Once upon a time, Vang Vieng was little more than a hamlet; a stopover on the uniquely hellish drive from Vientiane up to Luang Prabang. One day, a local farm bought some inner tubes for their volunteers to float down the picturesque river after a sweaty day of work; another enterprising soul opened a bar to sell them a hard-earned beer. Shortly after, hedonistic backpackers arrived en masse. Bars were hastily set up along the river. Tubing in Vang Vieng was born.
It didn’t take long for stories of wasted young backpackers staggering round the town in not much more than a skimpy bikini and some neon body paint began to filter through. For some, eyebrows were raised: Laos is devoutly Buddhist and revealing clothes are a no-no if you plan to respect the local culture and be a thoughtful guest. For others, it sounded like utopia. More young backpackers arrived. In response, more bars and guest houses were created, along with knock-on enterprises such as restaurants selling “happy” marijuana shakes and omelettes littered the town.
By 2011, a strip of river less than 1km long was heaving with the pulsing beats of tens of bars – each throwing ropes at backpackers to tow them to the bars for blindingly strong buckets of Lao-Lao – based cocktails (Lao-Lao is a local whiskey and at 45% proof it’s no afternoon beverage). Vang Vieng, and tubing in Vang Vieng, quickly became (and remains) one of the most polarising topics among backpackers in Asia. For some, it is a simple party place along with Sihanoukville in Cambodia and the Full Moon Parties of Koh Phangan. For others, it is a depressing example of the damage thoughtless tourism can do.
The stories grew more disturbing. Zip lines and rope swings were set up by the riverside bars, so tourists could vault, jump and somersault into the river. When combined with alcohol and variable water levels in the river, these inevitably became death traps. In 2011 there were 27 tourist deaths on the river, swiftly followed by another two in early 2012. Cause of death: head injuries or drowning.
Tubing in Vang Vieng had brought the town to the brink.
Somehow, though, Vang Vieng fought back. The local authorities resisted the lure of profit over the future of their town. They closed all but four of the bars. The zip lines were abandoned. The dodgy Happy Shake shacks were shut down and there was a drugs crack down. For a while, the party was over in Vang Vieng.
And yet, rumours began to surface a year or so later; the party (albeit better behaved) was back. Craig – forever a 19 year old student in his head – was keen to check it out. I was less keen; I’d read enough to have some pretty strong preconceptions about the place, and it wasn’t for me. I changed my mind when I saw the 15 hour journey time straight to Luang Prabang, so we built in a couple of nights to check out Vang Vieng and investigate tubing for ourselves.
The first thing that struck me about Vang Vieng was something few people mention. The town is set in the most breathtaking scenery we’d seen since New Zealand – dramatic rocky karsts and misty greenery gave it an ethereal, rugged feel.
We dumped our bags and headed straight down to the placid, shallow river. A hot air balloon floated up above the town, and a few (sober) Chinese tourists waved as they drifted past – fully clothed – in their inner tubes. It felt… Peaceful. I was stunned.
Early afternoon the next day, we headed to the tube shop on the main street and signed up for an inner tube. A tuk tuk then shuttled us to Bar 1 at the drop off point for the tubing to start. It’s here you have a choice: if you want to spurn the booze-cruise that can be tubing in Vang Vieng, you can simply hop in your tube and drift downstream, ignoring the ropes thrown to you from the three other bars you’ll pass.
We opted to take the free mini-shot proffered by the bar touts and stop to share a beer and people watch for half an hour or so. The crowd was a mixed one – mainly young couples and groups of white tourists in their 20s with a few Japanese tourists decked out in life jackets along to watch the fun. The dress code was mixed; a few in bikinis but plenty of others who were clearly mindful of the Laotian locals and sticking to t-shirts and board shorts, or cotton sundresses.
As we boarded our tubes – gasping from the shock of the chilly water – we drifted past the ghosts of Tubing Past. Zip lines hung, moss-covered and abandoned, over our heads. The shells of former bars sat derelict at the river edge. I could almost hear music and the laughter and shrieking of former visitors.
Then I noticed the rocks, jutting out and lurking just below the surface underneath the river banks. The deaths suddenly became vivid and easy to understand; if you somersaulted unawares and hit those head first it would be Game Over on the spot.
As we arrived at the second bar, young local lads flung out ropes for us to catch on to so they could tow us in. Bar 2 is a large platform with two volleyball pitches. Tubers hung out, basking in the sun, drinking beers and lurid coloured cocktails. The volleyball games quickly descended into a mud bath. People were becoming less shy and more chatty.
After about an hour and a half, as if by some silent signal, the bar emptied as the party moved along to the next bar. Smaller than the last, the dancing got a little crazier. People were up on tables and platforms. We were sufficiently well-oiled to order a cocktail bucket (bad move) and take selfies. As a rule, we never take selfies.
Again, on a silent signal, the party-goers moved on
like a pack of lemmings. By this point we’d made a few friends – young backpackers from Finland, the UK and Spain. You may remember I came ready to hate tubing but I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the afternoon.
At the final bar, tuk tuks wait to deliver the slightly worse-for-wear tourists safely back to town. If you follow the
lemmings party down the river from about 12:30pm, you’ll finish here at about 4:30pm and need to hitch a ride back. It was at this point Craig and I did something really, really stupid.
Rather than get a tuk tuk, we decided to tube back to town in the late afternoon light. We didn’t want to miss the final stretch of the river, and thought a peaceful drift on the river would be a good ending to a fun day. We’d been tubing all afternoon, and figured we’d take half an hour or so to reach the jetty back in town.
Except we missed one key point. In the dry season, the river takes about 3 hours to tube from start to finish. The section that the bars are on is a tiny portion of that. We underestimated our return time by over an hour.
At first it was lovely, floating down as the sun set. Then it started to get colder and darker. Soon, it was dark to the point where I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face, never mind where Craig was. I’m a strong, confident swimmer but in a pitch black, rock-filled river after a couple of cocktails that means nothing.
Thankfully, no harm came to us; we stayed in our tubes and to my eternal relief didn’t collide with any rocks hard enough to injure ourselves. The river was slow and gentle, but in wet season the fast flowing water could have got us in real trouble without warning. I’ve jumped out of planes, scuba dived in shark-infested waters and driven a camper van down a mountain road with a blizzard warning chasing us but this was, without a doubt, the most stupid and most dangerous thing I’ve ever done. We fully deserved the fine we got for returning our tubes late (and the mild telling off as well).
I felt slightly conflicted about our afternoon tubing in Vang Vieng. As a rule, we try to travel responsibly and remain mindful of unintentionally causing harm or offence to locals. I was really reluctant to take part in tubing, thinking it would go against the values we usually travel by. When we arrived in Vang Vieng, the impact that previous, thoughtless, partygoers had had was clear.
Despite my reservations, I enjoyed our afternoon, although it was certainly more boozy than I intended! Yes, people – including us – were drinking and partying but this seemed to be mainly kept to the four bars by the river; bars in town seemed much quieter. The atmosphere was good, people were friendly and up for a good time. A small number clearly did have too much to drink but they were very much in the minority and this didn’t seem to filter beyond the riverside bars (that we saw). In a nod to the signs around town, a large number of backpackers were reasonably covered up in town – I only saw one person in a bikini top and she seemed to be coming from the river – and fairly well-behaved (we didn’t stay out late though, so this may have changed!).
It appears the party has returned to Vang Vieng, albeit a more toned down and contained party. There are no deathly zip lines, no drugs (that we saw), and the town is much quieter than I expected.
Whilst I suspect there are significant portions of the locals (and the travelling community) who would prefer the tubing scene to be gone completely (and I can understand that), the local officials have done a good job of addressing the most serious problems and bringing the whole thing down to what feels like a manageable level. And full credit to them for doing so – why should a town be held hostage to people who don’t care if they cause harm or offence?
If you want to go tubing in Vang Vieng
- Firstly, do you want to visit the bars or tube the river? I make no judgement (we ended up partying, after all) but you can’t really do the party and tube the whole river, as I discovered. The bar section of the river is relatively short; in dry season it takes at least ninety minutes to reach Vang Vieng town from the last bar so if you follow the crowd and leave it until 4:30pm before setting off you aren’t going to make it back in daylight. That’s Headdesk levels of stupid right there – I speak from experience.
- Needless to say, being on an inner tube, drunk, in the middle of a rocky river is a Darwin Award waiting to happen. Watch your booze intake over the afternoon – especially if you plan to head all the way downriver.
- It is entirely possible to go tubing in Vang Vieng without completely alienating the locals. Cover up – a cotton t-shirt and board shorts are far more appropriate than a string bikini. Displays of public affection are also taboo, so don’t get too amorous with your current squeeze. Again, needless to say, don’t get out-of-your-tree hammered. No one wants their town treated like a frat party.
- If you don’t want to drink like a teenager, you don’t have to. Skip the bars and enjoy a peaceful ride and stunning scenery back to town. You’ll leave most of the crowd behind with the bars.
- Life jackets are available if you are a nervous/ weak swimmer, although most don’t choose to wear them.
- We paid ₭55000 for the Tube + ₭60,000 kip deposit. We lost some of our deposit (₭20,000 from recollection) for returning the tube after 6pm, which was our own stupid fault.