Vang Vieng is a strange place to say the least. In Nathan's words: "it's as ghetto as Pokhara and as trashy as Khao San Road." Girls in bikinis and shirtless guys wandered the dusty streets while drinking cocktail buckets
. One evening a loud, drunken argument broke out, something we haven't been around for months. Of course we've seen a lot of men drinking throughout our travels (it's rare for women to drink) but even full blown alcoholics such as Ly, our easyrider guide in Vietnam, seem to be happy drunks. The kind of aggression you often see while out in Western countries is uncommon here. We preferred Vang Vieng during the day when most people are out 'tubing' - floating down the river on a tire inner while drinking and jumping off giant swings. We didn't end up doing this, so can't really comment, but the amount of people we saw hobbling around with injured limbs was a bit amusing. Another strange phenomenon in Vang Vieng are the Friends and Family Guy bars. We're not quite sure how it's happened but for some reason there are a large number of establishments that endlessly run through one or the other of these series. As you stroll around the small town centre you are constantly accompanied by the voices of Ross, Joey, Rachel, Peter or Stewie. Apparently these are also the places to request the 'happy' menu, from which you can order fruit shakes or pizzas laces with a selection of marijuana, magic mushrooms, opiates or methamphetamine. The police periodically run undercover stings in Vang Vieng that result in hefty 'fines' for the tourists.
Nearby, giant limestone karsts rise dramatically from the flat plane on which the little town is set.ญญญญ The view from our balcony where we stayed the second night was incredible (we swapped guesthouses after being kept up by some shocking dance music the first night, although to be fair, it didn't go on past 1.00am)
. When we went for a walk across the river the day after we arrived we found a very different Vang Vieng. Dogs and chickens played on the dusty roads that ran between small gardens and simple houses. This, I thought, is where the people who service party central live. The two areas couldn't be more different and, had we found it sooner, we would have looked for a guesthouse here. Perhaps the locals are thankful for the income it provides, but they must find it very strange to see how their town had changed in the past ten years or so.
On our second and last night in Vang Vieng we went to dinner at the highly rated Norkea. The barbecue was advertised as starting at 6pm but didn't actually kick off until about 8pm. Given the strong recommendations online we decided it might be worth the wait. The restaurant was run by a bunch of classic elderly folk, the service was slow and English limited, but once the barbecue chef got going it was all on! We ate skewer after skewer of perfectly grilled vegetables and succulent meats. The cook was a generation younger than the rest of the staff and was an absolute grilling queen who managed to maintain a cheerful attitude despite her huge output. Nathan wondered whether she was married and how she might like emigrating to New Zealand... an idea I was actually half supportive of!
We had been expecting the party crowds in Vang Vieng but somehow it was still shocking. We couldn't let go and get over our aversion to it. You might think we're just getting a bit old for it all and that may well be part of it, but this is the kind of scene we avoid when we go out at home too. In the context of three months of various Asian cultures it is even more jarring. All in all though, we don't regret stopping in Vang Vieng to break up our journey to Vientiane. It was worth it for the scenery alone and we found the town interesting in its own, peculiar way.
We arrived in Vang Vieng having been squashed in the back of a stuffy mini van for six hours with fellow passengers who, for some reason, had an aversion to open windows (we would definitely recommend the VIP bus option over this to anyone planning to make the trip). On the positive side, the drive had been one of the most scenically interesting for a long time. The road from Luang Prabang climbs over a jungle clad mountain range that is dotted with small villages. The poverty was startling. The road was lined with tiny shacks built out of whatever material available. People everywhere were going about their daily work together, chatting and laughing. Small children played on the side of the road or, more often, were doing their part to support the family.