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).
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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