Vang Vieng is a pretty little town and it’s far from unknown, nor is it “off the path.” After Laura and I enjoyed exploring Vientiane on our bikes, we bought seats on a bus heading to Vang Vieng, Laos. And even though I had only lightly researched my Southeast Asia travels before leaving, this tiny town’s reputation precedes it. All throughout my Australia travels, backpackers had waxed poetic on the subject of tubing in Vang Vieng. Backpackers in Thailand continued to rave about the town. It all sounded a little wacky — and dangerous to be frank — but Laura and I joined the crowds and decided to spend a day tubing on the Nam Song River. This is also one of the prettiest parts of the country I’ve yet seen, so we planned to rock climb and explore other parts too. Eco-tourism is huge here, but in 2009 the party scene far outshone the ecotourism.Back in 1999, Vang Vieng embraced the tubing business and it grew into a backpacker rite of passage. It was perhaps the most popular— and controversial — spot on Southeast Asia’s “Banana Pancake Trail.” But a series of backpacker deaths caused what some consider the most deadly year on the river — at least 27 backpackers drowned or dead in 2011. The Laos government stepped in to force change. Locals tore down riverside bars, the tubing rules changed, and the town refocused on a message of ecotourism. As a result, in 2016, the entire vibe is different from when I first visited. Now, Vang Vieng has a delightful mix of both tubing, drinking, and enjoying nature. As you walk through the town, tuk tuk drivers made half-hearted entreaties for a ride. New restaurants dot the streets, some upscale but still a good number of super budget spots for the backpackers still visiting in hopes of a party (you can still find it!). There’s a lot to do in Vang Vieng, so let’s take a look at the options, as well as the tubing scene then and now.
Tubing the Nam Song in Vang Vieng
In 2009, when I first visited, this tiny town was still a party mecca in Southeast Asia. Even in dry season, the tubing operators issued out 300+ tractor tire tubes each day, and that rose to 800+ in the wet high season. Now, it’s still an excellent spot for tubing, but the wild bars and fall-down-drunk backpackers are mostly gone. The Nam Song winds through stunning karst rocks and beautiful, lush green scenery. Although there are fewer backpackers on the river, it’s still possible to rent tubes and enjoy a few cold beers with friends as you float down the river.
Tubing and kayaking generally start at the Mulberry Farm — both then and now. It’s a quick tuk tuk ride to the launching spot and many tube rental locations include the tuk tuk in the price of your tube rental. The organic farm makes the most delicious mulberry treats, and you can start the morning on the river with a tasty mulberry mojitos. Plan on lunch too if you’re hungry, it’s a tasty spot to eat! Back in 2009, tubing was pretty much the only thing you don’t do when you’re on the river. Music from the bars ricocheted off of the nearby karst rocks and ziplines towered over the river.
Now, it’s a much more sedate ride through the pretty scenery. A handful of bars still operate, which means you can slowly progress down the river and grab a snack and a cold beer if needed. The bars still have volleyball and frisbee, so you can elongate your tubing trip and rest at points along the way. Back in 2009, I joined the entire backpacker scene. The bars threw ropes to the passing tubers and reeled us in. I don’t drink liquor, but I partook in a couple of beers and friends drank my free shots. Mostly though, I was acutely aware that there was nothing “Laotian” about the entire experience. I covered up whenever I left the river and mostly just danced, swam, and enjoyed the day.
The day ends at a tall bamboo bridge spanning the river. Our tube operators clearly explained when to exit the river and we found a few tuk tuk drivers waiting nearby to shuttle us into town. If you’re traveling in Laos with friends then tubing is fun and has very few of those legacy party vibes from the backpacking heyday.
Rock Climbing & Daytrips
Vang Vieng is a fabulous spot to learn rock climbing. And if you are a rock climber, it’s also a great spot to spend a day doing your thing. Before my daytrip from Vang Vieng, I had never rocked climbed anything other than the wall at my gym. Laura and I decided to spend a day in nature and booked a day tour into the karst rocks. It’s a fun day and the tour operator was knowledgeable and patient. If you’re keen to spend several day in Vang Vieng then I highly recommended rock climbing as one of your activities.
Now that the town is focusing on ecotourism, the nearby caves, waterfalls, and sights are even more accessible. The Blue Lagoon is the most popular trip near town and it’s for a reason — it’s pretty. You can’t go wrong exploring the caves either. There’s actually quite a lot to do around town and you can easily fill several days with fun activities.
I’m also a big fan of self-powered exploring and bike several tours run each day into the surrounding countryside.
The Food Scene in Vang Vieng
Laura and I had arrived in the late evening and spent a freezing night in our guest house. I had no idea that Laos would be so chilly this time of year (late January), and between thin blankets and 45 degree weather, I was cold all night. That’s one reason I was stoked at the prospect of sunning myself as I drifted down the river. I woke, did some jumping jacks to warm up, and then Laura and I fortified ourselves with a hearty breakfast of mulberry pancakes, a mulberry shake, and eggs from the nearby Organic Mulberry Farm. My cousin visited Vang Vieng a few months ago and she recommended that we gorge on the delicious mulberries that are fresh and ripe. I loved it all so much that I ate that exact breakfast every day I spent in Vang Vieng. We should totally eat more mulberries in the U.S.
- The best spot for mulberry foods is at the Organic Farm itself. But several restaurants in town also offer the creative combinations so you can check around.
- Many of the Friends cafes and Family Guy marathon watching sessions disappeared with the party scene. But in its place are delightful restaurants that have better food and a range of options. Instead of the standard fare of lousy pizza and burgers, eating in Vang Vieng is actually a tasty opportunity.
- Head to the Vieng Thara Guesthouse Cafe for a morning coffee, skip the Luang Prabang Bakery in town.
- On your outings, plan for a lunch at the Lao Valhalla Guesthouse — it’s tasty local Lao cuisine and some of the best you’ll sample in Vang Vieng.
- For a vestige of the once famous party scene, head to Sakura for an evening on the town. This is where you’ll find the backpackers each evening, and they tend to also head to Gary’s Irish Bar at some point in the evening.
Quick Tips: Vang Vieng, Laos
Visiting Vang Vieng now is a very different experience than at the heyday of the backpacker scene. Although you’ll meet backpackers lamenting the loss of the ritual and debauchery, the town left in the wake of this change is actually quite lovely. You’ll need a recent Laos guidebook to understand the options in Laos since it’s all changed so quickly, but my memories of this pretty Laotian town are among my favorites from my months in Laos.
Where to Sleep: I recommend using Agoda, it’s the best booking site in Southeast Asia and I use it fairly exclusively in that part of the world. Although there are hostels, it’s not really needed to book a hostel because the guesthouses are so affordable. And if you’re traveling with a partner, Airbnb is in Laos and you can find truly gorgeous, budget spots in Vang Vieng on that site. (For specific guesthouse recommendations, scroll to the bottom of this post, or read my page on how I pick out my accommodation when I travel).
Insurance: If you’re doing a physically adventurous activity, make sure you have a travel insurance that covers accidents since Laos is very rural and you will require transfer to Thailand in the event of a major medical emergency. This travel insurance review shares which companies I use and why I picked them.