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Changes in Vang Vieng, Laos: Should you Still Go?

Are drugs, bikini clad women in the middle of town, and blatant disrespect for a modest culture not really your thing? You’re in luck, as all of those dodgy (and some might say fun) things are no longer a reality in Vang Vieng, Laos. I was lucky enough to visit just before and just after the infamous crackdown – when police basically came in overnight and shut all the trashy stuff down.

Once famous for drug and drink fuelled tubing (floating down the river on a big tyre) and a groundhog day like cycle of endless friends and family guy episodes (for some reason, probably because everyone was stoned, they insisted on playing only those 2 shows), Vang Vieng has now shed the bad boy image and wants you to see it as a presentable member of the Southeast Asian tourist trail. The bars lining the river, that same river where up to 50 tourists died in 2011, were torn down or castrated, hemmed in by tight new rules. Drugs disappeared from menus and a calmer, more Laotian atmosphere returned to Vang Vieng (but Friends and Family Guy still remain).

Changes in Vang Vieng, Should You Still Go? A tubing bar just outside Vang Vieng – it’s not like this anymore (at least not when I went)

The crackdown was a bold move but one that will almost definitely pay off. Vang Vieng has one thing going for it, something that it will always have: amazing scenery. Karst mountains rise from bright green rice fields while the Nam Song River slides quietly through town.

I think of Vang Vieng as someone who was in a bad relationship. Their partner was a bit of a loser and wasn’t taking them anywhere.  Instead of settle, like so many people do, it had the confidence to move on, knowing it would attract a newer, classier and better behaved crowd. I know Vang Vieng will find true love, and plenty of new tourists, because it is just so likeable. (I’ve heard some business owners got pretty screwed over through all of this, but I don’t know enough about that side of it so I won’t go into it – leave a comment or get in touch if you can educate me about it!)

So what does Vang Vieng offer tourists now?

Bike rides

Hire a bike, cross the toll bridge (or better yet, stay at a guesthouse across the river) and start cycling. The roads are rough and the people friendly, and there is so much to see. Mountains surround the main dirt road heading out of town, and every few minutes you’ll see a sign, usually in laughable English, directing you to a cave, swimming hole or a hill to climb. You can journey right around the valley, which I actually did with one flat tyre. Once you get a little way out the tourists dry up and you are left with the scenery and the locals, who are always smiling and waving. This is the best thing to do in Vang Vieng and it probably always was. This side hasn’t really changed, the nature and people have always been there, but now people that are interested in these things aren’t being turned off by Vang Vieng’s reputation.

A sign during a bike ride in Vang Vieng, Laos A dirt road on the outskirts of Vang Vieng, Laos

Caves, rock climbing and general adventure travel

There are a lot of caves in Vang Vieng and you probably won’t be willing or able to see them all, but checking out at least a couple of them is a good idea. They range from big caves you could park a plane in to tight-walled, potentially nightmare-inducing labyrinths. Bring a head torch and some decent shoes (I bought neither, jandles and a cell-phone just did the job) and explore! I didn’t do any rock climbing, or any of the other adventure activities on offer, but I’ve heard Vang Vieng is a great for adrenaline enthusiasts.

Tubing and boat trips

You can still go tubing; you’ll just have more chance of actually surviving these days. Obviously the lack of drugs makes it safer, but also the death-trap water slides and rope swings have all disappeared. Tubing is now just a slow roll down the river, a perfect way to relax and take in the view. There are still bars, but the atmosphere is very different. Gone are the free shots and the pumping parties, replaced with scenes you’d expect to see in any bar during daylight hours, with a bit of volleyball thrown in.  Boat trips and kayaks are also a good way to see this section of the river.

The river in Vang Vieng, which you can still go tubing down

Sit in a restaurant, order cheap food and take in the view around Vang Vieng

Countless restaurants line the river and most open right out to some amazing views. I spent hours just sitting and watching some of the best scenery in Southeast Asia while eating half-decent western food. Most restaurants have the typical Lao bed/chair things, and after sitting there for a while it can be difficult to find the motivation to get up and do anything else.

A view in Vang Vieng, Laos

Watch South Park

I was shocked to see one of the biggest changes in Vang Vieng; the monopoly that Friends and Family Guy had over TV sets has now been broken. South Park is the new addition, and it’s a welcome one. Restaurants playing endless cycles of TV shows is a weird phenomenon, it’s the only place I saw in Southeast Asia that does it, but it’s good that they are continuing the tradition. Sometimes it’s good just to chill out, use the free Wi-Fi and watch some TV, but a bit more variety would be good.

There have been a lot of changes in Vang Vieng. Some people won’t like it and will instead go to the next drug-fuelled, bikini clad hot spot, but people who like amazing scenery, friendly people and lots of activities (aka most people above the age of 20) will always find something to keep them happy in Vang Vieng; it just won’t be on top of their pizza. Backpackers can still enjoy cheap beer and a laid back atmosphere – Vang Vieng still has something for everyone.

A sunset in Vang Vieng, Laos

Further reading: Here’s a great article about what Vang Vieng used to be like

What do you think of the changes in Vang Vieng? Does it put you off from going or is it edging higher up your must-see list?

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Jon Algie

A travel blogger from New Zealand who hates talking about himself in the third person and has no imagination when it comes to naming websites.
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6 Comments

  1. Jessi
    May 15, 2014 at 7:39 pm — Reply

    Definitely adding this to my list – thanks! It seems like a nice break from the super well-worn path.

    2 questions: did you have any problems with an on-arrival visa? And what currency did you carry? (I read that USD are generally well-accepted…?)

    • May 17, 2014 at 8:53 am — Reply

      It’s one of my favourite places in Asia, you’ll love it! I’ve only been to Laos through the land borders and had no problems with visas, and I had Thai Baht and US dollars, you can change either very easily, or just use the atms there. Change any Lao kip before you go though as you can’t change it outside of Laos.

  2. TravelMore
    April 23, 2015 at 1:41 am — Reply

    I just got back from Vang Vieng in Feb 2015 and it was awesome. It is much more subdued now but it is much much much more safer yet still a party. I made a bunch of friends and was some of the best 3 days of my life. Highly recommend going!

    • December 22, 2015 at 12:19 am — Reply

      Thanks for the update, I’m glad people are still enjoying it!

  3. Gunn
    September 20, 2016 at 11:19 pm — Reply

    Great blog! I’ll be traveling in Laos next year for around 10 days. If you had to choose between Vang Vieng and places north of Luang Prabang (Muang Ngoi, Nong Kiaow for instance), which would you prefer?

    • September 28, 2016 at 10:27 am — Reply

      That’s a good question! Both are really good — Vang Vieng is a bit bigger and more touristy so if you want to go out and meet people go there, if you want somewhere quieter choose Nong Khiaw . Muang Ngoi.

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