but fairly speedy river. Unfortunately, it’s really easy to accidentally drown in fairly shallow but fairly speedy water, especially when you are wasted and especially when you have fallen from a shitty zipwire or dodgy rope swing. So in 2012, after pressure from a bunch of foreign ambassadors who were tired of dealing with the families of accidentally dead backpackers, Vang Vieng cleaned up its act. Most of the riverside bars are abandoned and there are signs in hostels saying ‘OI MATE IF YOU’RE CAUGHT WITH MARIJUANA THIS HOSTEL IS NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR YOUR 6 MILLION KIP FINE.’
6 million kip, by the way, is about $60. In Lao terms, 6 million kip is a shittonne of money. People still do all the drugs and booze, just quietly.
So, we went to Vang Vieng to go tubing. Well, I went tubing. Maxim got ill and didn’t, although he did have a pair of shoes stolen. I went tubing by myself and it was nice for the first 45 minutes, when I was being all zen and thinking cool thoughts – the landscape, like all of South East Asia, is breathtaking – but then I needed a wee and my waterproof bag was not as waterproof as advertised and dickbag tourists on kayaks kept splashing me then I almost got swept away by a feisty little current that showed its face about four metres from the part of the river where you’re supposed to get out. I watched one lady float on past, and I have always wondered what happened to her. Apparently the river empties into a reservoir, so at least she didn’t end up in the South China Sea.
So, if you’re not into the tubing, you’ll have to go for the eco tour stuff. I was too poor to, but according to The Guardian there are villas and farmhouse rooms to be rented, stunning treks to be undertaken lots of fancy food to eat.
It sounds like I’m bashing Vang Vieng: if you’re into tubing, it’s a must-visit! Unusually, I actually had a good time chilling out, writing to you guys and hanging out with people – there was this Aussie guy Travis who explained the intricacies of the Australian car industry, and a French guy, Pierre, who I will one day write into a book. I have a feeling Pierre is still in Vang Vieng right now, sleeping off moonshine and cursing at every other word.
The nicest thing about Laos for me was how quiet it is compared to Thailand or Vietnam: we saw the same two Canadian blokes in Luang Prabang, Phonsavan, Vang Vieng and Vientiane. An American guy from our hostel in Luang Prabang turned up in a cafe in Phonsavan. So did a Finnish guy. There is no fork option at the dinner table, only chopsticks and a little spoon, and the night is black as pitch.
The downside to the quiet was the provisions. I can’t remember if I’ve mentioned this, but Vietnam does not do cheese. There are Dairylea triangles and that is it. It does do American chocolate, though, and Kellogg’s. Thailand is full to the brim of 7-Elevens, which are full to the brim with overpriced Evian and Nature Valley bars. Cambodia had American chocolate, if I remember correctly. Laos’ food sticks in my mind for two reasons: one is the heavenly Indian food we had in Phonsavan and Vientiane. The other is that, although I remember seeing those Cadbury’s Dream bars for sale (remember them? In the Heroes boxes?), Lao chocolate is vile. I bought a locally-produced bar for the minivan from Vang Vieng to Vientiane, and it tasted like actual sawdust. I have never thrown away a chocolate bar before
and hope never to again.
You live and learn, I guess.
Next up: Vientiane!