Vang Vieng is a small town north of Vientiane on the Nam Song River. It’s surrounded by stunning limestone mountains and was once a well-frequented traveller haunt, infamous for its alcohol and drug fuelled river tubing antics. The wild river tubing parties are now long gone since the government shut down the majority of the bars following numerous traveller drownings and overdoses. A few remain and tubing is still available, but there’s a more leisurely vibe to the place now.
Our journey to Vang Vieng took us on mountain roads with epic scenery – like something out of Avatar with huge limestone karsts poking into the clouds. We’d not anticipated such beautiful landscapes so were excited to explore.
We checked into the Vang Vieng Rock Backpacker Hostel where we’d booked a private room which was basic (just a metal framed bed and a bathroom) but fine. We had a quick lunch at a restaurant in town and then wandered down to the river and saw people returning from tubing and kayaking trips. The river was wide, brown and very very fast flowing – not the calm flow we’d expected.
It started to rain but we persevered, wanting to see more of the scenery. We followed the river down to a wooden bridge which we had to pay to cross, and noticed they’d used old bomb casings as fence posts. Tom took a few photos of the surrounding mountains and ventured into a field to get some better shots. All the while I was freaking out about potential UXOs after our time at the COPE Centre in Vientiane and he ignored me as I pleaded for him to get back onto the road. Thankfully the rain started to come down harder so we retreated back to our hostel.
Later that evening we had dinner at Peeping Som’s, a Korean restaurant. We had a self-serve ‘BBQ’ which consisted of a huge metal wok balanced on a pan of hot coals in a hole in the middle of the table. We were given plates of raw beef, vegetables, dry noodles, eggs and a kettle of water and the shape of the wok meant you could sauté the meat on a raised section in the centre, then fill the rest of the pan with water to boil the veggies and noodles. It was entertaining and tasty but, my gosh, we were absolutely melting; covered in sweat.
Back at the hostel we played pool and table football and added our names to a list for tubing the next day.
We had breakfast at the hostel – an omelette and baguette, then packed our essentials into a waterproof bag and climbed into a truck with 6 others to head down to the river. After introductions we signed our lives away (they take no responsibility for your safety basically), paid £5 each, grabbed a tractor inner tube each and looked down at the raging river below. A man held your tube still while you climbed/threw yourself in gracelessly and then you were off, taken by the current.
Immediately ahead were trees and rocks poking out of the river so I frantically used my hands to paddle and thankfully it was relatively easy to manoeuvre. A few minutes later the flow had calmed a little and, feeling a bit more comfortable and safe in the knowledge I was able to direct myself, I began to relax. We floated past the first bar which was closed and chatted with the others in our group – two Aussies, two Canadians and two Irish.
After nearly an hour our guide shouted for us to move towards the right bank and I successfully managed to paddle towards a pontoon and pull myself out of the water, climbing some wooden steps up to our first bar. The same can’t be said for the rest; several shot past the pontoon and the guide had to throw a rope out to pull them back in. The bar was empty and we were the first to arrive for the day so the owner quickly blasted out some ridiculously loud music and we all asked for them to turn it down (old!).
We bought beers and then our guide disappeared, saying he was off to get more people and we slowly realised this was actually the only bar open today. Feeling short changed but with nothing we could do about it, we all gathered round a big table and started to play a drinking game. Thankfully the game took us forever and killed a lot of time. By the end we were all pretty tipsy, it was throwing down with rain and, with another group of people now joining us, people started jumping off a raised jetty into the river below. Tom instantly said it was too dangerous, but not wanting to be a wuss I decided I was going to do it, much to his annoyance. Safe to say I stood at the end of the jetty (which FYI was pretty damn high) for a good 5 minutes trying to pluck up the courage to jump. Gathering myself, I took a deep breath and finally jumped in. My feet did touch the bottom slightly so it can’t have been that deep, but I was relieved to surface and swam quickly to the shore to avoid being swept away.
Around 5pm we were collected in a truck and about 15 of us all squeezed in, some sat in tubes on the floor, and made our way back to the hostel. Feeling really drunk and after a bumpy journey back, I swiftly threw up in our bathroom, showered and fell asleep for 2 hours. Now hungover, we had dinner at a restaurant and avoided their ‘specials’ menu which had a wide array of weed, opium and magic mushroom products. Still feeling sorry for myself, we played some more pool at the hostel and had an early night.
I felt really sick in the night and wondered if I’d accidentally swallowed some of the river water, I thankfully wasn’t ill though so probably just too much beer! We went down for breakfast and the rain was pouring down so our plans to hire bikes and cycle to the mountain viewpoints went out the window. Instead we had an admin day at the hostel and I caught up on about 10 days’ worth of journal writing.
We ventured out for lunch at the Luang Prabang Bakery which had an amazing selection of huge cookies, muffins and cakes. I had a salami and brie baguette and an incredible banana milkshake served in a literal carafe, and we bought a cookie and slice of cake to take away. Oops! We continued with admin back at the hostel, booking a bus to our next destination for the following day and had a cheap and cheerful dinner at a small restaurant down the road.
Next stop… Luang Prabang!
See ya later, Sophie x