Vang Vieng is a town between Vientiane, the capital of Laos, and Luang Prabang, the culturally rich city most people come to Laos to see. Vang Vieng is known amongst backpackers for one thing: tubing. Sounds harmless, but it’s not just tubing down a river. It’s tubing down a river while stopping at makeshift bars that cling to the river’s shores. Those bars not only sell alcoholic drinks, but often mushrooms, weed, or who knows what other drugs. I’ve actually heard of a few that give you a free joint with the purchase of an alcoholic drink. Yeah, ’cause that sounds like a good idea.

They also have rope swings and other things to jump off of into the river. People who are drunk and high and jumping into a not-so-deep river is not a good combination. The only other thing I’ve ever heard about this town is that you can watch episodes of “Friends” in almost any bar or restaurant. Now that’s culture. Finding nothing appealing about this town, I swore I wouldn’t go there.

Vang Vieng, Laos

Vang Vieng, Laos

After taking a shuttle back to Pakse from the 4,000 Islands, I had a few hours to kill before my flight to Vientiane. I wandered around to look for food and ended up hanging out with three backpackers I met on the street, one from Australia, one from Scotland, one from England. The three guys had met a few weeks earlier and had been traveling together ever since, and they made for entertaining dining companions for a late lunch. Eventually I had to leave and found a tuk-tuk to take me to the airport.

Unfortunately when I got to the airport, they told me the flight was delayed. Short delays aren’t so bad, especially in normal airports, but this turned into a four and a half hour delay. Aside from that, the Pakse airport is barely even an airport. There’s one check-in desk, one gate, one security screening conveyor belt, and one run-down restaurant.

I set up my laptop in the restaurant, opened a document (you didn’t think there was WiFi there, did you?) and started writing to pass the time. Since I was sitting in a folding chair at a folding table, “restaurant” might be a bit strong of a word. As I sat there writing, I saw something out of the corner of my eye quickly darting by. I almost jumped out of my chair when I realized it was a rat. Or maybe a mouse. It was too quick for me to know for sure. But three or four of them kept running back and forth the whole time I was in there. I’m very glad I never thought to eat in that restaurant.

Finally we boarded and I spent the hour flight talking to a 65 year old Italian-Canadian who had recently married a much younger Lao woman. I arrived in Vientiane hungry and exhausted just after midnight, and I was miserable.

kind of all I saw in Vientiane, Laos since I was only there for about 12 hours

I wasn’t expecting much from my hotel, but in my current state of mind it seemed more awful that it really was. I woke up the next morning desperate to not be alone, and luckily I met Jo from Australia at breakfast. She was traveling by herself for a few weeks, and we decided to go to a cafe for some better food than what the hotel provided.

I quickly learned that she was around my age and had booked herself on a bus that afternoon to go to Vang Vieng. “I might float down the river in a tube, but I plan on doing it sober. I just want to break up the trip from here to Luang Prabang.” Perfect. I couldn’t take being on my own, and I quickly asked if she wanted some company. Suddenly I was booking a bus ticket to the one place I had no intention of visiting.

Vang Vieng, Laos

It turns out Vang Vieng is set in some really gorgeous mountains. I think some people actually do go there for hiking, rock climbing, and other outdoorsy stuff, but you don’t hear about that. What I had heard about the cafes playing “Friends” was totally true. You could actually pick a restaurant based on which season you wanted to watch instead of what you wanted to eat.

Jo and I did go tubing, completely sober, and it was gorgeous. We got our tubes at 11:30am which meant we beat the crowds of people aiming to get drunk. Later that day, we talked to people who were only a half hour behind us, and they told us stories of girls drunk and high on mushrooms passing out in the river. People actually die here sometimes due to this kind of stupidity, but no one that day that I heard.

does this look safe to you?

tubing in Vang Vieng, Laos

Tubing turned out to be incredibly relaxing. The dinner with a string of “Friends” ended up being oddly comforting. For a couple days at least, I was feeling like myself again.

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14 comments on “Vang Vieng – Not Drunk on a River

  1. Matthew Cheyne

    I just love the spontaneaty of solo travel. It enables you to really choose your own adventure from moment to moment without the encumberences of friends, partners or relatives. The idea of tubing sounds cool even with a beer in hand but not with other intoxicants like illicit drugs. How does the tubing work? Do you start at one point on the river, leave your things there, float down and then get a bus back to where you started?

    1. Ali Post author

      I agree, a beer or two might’ve been nice, and if it was later in the day I might’ve had one, but at noon in the hot sun, I wasn’t interested. To go tubing, you basically go to the guys with the tubes (they have a little store front set up) and pay, but you can’t leave your things there. I brought a small bag to stick my shoes and some cash in, and all the convenience stores in town sell little waterproof bags you can wear around your neck, big enough for just some cash really. The tube guys have a tuk-tuk take you down to the starting point for the river, and a couple hours later you make it to the end point where you walk back to return your tube and get your deposit back. Pretty simple set up.

  2. Sarahsomewhere

    Hello, just discovered your blog and really enjoyed this post. This whole scene really doesn’t interest me either, so I’m glad that you still enjoyed yourself. Looking forward to reading more about your SE Asian adventure, as we are heading off shortly. Cheers 🙂

    1. Ali Post author

      Thanks Sarah! Yeah, definitely not somewhere I could’ve stayed for more than a couple days, but gorgeous area. Good luck on your SE Asian trip, I’ll check out your site!

  3. Audrey | That Backpacker

    Wow, the scenery looks beautiful! This is one place I’ve often thought of avoiding – but maybe tubing early would be kind of nice. That last photo has me sold!

    1. Ali Post author

      Thanks Audrey! If you want to break up the long journey from Vientiane to Luang Prabang, it’s a reasonable stop for a day, and really pretty when you’re sober.

  4. Jaime

    Lord I have heard so much about this town lately… & damn it looks like the most dangerous city in the world. I won’t lie I do wanna try a few of these things, but I’ll make sure I am sober… I know I get crazy when I am drunk… so I don’t need to be crazy & drunk trying these things out. I’ll try and stay sober too… Oh & i love that they play FRIENDS… I love that show!!!

    1. Ali Post author

      Yeah, someone just died there 2 days ago. So if/when you go, please be smart about what you do/try/drink. Those rope swings and other crazy jumping-into-the-river things are dangerous, the river isn’t deep enough. But it is a nice stop for a few days when you’re craving a little Western culture and familiar things like “Friends” or burgers.

  5. Sabrina

    I love how a place can be a completetly different thing to different people 🙂 I’ve never been, but I know that if I ever go there, my trip wouldn’t include floating drunk or high on mushrooms either. Gorgeous mountains in your shot by the way!

    1. Ali Post author

      Thanks Sabrina! I really did enjoy floating down the river and watching the beautiful scenery go by, but sober was the way to go for me. I’m also glad we got on the river ahead of all the drinkers, more peaceful that way.

  6. Shaun

    Unfortunately an Australian guy died there yesterday. He was tubing and they say he drowned. 🙁

    1. Ali Post author

      I heard about that. Someone else died a few weeks ago too. I really wish they’d be more careful.

  7. Sofia

    We went to Vang Vieng for a little bit but didn’t do the drunken tubing stuff. It really is a beautiful nature there so maybe now that they’re going to change some things around there it will be more enjoyable to visit.

    1. Ali Post author

      That’s what I’m hoping. I hope they get everything worked out, but getting rid of the drugs and the crazy bars along the river is definitely a good thing. It was such a gorgeous area, and while I did enjoy tubing, I’m so glad we went earlier than the drunk crowd.

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