Tubing in Vang Vieng

Trip Start Sep 07, 2010
Trip End Jan 07, 2011

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Saturday, December 4, 2010

Our trip to Vang Vieng was - like most travel in Laos - fairly arduous, but the 7 hour bus trip did deliver some spectacular views. The bus was a little dodgy too...I'm not sure I've ever been on a bus before that had to stop to have the steaming tires hosed down, or that randomly stalled multiple times for no apparent reason. Vang Vieng is a small town situated in an area with a lot of natural beauty, with large limestone karsts visible from almost everywhere in town. It's well known for its "tubing ride" - you are driven about 3km north of town, then float down the river in a large inner tube.

Our first night there, we found a place to stay, then went out to explore the town. To be blunt, we kind of thought it was a bit of a dump. The town was filled with kind of crappy looking bars, selling Western food and showing endless re-runs of "Friends" and "Family Guy". We managed to find a restaurant that actually sold authentic Lao food, so we ate there.

Here's a story that kind of sums up Vang Vieng for you: Lao is a very conservative country, and everywhere we've gone, there have been posters advising against wearing skimpy clothing (that's been hard for me), avoiding excessive alcohol/drug use (somewhat easier), and generally telling tourists to keep a low profile. On the walk home from dinner, we came across a very drunk girl, wearing a bikini in the middle of the street, covered in body paint, and yelling at a local (who was trying to help her) that she didn't know where her hotel was. Keep it classy! It was pretty much then that I think we decided we wouldn't be staying for 3 nights as we'd originally planned.

The next day, we decided to tackle the tube ride. We've known a few people that have done it, and based on their descriptions, I kind of envisioned it as a ride down a river on a tube, with a handful of locals selling drinks at the side of the river on the way down. In actual fact, it was more like a pub crawl that you do while floating between bars. Some of the bars were pretty elaborate, and packed both sides of the river. We ended up having a pretty good time on the tube ride - chatting with the other tourists and visting a few of the bars. From some of our conversations - and the rapidly advancing clock - we realized that hardly anyone actually "completes" the tube ride by floating back to town. Instead, they spend the day at the bars, and then catch a tuk tuk back to town. We decided to take the river back to town, and got back around 4:30pm.

We decided that we didn't want to just sit on a bus all the way to our next stop of Vientiane, and had heard about kayaking and rafting trips where you drove part of the way, and spent the other part on the river, so we signed up for one of those. We drove for about an hour and a half to the river, in the back of the van that was carrying our kayaks on top. There were three other tourists who were doing the kayaking with us, but they were coming from Vientiane, so we met them at the river. It seemed we weren't the only ones who didn't think much of Vang Vieng - on the drive down, our kayaking guide said to us, "Luang Prabang has good tourists; Vang Vieng has bad tourists". A Swiss guy on our kayaking trip asked us what we thought of Vang Vieng. When I was trying to give a polite answer (something like, "it looked really nice, but I'm not sure it's our kind of place..."), he cut me off, and said, "It's terrible". The Swiss - they're straight shooters.

The kayaking trip was fun, with a few medium-sized rapids to contend with, and a good lunch cooked over an open fire at the side of the river. I think both Sarah and I would have liked some more time on the kayak though - it didn't seem like we were paddling for very long. After we got off the river, we climbed in the back of a tuk tuk for the trip back to Vientiane. This was described to us beforehand as being "local transit". What that means is that the tuk tuk is never actually considered "full", and anyone at the side of the road who wants to go in our direction, can flag the tuk tuk down, and get on. This can lead to it getting pretty crowded at times...at one point, I decided to start counting everyone who was on board, and the number was 20! (Keep in mind that the tuk tuks in Laos are basically medium sized pick up trucks, with some benches in the back.) This drive took slightly over 2 hours and was pretty damn uncomfortable - I think we were all very happy when we arrived in Vientiane!
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