Vang Vieng Mountains, Laos
LAOS

Vang Vieng: From Hedonism to Sustainable Tourism

By on 02/04/2017

You may know Vang Vieng as the former party capital of South East Asia. Chances are, you may have heard about it from friends, or even in the news. Likely about ‘another’ traveller’s tragic death. But after a strict government crackdown, the town has now shed its old reputation, has reinvented itself and seems to now have a promising future.

Half way between Vientiane and Luang Prabang, travellers from all over the world used to flock to Vang Vieng’s infamous party and tubing scene. Within a few years of it becoming popular, things got out of control. Alcohol and drug excess coupled with lack of regulations, turned Vang Vieng into a wild hedonistic town and a deathtrap, claiming 27 lives in 2011 alone. A year later the government stepped in and closed most of the riverside bars, where the shenanigans took place. Rumours that tubing was dead spread quickly and backpackers stopped coming. It was a blow for the local economy.

Vang Vieng wooden bridge Laos

Fast-forward 5 tough years, and the town has a new lease of life from new enterprises that offer alternative, more sustainable, activities.

Vang Vieng in itself is not the prettiest of towns. But it sits by the Nam Song River and it’s surrounded by towering karst limestone mountains, caves and inviting lagoons. This dramatic landscape has helped in the rebrand of a decadent party town, into a place where the surrounding countryside is once again the star attraction and adventure sports are now the way to make the most of it.

Explore by mountain bike

There is a reason Vang Vieng became so popular in the first place – the spectacular surrounding landscape. You can easily explore it by bike, which you can hire in town for about £2 a day. Despite all the mountains, some routes are mostly flat, but they are not in great condition so make sure you get a mountain bike. You’ll also get a free map that points you in the direction of the Blue Lagoon, and dozens of caves and waterfalls.

Blue Lagoon, Vang Vieng Laos

The ‘Blue’ Lagoon

Paddle down the river on a kayak

Nam Song River is the big attraction here. As soon as you step into your kayak you can see why. Tree-covered limestone karsts projecting into the sky and the quiet countryside make you feel that you are somewhere remote. It’s a relaxing way to get up close and personal with nature. But if what you want is peace and quiet, you’ll need to start in the morning to avoid the tubing crowds.

Kayaking in Vang Vieng, Laos

Kayaking down the river

Tubing

Tubing is still Vang Vieng’s favourite past time. But it is a much more relaxed affair now. There are no ‘death slides’ or precarious rope swings over shallow water, and only a handful of riverside bars remain. The fun tends to start from midday onwards and goes on till sunset, sometimes even later – although I wouldn’t recommend it. Not only do you get a fine if you return your tube after 6pm, tubing in the dark is plain dangerous. Hire a tube in one of the rental shops and get a tuk tuk to the starting point. Once there, jump in and let yourself go with the flow!

Vang Vieng Tubing, Laos

Vang Vieng Tubing, Laos. Source: Flickr

Tubing in the pitch black

I know I’ve just said that tubing in the dark is dangerous, but I’m talking about cave tubing. In Tham Nam (‘Water Cave’), to be more precise. Equipped with a headlamp and a tube, you pull yourself along with a guide rope as you float through this flooded cave system. Once deep inside the cave, the guide will ask you to turn off your headlamps. It’s a rare opportunity to experience pitch black darkness.

Cave tubing in Vang Vieng, Laos

Cave tubing in Tham Nam (Water Cave)

Getting high over the jungle

No, not THAT kind of high… There are two ways you can enjoy the jungle from above. Hot air balloon rides take you high over the town and mountains three times a day – sunrise, afternoon and sunset. I’d heard that safety is an issue and an accident is only a question of time, so I decided to skip this. A bit closer to the ground, zip lining is the preferred option for the more adventurous. There are a couple of sites where you can have your adrenaline fix, with different levels of difficulty, but equal measures of excitement. One of the courses can even be combined with a Via Ferrata route.

Zip Lining in Vang Vieng, Laos

Zip lining over the jungle

And let’s not forget partying Vang Vieng style!

In addition to a couple of bars along the riverbanks on the tubing routes, there are a few popular places in town. Sakura Bar offers free drinks from 8-9pm every night and also has beer pong tables and a dance floor. Kangaroo Sunset Bar is another classic in the Vang Vieng party scene. As the name suggests, it’s a great spot to enjoy the sunset.

After a few quiet years, Vang Vieng has slowly returned to life. It still has enough to entice backpackers to come back, but without the excesses of the old days. There is no doubt that Vang Vieng has worked hard to reinvent itself as an ecotourism destination. The transition from a centre of hedonism hasn’t been easy for the town. But residents are doing their best to make the local tourist industry future proof by trying to balance making a living and maintaining their culture.

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4 Comments
  1. Reply

    Becky

    04/04/2017

    Wow this is so great to read. I actually went in 2013, just when things had really quietened down. I remember cycling to the blue lagoon and going exploring in the cave using my phone torch, maybe not such a good idea!! One thing I remember is Friends on continuous loop in all the bars, is that still on!

    • Reply

      Teresa

      07/04/2017

      Thanks Becky! You used your phone as a torch? Brave! 😀
      Friends (and Family Guy) reruns are still a fixture in Vang Vieng. I guess some things never change! Hehe

  2. Reply

    Natalie

    07/04/2017

    Great read about a destination that has turned around its reputation and reinvented itself! So much of Asia is still on my bucket list! Some top tips here.

    • Reply

      Teresa

      07/04/2017

      Thanks Natalie! I’m really glad you have enjoyed the read. There is so much to do and see in Asia! I still have a few things on my list I’d like to go back for 🙂

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HI, I'M TERESA!

Hi! I’m Teresa, a London-based traveller and photographer who quit her job in the summer 2016 to explore the world. I’ve been to 39 countries and have ticked some adventures off my bucket list. I hope I can inspire you and motivate you to get out there and explore this beautiful world we live in. Follow my updates and discover the essence of travelling with me!

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