MFT gets lots of questions from readers about the current situation in Vang Vieng with regards to the tubing. After receiving varying reports, some suggesting it had almost completely shut down, we decided to give it a visit in November 2015 and see for ourselves.
Latest Update on Tubing in Vang Vieng – November 2015
First things first, tubing is still very possible in Vang Vieng. There is one place in the village close to the river-side which rents out the tubes. They cost 55,0000 Kip (roughly £4.50, €6, US$7) for a day with a 60,000 Kip deposit, which is returned in full provided you return your tube prior to 6:00pm. The price also includes a free tuk-tuk to the start of the tubing route, which is several kilometres up-stream and it takes 5-10 minutes to drive to the top. Tuk-tuks only leave when there are 4 people ready to go though, which can be a problem later in the day but for 20,000 Kip you can scrap the waiting around and get the guy to take you to the top. You can hire tubes out at any time up to 4:00pm but it’s best to go a bit earlier as it takes about 1 hour 30 minutes to tube (time varies depending on speed of the river when you visit) all the way down to the village even without any stops.
The tubing experience itself is now rather more sedate than in yesteryear. In the ‘glory years’ of Vang Vieng, the river was lined with lively bars, enormous rope swings and dodgy looking makeshift slides that kept drunken visitors entertained on the way down. From the mid 2000s onwards it grew to become arguably the biggest backpacker party destination in all of Southeast Asia. However unsurprisingly given that in 2011 alone, it is said that 27 travellers died doing the activity, a rate of over one per fortnight, the Lao government decided to clean up its act and crack-down on the party aspect of tubing in Vang VIeng.
As of November 2015, almost everything has shut down besides the tubing itself. There are still 4 or 5 bars that are open along the route but when we visited only the 1st one was really anything resembling a party with blaring music and a crowd of perhaps 100-200. There was one other bar that had a guy trying to entice tubers in for party vibes but it was almost dead and the other few potentials stops were little more than quiet riverside restaurant/bar places where you could stop for a bite to eat or a drink.
Tubing is back to what it probably was intended to be originally. A relaxing, peaceful way to experience the stunning countryside and limestone hills around Vang Vieng. This will come as a disappointment to many but was almost inevitable giving the alarming statistics.
The river is far from completely deserted though now and the local authorities are making a clear attempt to attract less alcohol-fuelled maniacs and a slightly older, wealthier crowd mostly from other parts of Asia. As you tube along, many groups of kayakers pass by as do other motorised boats giving people tours of the river at a faster pace. Later in the day this is especially true and there has been a noticeable increase in Korean, Japanese and Chinese tourists in recent years as Laos and Vang Vieng tries to broaden its appeal.
The remnants of Vang Vieng’s tubing heyday still linger on though. Deserted, rotting bars that were closed down during the government’s crackdown, still eerily hug the riverside, while plenty of giant rope-swings are still evident but most are tied up to prevent people using them. As for the ominously named ‘death slides’, they have completely disappeared and you won’t find any remnants of them.
As we tubed down the river, we encountered numerous large sharp rocks, just a few cm below the surface but not visible from above given the waters are fairly murky. Just heading slowly and soberly in a rubber ring, you have to be a bit careful so it’s no real surprise that so many injuries occurred from people jumping off swings and flying off slides into the water.
The tubing route still ends back in the village and you get off on the left hand side of the river just before a small footbridge opposite two or three bars perched above the river. It’s only a 2 minute walk from there back to the place where you got your tube, which is also obviously where you return it and get your deposit back. After 6:00pm you will only get a partial refund and after 8:oopm they’ll presume you’ve just lost it. It’s a good idea to walk down to the river to get your bearings before you head up in the tuk-tuk as it isn’t immediately obvious where you need to get off.
The final bar has a large sign saying ‘end of tubing’ and offers promises of free drinks but like most of the others it’s fairly quiet and you don’t have to get off there as the actual ‘end of tubing’ is another few hundred metres down the river.
It’s advisable to carry the bare minimum as there is no special compartment where you can keep things dry and if you carry a bag, you’ll need to carry it on your lap while you tube and it will most certainly get wet, especially in the bumpy parts. Guides leading kayaking tours also seem to find it hilarious to splash tubers so watch out for that.
Therefore don’t carry anything like a mobile phone or camera unless it is waterproof. If you plan on stopping off in the bars then obviously you’ll need to bring some money but if not then you really don’t need anything besides yourself and a swimming costume or some clothes you don’t mind getting wet. You can leave items in the tubing place but it’s better to just show up with the 115,000 Kip you’ll need to pay them and then head off. Walking around town in just a bikini or swimshorts is generally frowned upon though as it’s still a conservative country but many travellers ignore such suggestions.
If you want to stop at some of the bars and make a day of it then certainly leave earlier rather than later. It gets dark quickly around 6:00pm depending the time of the year and as well as making the actual tubing more difficult as the rocks will be impossible to see, you may also not know where to stop after nightfall. You will also fail to get all of your deposit back. 12:00-1:00pm is perhaps the peak time for people to set off.
Finally you shouldn’t assume that tubing is now 100% safe and doing something stupid like jumping in the water from a swing or just the side of the river isn’t a cool idea, especially after your third bucket. There are loads of rocks in the river and you are taking a risk any time you do that as it is impossible to know what lies just beneath the surface.
Practical Info about Vang Vieng
Budget accommodation is plentiful although if you arrive late in the day, then the better places can sell out. There are many backpacker hostels with cheap dorms as well as some riverside bungalows and plenty of cheap guesthouses with decent private rooms. A few bigger hotels have sprung up in recent times and when we visited a couple more were being constructed. There is no need to book accommodation in advance, just walk around town when you arrive and look for somewhere.
It is a small place built around two main roads that run adjacent to the river and the main village sections are no more than 1km in length so you can walk everywhere. It’s very typical of a small touristy town on the backpacker trail in Southeast Asia and comes with everything you might expect. Dozens of street vendors sell pancakes for 10,000 Kip and other cheap tasty snacks, while there is an excessive number of massage parlours, mostly without any customers and there are at least 10 bar/restaurants that just play the US sitcom Friends all day every day.
There are plenty of ATM’s that were all working fine when we visited and plenty of Lao, Thai and international restaurants, with everything from Mexican food to Korean BBQ’s on offer. Nobody goes to Vang Vieng just to visit the town or for an authentic Lao village experience, which it most certainly isn’t. However it has everything you could possibly need and despite an increase in other types of tourists, it still has a real backpacker vibe to it.
There is even a hospital and a few pharmacies although Lao healthcare is not to be relied upon and if you are unfortunate enough to get seriously ill or injured, you’ll probably need to go to Thailand, which is at least 4 hours by road.
Buses and minivans regularly depart South for Vientiane (50,000-60,000 Kip, 4 hours) and North for Luang Prabang (90,000-100,000 Kip, 6-8 hours) which are the next destinations for almost everyone in Vang Vieng. There are also daily direct buses to Udon Thani and Nong Khai in Thailand although you will find it cheaper but more time-consuming to just buy a ticket to Vientiane and then take one of the reasonably regular buses (roughly hourly) that head South of the border from Vientiane Bus Station near the Morning Market in the City Centre.
There are dozens of small travel agencies dotted around town selling bus tickets and tours, while your choice of hostel/guesthouse will almost certainly do likewise. There are small differences in prices so it is worth comparing places before booking.
Is Vang Vieng still a Party Destination?
Yes! There have been numerous posts from the past few years by bloggers offering the latest update on tubing in Vang Vieng and most agree that to some extent the party has just moved from the dangerous river banks and into the town. Party lovers will still find it the liveliest destination in Laos (which isn’t saying much admittedly). Given how small VV is, there are still plenty of choices of where to drink. Lazy riverside bars are the perfect place to chill out in the afternoon, watch the sunset and get ready for the evening. There are few lively bars in town, the most popular of which seems to be Sakura Bar and its famous ‘Drink Triple, See Double, Act Single’ slogan and after a couple of drinks you’ll be the proud owner of one of its cheaply produced t-shirts baring its message.
Like much of sleepy Laos though, most things end early and there’s not a great deal that remains open past midnight including Sakura, which shuts down at 12. There are two clubs in town that are open after that though and they open on alternate nights so there is alway somewhere to go, while on Fridays the Jungle Project, outside of town opens late and includes a 1am fireshow. It offers free tuk-tuks from town but there is a 30,000 Kip cover charge. There also some bars more geared towards locals on the other side of the old airstrip, which you could check out, for a more authentic Lao party.
Despite the crackdown on tubing, the local police authorities still seem to have arrangements in place with some local bars and restaurants, which continue to pretty openly sell drugs. Many of the restaurants boast ‘happy menus’ which serve joints for around 30,000 Kip (roughly US$4), mushroom shakes and pizzas, opium pizzas, happy pizzas, happy omelettes, happy garlic bread and well you get the picture. If that’s your scene, you’ll have fun here but it’s best to consume everything on premises as there are numerous reports of plain-clothed police arresting travellers and threatening them with prison time if they fail to pay a very hefty fine, which basically amounts to a bribe.
Is Vang Vieng just a Tubing/Partying Destination?
No! There is so much more to do in and around Vang Vieng besides tubing and partying and you could easily spend days in the town without doing either. There are also plenty of other activities, trips and little adventures that you can do and most can be done either independently or as part of a tour.
You could easily spend a couple of days exploring some of the countryside around the town. There are plenty of typical Lao villages with really friendly locals that you could visit while there are numerous caves, waterfalls, lagoon and other secluded spots for swimming and relaxing. You can do this by tour of course but you can also just rent out a bicycle, motorbike or even a quadbike and do it all independently with a solid map.
Rock climbing is another popular activity in Vang Vieng and options are growing while for a more chilled out experience, hot air balloons set off on a daily basis and offer stunning views of the area.
Many nearby villages remain barely affected by the tourism boom in Laos and despite a period of political stability, there are still numerous problems in Laos and a fair bit of poverty. There are many volunteering options in the area, the best of which is perhaps the SAE LAO Project is the best with its aim of sustainable development for the local people.
Verdict – Is Vang Vieng still worth Visiting?
Absolutely. There is something for everyone in the Vang Vieng area and it’s still the sort of place you can hang around for a while.
Although the tubing isn’t what it was, in reality it couldn’t have remained that crazy and dangerous forever given the numbers of young people with bright futures who were continually dying as a result of one reckless and usually drunken or drug-fueled day in Laos. The authorities were right to crack down on it, even if their reasons for doing so were probably more to do with concerns over the damage such negative press could do to their international reputation rather than health and safety concerns, which are still rather absent from many aspects of Lao life.
Although if you get wrecked and get in the water, the risks still remain, it’s not as easy to get sucked into the scene and many of the more dangerous elements have been removed. Vang Vieng is a stunning place and even if the party element completely disappears in the future, which you sense is still a fair way off, it is still most certainly worth coming to.
This article was published in November 2015.