Vang Vieng – Not Drunk on a River

Vang Vieng is a town between Vientiane, the capital of Laos, and Luang Prabang, the culturally rich city most people come to Laos to see. Vang Vieng is known amongst backpackers for one thing: tubing. Sounds harmless, but it’s not just tubing down a river. It’s tubing down a river while stopping at makeshift bars that cling to the river’s shores. Those bars not only sell alcoholic drinks, but often mushrooms, weed, or who knows what other drugs. I’ve actually heard of a few that give you a free joint with the purchase of an alcoholic drink. Yeah, ’cause that sounds like a good idea.

They also have rope swings and other things to jump off of into the river. People who are drunk and high and jumping into a not-so-deep river is not a good combination. The only other thing I’ve ever heard about this town is that you can watch episodes of “Friends” in almost any bar or restaurant. Now that’s culture. Finding nothing appealing about this town, I swore I wouldn’t go there.

Vang Vieng, Laos
Vang Vieng, Laos

After taking a shuttle back to Pakse from the 4,000 Islands, I had a few hours to kill before my flight to Vientiane. I wandered around to look for food and ended up hanging out with three backpackers I met on the street, one from Australia, one from Scotland, one from England. The three guys had met a few weeks earlier and had been traveling together ever since, and they made for entertaining dining companions for a late lunch. Eventually I had to leave and found a tuk-tuk to take me to the airport.

Unfortunately when I got to the airport, they told me the flight was delayed. Short delays aren’t so bad, especially in normal airports, but this turned into a four and a half hour delay. Aside from that, the Pakse airport is barely even an airport. There’s one check-in desk, one gate, one security screening conveyor belt, and one run-down restaurant.

I set up my laptop in the restaurant, opened a document (you didn’t think there was WiFi there, did you?) and started writing to pass the time. Since I was sitting in a folding chair at a folding table, “restaurant” might be a bit strong of a word. As I sat there writing, I saw something out of the corner of my eye quickly darting by. I almost jumped out of my chair when I realized it was a rat. Or maybe a mouse. It was too quick for me to know for sure. But three or four of them kept running back and forth the whole time I was in there. I’m very glad I never thought to eat in that restaurant.

Finally we boarded and I spent the hour flight talking to a 65 year old Italian-Canadian who had recently married a much younger Lao woman. I arrived in Vientiane hungry and exhausted just after midnight, and I was miserable.

Vientiane, Laos
kind of all I saw in Vientiane, Laos since I was only there for about 12 hours

I wasn’t expecting much from my hotel, but in my current state of mind it seemed more awful that it really was. I woke up the next morning desperate to not be alone, and luckily I met Jo from Australia at breakfast. She was traveling by herself for a few weeks, and we decided to go to a cafe for some better food than what the hotel provided.

I quickly learned that she was around my age and had booked herself on a bus that afternoon to go to Vang Vieng. “I might float down the river in a tube, but I plan on doing it sober. I just want to break up the trip from here to Luang Prabang.” Perfect. I couldn’t take being on my own, and I quickly asked if she wanted some company. Suddenly I was booking a bus ticket to the one place I had no intention of visiting.

Vang Vieng, Laos
Vang Vieng, Laos

It turns out Vang Vieng is set in some really gorgeous mountains. I think some people actually do go there for hiking, rock climbing, and other outdoorsy stuff, but you don’t hear about that. What I had heard about the cafes playing “Friends” was totally true. You could actually pick a restaurant based on which season you wanted to watch instead of what you wanted to eat.

Jo and I did go tubing, completely sober, and it was gorgeous. We got our tubes at 11:30am which meant we beat the crowds of people aiming to get drunk. Later that day, we talked to people who were only a half hour behind us, and they told us stories of girls drunk and high on mushrooms passing out in the river. People actually die here sometimes due to this kind of stupidity, but no one that day that I heard.

Vang Vieng, Laos
does this look safe to you?
Vang Vieng, Laos
tubing in Vang Vieng, Laos

Tubing turned out to be incredibly relaxing. The dinner with a string of “Friends” ended up being oddly comforting. For a couple days at least, I was feeling like myself again.

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