Vang Vieng was one of the highlights of my trip four years ago. When I last visited, it was this tiny town, consisting of one dirt road intersection. One road ran from Vientiane to Luang Prabang, and the other ran from that road to the river. That was it. Little bamboo cafes and no frills hotels lined the streets. The draw to this little town, was the Nam Song river that ran through it, and the tubing that was to be had on it. When our bus pulled into the town then, the town had a lazy, hippie like feel to it. Family Guy played on old television sets in one bamboo bar, Friends played in another, both cafes were half full of tourists lounging on huge pillows on the bamboo platforms drinking fruit shakes, eating pizzas, or even sleeping. When our bus pulled into town tonight, the town had a deserted feel to it. Reruns still played on old television sets, but the only people watching them were the bored waiters. It felt deserted and dirty, the cafes looked grungy instead of comfortable. Additional roads led to so many more hotels and guesthouses that had not been there in the past, and the pretty riverfront been replaced with bars, restaurants, and more guesthouses, for who, I'm not so sure…
Four years ago, Upon my first glance, I wondered exactly why I decided to stop, other than a break in transit from Vientiane to Luang Prabang. And then, I saw the line for the inner tubes, and once I secured my own, I took a tuk tuk 4 km north to the river, and saw exactly why I decided to stop. Little bamboo huts, I think five in total when I was there dotted the 4 km stretch of the Nam Song river. These huts served Lao whiskey and coke by the bucket, and at the time, featured rope swings and zip-lines into the water. Some zip-lines looked innocent enough, others did not, and were largely avoided. It was fun. It was really, really fun. Friends I made on the bus from Vientiane and I would float from one bamboo hut to the next, empty plastic bottles on a rope would be tossed out for us to grab onto and get pulled in. Some huts had volleyball and soccer courts alongside the river, others had music blasting, very few were empty.
The only rule, was not to stay out after dark. Otherwise it would be difficult for the children who lined up at the end of the stretch of river to see you and pull you to shore. After turning in your tube, you would likely meet your new friends at the 'Friends bar' or the 'Family Guy bar' for dinner and a nap. Did I mention how fun this was? Because, it was. So. Much. Fun. Obviously when mixing variables like a river, buckets of Lao whiskey, zip-lines, and being in the middle of the Lao countryside (far from a major hospital) precautions should be taken. Like, maybe it's not such a good idea to zip-line if you've had too many buckets… or to use your own judgement that maybe that one rope swing is a little too close to shore… I certainly did. I did one rope swing, embarrassed myself by not being able to hold on long enough to look good, and decided I'd stick to the soccer and volleyball courts instead.
Not everyone took these precautions, and it has been reported that 10-20 people die per year on the river from tubing (more like zip-lining and/or drinking) related activities. One of these deaths was picked up by an Australian reporter this past spring, which was then picked up by other news outlets, embarrassing the Lao government, and effectively shutting down the tubing, destroying all river bamboo bars, zip-lines and slides (which must have been built after my last visit) turning Vang Vieng into a shell of what it obviously built itself up to be over the past four years. Additional roads have been built, 'Friends' now plays in at least five cafes, and the once bare riverside is lined with new villas and additional bars for more debauchery. It is depressing, and nothing like what I remembered.
Obviously, it's unfortunate when anyone gets hurt, and it's beyond awful when injuries lead to death on vacation (or anytime, right?), but I find it curious that the Australian reporter seemed to forget that those traveling to Vang Vieng are the ones choosing to partake in the buckets, the zip-lines, the rope swings, etc. Accidents happen, of course, and I can't reiterate enough, some of the rope swings and zip-lines were quite dangerous- but wouldn't you decide for yourself NOT to climb up to one? Furthermore, when I went four years ago, the Aussies were by far the loudest, drunkest, and most risk-taking of anyone along the river, why didn't she report on that? I may sound a bit harsh, and perhaps this wasn't the case for the main death that she reported on, but if you're going to drink, and then zip-line into a river that you're not familiar with, chances are you shouldn't point fingers at anyone but yourself for making those decisions.
With all of the construction that was going on in Vang Vieng, it's hard to imagine that the tubing is really over for good. The government has reported that it is looking into ways of making it safer, so perhaps the many small businesses that have sprung up are simply waiting it out. For now though, Vang Vieng is not what it used to be, and perhaps it never will be. Andrew and I didn't go on the river at all, due to his migraine and my hope to preserve at least part of Vang Vieng for what it was, and not what it has become to be.
There are some minority villages not far from the center of Vang Vieng, and had I been more ambitious about investigating, we probably would have spent a few days biking around, but instead we settled on walking through a temple, and catching up on our work online- which sometimes, has to be done. At least I got to have some pretty wonderful fruit shakes to go with my blog catch up! Watermelon, Lemon & Mint is a must try, if you haven't already!
Where we slept:
What I spent: