Vang Vieng (ວັງວຽງ)(also Vang Viang) is a riverside town in Central Laos. The town has been known as a party destination for years, and whilst this still remains more outdoor-oriented activities are now available such as mountain biking, trekking, kayaking, caving, swimming and rock climbing.
Once little more than a bus stop on the long journey between Vientiane at the Thai border and the World Heritage Site of Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng has managed to become a destination in its own right – and rightfully so. While the town still isn't much more than three streets and a bus station, it is the stunning scenery of river and rock formations surrounding this place that will keep you dreaming of Laos long after you've settled back into real life. If you aren't into the rowdy party scene that seems to dominate this town's image, try to come in the off-season (Apr–Jun, Sep-Oct) and you'll have this place almost entirely to yourself.
Many who have traveled around South East Asia have heard about tubing on the Nam Song River, an activity that long-dominated the town and its visitors. Originally, the bars catering to tubers along the river were opened up by hedonistic backpackers. At one time, as many as 20 bars lined the river, with pulsating music, drinking games and drug-fueled debauchery becoming the norm. However, after 27 tourists died while partying on the river in 2011, the local authorities cramped down on drugs, shut down many of the tubing bars, put restrictions on the volume of bar's music, and removed riverside swings and "death slides." As of July 2015, five bars operate each day along the river on a two day rotation. As of December 2015, only one bar operating.
However, those upstream bars still have a profound influence on the town itself, which has an atmosphere of lethargy by day and debauchery by night. In town, tourists sprawl out in the pillow-filled restaurants called "TV Bars," watching re-runs of US sitcoms "Friends" and "Family Guy" until the sun goes down, and then party heavily until the early hours. Free alcohol is served at many of the tourist-oriented bars in town, providing hours of free drinking for the frugal backpacker.
Please be a conscientious traveler not discarding your trash to pollute the environment. If you notice your fellow travelers attempting to discard their trash into the rivers and banks, give them the evil eye!
Vang Vieng may have established itself as the exception to the rule that Laos doesn't have nightlife. It does have potential as a base for adventure tourism which attracts a few more sedate foreign sightseers. However, whilst the main attraction for many visitors remains the tubing, it is easy to avoid the party scene and use the town as a base to explore the surrounding countryside.
Note: As of 2015, the tubing and party scene in Vang Vieng is absolutely nothing like it used to be a few years ago, when there were literately thousands of drunk/high youngsters at the dozens of bars tubing on the river every single day. Those days are well and truly over. Now there are only 4 or 5 bars and only a few hundred a day tubing on the river maximum. It is rumoured that the Lao government stepped in because of all the deaths and injuries happening on the river that were highly publicised in western media newspapers. So they virtually closed almost all the riverside bars overnight to prevent Lao's international image in Vang Vieng being damaged any further. As such, most the bars in the town of Vang Vieng itself have gone out of business and more and more close every week. Do not go to Vang Vieng expecting wild full moon parties and a huge party scene, because this just doesn't happen anymore. Gone are the restaurants/bars playing episodes of Friends/Family Guy 24/7: They do not exist anymore. That said, there are still a dozen or so bars still clinging to the town's party vibe past: Bucket booze, psytrance music, an Irish bar etc.
To many, this is all actually a welcome change: Vang Vieng is now quieter like it used to be before the tubing really kicked off in the mid-00's. So you can enjoy the numerous spectacular caves, lagoons and adventure sports in the surrounding area without the all night raves and many drunk/high tubers severely injuring or killing themselves whilst tubing. Either way, don't be put off: Vang Vieng is one of the most beautifully scenic places in the region, if not the world, and there is plenty to do to warrant a week (or even more) here.
The numerous TV restaurants are interchangeable and all have a similar theme. When it comes to wifi some offer it free, others sell access. Others offer access only at certain times only. They all have similar menus. A selection of Lao, American, Italian, Chinese and Thai food is normally fresh but often of indifferent quality and poorly executed. Small serves average 20,000-45,000 kip.
For quick eats and late night snacks, numerous pancake and sandwich stalls dot the streets. But be careful, food hygiene may have been compromised by being in the heat all day and your gastro-intestinal system may react accordingly. The street running next to the river just to the west of the tube rental office has a few vendors selling large chicken and pork kebab skewers for 5,000 kip each.
"Happy" or drug-filled delicacies are only offered at two or three restaurants now. Vang Vieng is much less wild than it once was.
Beerlao is available everywhere in Vang Vieng, but the drink of choice is a cheap plastic bucket filled with liquor and soft drinks. A bottle of Tiger Whisky costs the bar 10,000 kip, so around a third of a bottle goes into your bucket, normally with a choice of 7up or Pepsi, lime and Redbull.
There are 4 main bars open along the river, the rest who did not have connections were abandoned (the 2nd bar is owned by the chief of police). Drugs are not sold along these river bars. There are a few local bars open further down the river but are pretty empty, if they have anyone in them at all. People typically start the day around 1:00 PM. You rent a tube from one of the two local tube places (owned by the same company/police). You pay more than you should for a tube and they say that you will get your security deposit back if you return the tube by 6:00 PM. You take a tuk-tuk with your tube to the first bar, Bar Zero. You drink there for a little bit, until it starts getting crowded, then people start to make their way to the river and tube to the next bar. This bar is very close to the starting bar and has a huge open area to hang out in. The following bar (Bar Two) is the most fun bar of the four. There is a basketball court with water shooting out of the backboards, and there art sculptures everywhere. You then get in a tube and go to the last bar. By this time, it is around 4:00 PM - 5:00 PM. Don't bother leaving for the town after 5:15 PM. If you do try to make it to town before the 6:00 PM deadline to get your tube deposit back, you are out of luck. The tuk-tuk drivers make sure you don't get back in time. They then split the profits with the tube company. Just enjoy the bar and come back after 6:00 PM, when the bar starts to die down. Avoid the stress and know from the beginning that you aren't getting your deposit back. It's a great time, just enjoy the river.
Westerners employed by the bars for food and accommodation hand out free shots and organise drinking games to encourage you to stick around; many will also offer promotions to encourage you to their visit twin bars in town later in the evening. The competition among the night bars is so fierce that the deals are often genuinely pretty amazing, and if you time it right you can go from bar to bar for free buckets and cheap deals.
Too much alcohol or "special" or "happy" shakes which can contain cannabis, magic mushrooms or any manner of substance are not a good idea if you plan on going back in the river. These are sold at the bars if you ask for them. The whole tubing experience is very similar to the way it was before the whole thing was shut down in 2012. It's back up and running fully. The only things that aren't there anymore are the death swings, death slides, and zip lines. If the water level is too low, these activities wouldn't be happening anyway. You would be surprised how shallow the water is at parts.
Beer and buckets are available all around Vang Vieng in bars covered with Christmas lights (including all the "TV restaurants") and the buckets are usually very strong because Lao whisky is cheaper than soft drinks. There's no shortage of choice but a distinct lack of diversity, especially if you're looking for live music.
Watersports and alcohol
Floating downstream at a sedate pace in an inflated rubber tube shouldn't be a dangerous activity, provided you leave enough time to get back before darkness falls.
What raises the danger level is the bars offering a combination of strong alcoholic drinks and high platforms to jump from.
Whilst you may find that risk reduced somewhat by the dismantling of some of Vang Vieng's infamous ziplines, swings and slides following recent deaths, you're still going to have use your common sense. If you want to jump into the river, be very careful about where you do so - the Nam Song isn't very deep except where the bar staff have cleared rocks from the river bed. Don't even think of pushing others in: at least one person has died that way.
Needless to say, if the alcohol or drugs you've consumed may impair your ability to swim or climb out, don't enter the water, even on a rubber tube. Remember whisky buckets can be deceptively strong and their effects can kick in very quickly.
The river current is strong in many places - even those who are sober should avoid sapping their strength by swimming against it. It should be easy enough to swim across to shallower water instead.