I strongly believe that every place we have visited on this trip has come with some kind of lesson attached to it. Whether it has been hard lessons like learning when to fold in China or positive ones like discovering just how good most people are, not a day—or destination—goes by on this trip where we don’t learn something about the world, or ourselves.
Sometimes the lessons are clear and fairly obvious (like not renting the cheapest motorbike on the block and then being surprised when things go pearshaped…), but other times they sneak up on us and it’s not until we’ve had time to reflect on our experiences that we can fully appreciate what the takeaway message from a place will be.
Our visit to Vang Vieng was a weird one, filled with mixed emotions. Strange though it may sound, I had really high hopes for Laos’ infamous little party town. It’s an odd destination for a non-wild child to latch on to, but even back when this tiny town was known for little more than debauchery and bad decisions, something about it intrigued me. I had no interest in drinking myself blind or painting rude slogans across my body, but I remember when things were particularly tough for me during my final semester of graduate school, my therapist asked me to close my eyes and think of a time in the future when I believed I would be happy. When I did as she asked, all I could think of was lying in an inner tube and slowly floating down the Nam Song river, the innocuous aspect of Vang Vieng’s claim to notoriety. The vision was like an oasis in the seemingly never-ending desert that was my dissertation, and I latched on to it like you might expect a wanderer who is lost and unsure of her course to do. Ever since then, it had been something of a totem for me.
I had read numerous accounts about Vang Vieng, spanning from its rowdy heydays when it was drug & debauchery central, to its more recent incarnation as a laidback enclave poised to reinvent itself as the adventure sports capital of the country, so I felt pretty confident that I knew what to expect. Whether travelers loved or hated Vang Vieng, it seemed like the one thing everyone could agree upon was that the surrounding countryside made up of limestone karsts was some of the prettiest they had ever seen. Even if some reports suggested recent crackdowns on the libidinous partying meant the town sometimes felt like it had been devastated by a zombie apocalypse, I figured that the scenery would surely make up for any dubious aspects of the town. Also, even though most of the riverside bars have now shut down, it is still possible to go tubing, and I wanted the chance to honor that dream that had given me such hope during trying times. Having gazed wistfully at other travelers’ beautiful photos of the area, I was secretly certain that we would love it there and would be able to enjoy the charming side to Vang Vieng.
The first lesson Vang Vieng taught me was not a new one, but immediate and swift in its delivery: sky high expectations built over years of dreaming and avid blog reading are rarely, if ever, born out. I had never stopped to consider that most of the photographs of Vang Vieng touting the beauty of the area rarely ever featured the town itself. It was immediately apparently why this was—low and scrubby, most of the buildings were non-descript cheap constructions with little personality or visual appeal, calling to mind the dingy buildings seen in old westerns. The town was drab with a side of bland, and the haze in the air from the slash-and-burn agriculture that pervades the country during dry season so thick we could just barely see the fuzzy outlines of the much-lauded mountainous terrain. As first impressions go, this one was fairly grim.
It was a sign of things to come. Time after time, all the things I optimistically anticipated, Vang Vieng under delivered or underwhelmed. Although there was plenty of lodging on offer, most of it had no character, no views, and was sorely overpriced. One promising place we tracked down about 5 km out of town was bright and airy and had a brilliant view of the river, but when we finally managed to find someone who worked there (a shockingly difficult task, I might add), she spoke no English and stonewalled all attempts to communicate; our interactions culminated in her simply walking off mid-conversation as we tried to figure out if the WiFi was working and we finally decided that it shouldn’t be so hard to convince a place that they wanted our business. It took us three hours of riding around on a motorbike, but we did finally find our paradise: d’Rose Resort. The bungalows are run by friendly staff, offer great off-season discounts, are located down by the river and have stunning views of the karsts. It was one of the few places in town where we felt like we could appreciate the beauty of the countryside.
[As an aside, if you’re ever wondering about where we stay in each city, check out our Lodgings by Country page, where we list everywhere we spend a night and also give costs and ratings!]
Finding good food in Vang Vieng was also frequently an exercise in frustration. Most eateries have clearly built their menus off the preferences of drug-addled backpackers, so while prices were cheap, selections tended to veer strongly towards international junk food—pizza, spaghetti, burgers, fries… essentially all the food you came to Laos not to eat. Seeing vacant-eyed, dreadlocked zombies shovel pancakes into their gaping maws while watching episodes of Friends (some traditions never die) didn’t whet our appetites and—much like the town itself—the food was bland and uninspiring. We worked really hard to find good food and I’d have to say the only places that were anything more than serviceable (and indeed, were actually very good) were Something Different and The Organic Farm.
Something Different is an Israeli joint run by a friendly expat who served us a veritable feast for about $7US, all of it healthy, fresh, homemade and SO DAMN GOOD. We went off menu and just asked the owner to make us something tasty, and he delivered. The food just kept coming, fresh as he made it, and we ate like kings.
The Organic Farm is about 7 km north of the main town.We weren’t sure whether the ride out there would be worth it, but… it was. Prices were a little bit higher, but everything we ordered—from the eggplant jeow (essentially baba ghanoush) to the amazing pork satay (so nutty! And with a delightful hint of mustard!) to the out-of-this-world mango sticky rice—was lick-the-plate good. If it weren’t so inconvenient to get to, we would have eaten there every day. It was one of the best meals that we had in Laos; if you rent a motorcycle while in Vang Vieng and care about food, a stop here is mandatory.
Even the one thing I was certain would not disappoint, Vang Vieng’s countryside, also managed to be something of a letdown. Maybe it’s because we had just come from doing The Loop in ThaKhek where the scenery was very similar, or maybe the smoggy haze cloaking everything affected us more than we realized, or maybe we’ve just become jaded after all this time in Asia and our standards for what constitutes “breathtaking” are now impossibly high, but we felt the only thing that risked taking our breath away during our jaunts through the countryside was the dust in the air. It’s not that the countryside was ugly, it just didn’t seem any lovelier or even as impressive as landscapes we had seen in other countries (or other parts of this country).
The first cave we unfortunately visited (tempted by the promises of a swimming hole) was also our last, as it wound up being nothing more than a sweaty squeeze through slippery passageways in the dark, only to be “rewarded” by a pool of milky water at the end that would best be described as a puddle. It was hot work whose unpleasantness was compounded when our unasked for guide demanded that we hand over 100,000LAK (~$12US) for his 20-minutes of assistance. We declined his offer and suggested 30,000 might be more in order, especially as we had already paid a 20,000 “preservation” fee when we arrived that we were certain was really just code for “beer money”. Eventually we settled on 50,000, both parties dissatisfied with the outcome. I understand that many of the locals are likely hurting financially as the drop off in visitors to Vang Vieng has been rather precipitous following the closure of the riverside bars (seriously, check out these before & after photos to see what a dramatic change there has been), but behavior like this hardly makes me inclined to encourage others to visit. In fact, we ran into a few other tourists as we made our way back to the main road and emphatically urged them not to even bother heading that way.
We limited the rest of our explorations to the Blue Lagoon, Vang Vieng’s famous swimming hole. As far as natural attractions in the area go, this was probably my favorite: the water was a stunning/slightly surreal shade of turquoise and bracingly brisk, perfect for a sweltering day (made all the worse by our unexpected cave crawl). Around us, plenty of pasty white people played Tarzan and hurtled themselves from the rope swing and jumped from vertigo-inducing heights from a large tree stretched out across the river, while fish nibbled on the toes of the less intrepid who were content to simply paddle about. It was one of those quintessential “banana pancake trail” backpacking moments, and the energy of it encouraged me to summon my inner adrenaline junkie and jump from the tree myself! Of course, the water was very, very cold and I wound up plunging far deeper than anticipated, a wicked combination on my sensitive ears; when I surfaced, my left ear was cracking with pain, which put an end to my dare devil ways.
Fun as all this was (minus the barotrauma), we never felt fully comfortable at the Blue Lagoon. All around us, conversation swirled as hung-over travelers recounted the previous evening’s debauchery, boasting of how wasted and trashed they had gotten, what an awesome time they had had tubing, not for its own merits, but because of how blotto they had been. The same kind of chatter followed us when we went and grabbed lunch at Gary’s Irish Bar (food was fine, if not remarkable in any way), where the discussion of rampant drug abuse and poor behavior from the group of young Brits at the table next to us was so obnoxious that it was this that put me off the idea of tubing altogether. It was clear from the snippets of talk that we overheard that the party may be tamed in Vang Vieng, but it has not vanished entirely and travelers still come (albeit in smaller numbers) to cut loose.
We decided that we would channel our funds towards a hot air balloon ride instead. Vang Vieng is one of the cheapest places there is to take a balloon ride (tickets go for about $78US) and I figured it would be a good “once-in-a-lifetime” substitute for my deceased tubing dreams. But even this was not meant to be—booking our ride for our last morning in town, rain pounded through the night, and we woke up to drizzling gray skies. Although the van came to pick us up, we made it not 10 minutes down the road before we were told that the weather was too poor and there would be no flights that morning. We were offered the chance to take a later flight, but the later in the day, the worse the haze tended to be, and we were already booked on a minibus up to Luang Prabang that afternoon anyway.
As we stood on that street corner, the sun not yet risen and the streets completely silent, I thought about how Vang Vieng wasn’t anything like I had hoped. It wasn’t an idyllic paradise with a quiet, gentle charm. It was an unremarkable town, in a better-than-average location, where people went to behave badly. I had come in with a head full of dreams, and the town had stripped them away. Some of them I had been clinging to for years, but the city had shown me that it was time to let them go.
And that’s when Vang Vieng finally gave something back, now that I had finally ridden myself of preconceptions and desires. Trudging down the street toward the travel office where we had booked our tickets, we saw the first stirrings of life. Lined along the main river road where so many of the stultifying bars and cafés are located, a tiny morning market run by local women—many of them in traditional garb—was going in full force. The markets in Laos have been some of my favorites in Asia, filled with befuddling exotic ingredients, and this one was no different. The women smiled gleefully at us as we gasped over buckets filled with frogs and toads, cooed over beautiful verdant succulents, and peeked inside steaming cauldrons of aromatic soups and porridges. In a town that has been ravaged by tourism gone about as bad as it can, it was so refreshing and heartening to witness this mundane slice of life, to watch the locals take back their town in the early morning hours when the drunkards and druggies were still passed out in their beds. The normalcy of it all was stunningly beautiful. I felt I was bearing witness to a secret side of the city that most people never see.
Rounding the corner, we saw townspeople kneeling in the gutter, bowls of rice held high above their heads. A trio of saffron-robed monks came padding down the street, each one scooping up a bit of rice and placing it in their baskets, murmuring a blessing over the people supplicating before them. This daily alms-giving ceremony is known as tak bat, and is one of the proceedings for which Luang Prabang is most famous. There it is a dog & pony show largely put on for tourists, here we were the only ones around to watch in wonderment. It felt like such a privilege to watch such a sacred moment, even amongst the pancake carts and litter strewn about from a wild stag night out, and I silently thanked the town for showing a little bit more of itself—its true self—to us.
Remarkably, we were able to get a full refund on our hot air balloon tickets without any hassle, the shop owner going so far as to apologize to us for the fact that the flight had been canceled. Compared to our last harrowing experience with Lao customer service in Vientiane, this was a welcome surprise and Tony and I were both disappointed we didn’t get to give this guy our business. He was genuinely friendly and funny, and was certainly another point in Vang Vieng’s favor.
The town wasn’t done with us quite yet—as we made our way back to our bungalow to get ready for our impending departure to Luang Prabang, the early morning rays of sun beginning to snake across the sky dancing off the bright colors of a nearby wat caught our eye, so we wandered into the courtyard. As we drew closer, the gentle dulcet chanting of a chorus of voices floated out to greet us, and as we turned the corner, we watched as a group of monks and devotees—adorned with sashes across their chests—lay prostrate before several gleaming buddhas, beginning their day on the right karmic foot. The melody of their voices united was soothing and provided a moment of zen in the heart of a place that is more often known for oblivion than enlightenment. I finally felt the lightness, the happiness, I had hoped Vang Vieng would bring me. It wasn’t in the places I had been looking, but if the town had not stripped me of all those illusions, I never would have found myself here, watching in quiet wonderment.
Back at our bungalow, I gazed out one last time over the karsts and watched as wisps of cloud swirled in the cold limestone basins, a thick fog slowly unfurling across the valley and thought about how it’s funny how things work out. And if we had gone tubing, we probably wouldn’t have bothered with a balloon ride… and if we had been all the way up in the clouds that morning, we would have missed out on all the great things going on down below. I let go of things I thought I wanted, of dreams that were from another time, and I got something much better in return.
As the soft blanket of white slowly rolled in, I finally got the references to fairytales and the mystic orient that more fanciful guidebooks have attributed to the place; in that moment, Vang Vieng did feel otherworldly and just slightly out of step with time and the rest of the world. I understood what must have brought the first travelers to this place, unaware of the havoc they would leave in their wake. I knew too that this magical moment of quiet and calm, like the town itself, would not last. The day was in transition, on the cusp of becoming something different, something new. I hoped then, as I do now, that this hidden side I so nearly missed will become a little less hidden and Vang Vieng can get back in touch with itself. For the bulk of our visit, we did not see much beauty and we felt that the town was played out and used up, but in those last moments, I found myself wondering whether Vang Vieng might yet have some tricks up its sleeve. Perhaps if, like I did, it can learn to let go of the old things that it thinks travelers want, it will find a way to not just survive, but thrive once more.