I’m a traveler who tends to place a lot of importance on the cultural aspects of travel. Let me state first and foremost that tubing in Vang Vieng, Laos, has nothing to do with Laotian culture.
That said, it can be a blast. Where else can you lazily float down a river watching beautiful limestone mountains drift by, stopping at bars especially built for those drifting by on tubes?
That is unique to Vang Vieng. And this is backpacker culture to the extreme. Love it or loathe it, Vang Vieng is here to stay.
There are two major outfits in town that rent tubes. They start from about 9:30 in the morning and continue til about 6:30pm when you need to have your tube returned or you pay a fine. The cost to rent a tube for the day is 55,000 kip which turns out to be about $7 US. This price includes the shuttle 4 km upstream. You’ll pay extra if you’re only one or two, but don’t worry, chances are others will be lined up behind you. It seems like plenty of tubers remain lingering at the riverside bars late and just take a tuk-tuk back, not worrying about the extra charge.
Once you hit the water, it’s just you and the river…and a bunch of other crazy backpackers drinking loads of alcohol! There are slides and rope swings and free drinks much of the way. The bar hands work the riverbanks to “rescue” you with life preservers and welcome you to their bar. You basically continue floating from bar to bar consuming buckets, beers, and lao lao. Music is blasting from each competing bar and are fighting for the biggest party.
I don’t mean to sound like your mother here, but be careful tubing. Combining heavy drinking/drug use and river sports has the potential to be dangerous. The riverside bars practically pour shots of lao lao down your throat and push buckets of whiskey. Almost every bar has some sort of rope swing or slide, and depending on where you land and/or river levels, you might just land on something that wasn’t intended to be landed on by a soft and supple backpacker. Every time I saw a backpacker anywhere in southeast Asia with crutches, I said to myself, “Another casualty of Vang Vieng.” Not to mention the heroin overdoses and casualties of opium that occur time to time in town.
One thing about Vang Vieng that I really can’t understand is the TV bars. Backpackers sit hypnotized and super relaxed at the cozy low tables of these bars with multiple television sets. Each is playing loops of Friends or Family Guy reruns. Never has my guidebook been so dead-on correct in describing a place. I guess you just have to have a couple happy shakes in you to understand the appeal of these places.
Other than tubing, getting baked and watching Family Guy, Vang Vieng’s surrounding area has a lot to offer. There are plenty of caves around Vang Vieng that are waiting to be explored. The countryside can be discovered by a leisurely bike ride or by renting a motorbike. There’s also kayaking, rafting and rock climbing opportunities.
Just because you’re at the epicenter of backpacker chilled-out let-loose freedom in a random southeast Asian town with cheep beer and drugs, does not mean you get to walk around half-naked acting like an idiot. Laos is a modest and conservative society. Both men and women should have their shoulders covers and shorts covering past the knees. It’s simple, when you get off the river and walk through town, put your shirt back on. And if you indulge in illegal drugs or excessive drinking, at least keep your wits about yourself.
Enjoy the river, take in the scenery, have a few drinks, but keep yourself intact and respect the local community. And, I’ll add, keep Vang Vieng IN Vang Vieng. Don’t spread this beast to other small towns in Laos by patronizing TV or drugs bars in other towns.
They’ve actually shut down most of the bars along the river a few months ago, so I imagine Vang Vieng might soon be a very different place.