Vang Vieng (ວັງວຽງ) (also Vang Viang) is a riverside town in Central Laos. The main attractions are the river flowing through the spectacularly wild karst formations, laid-back countryside and many caves. Many outdoor tours are available.
Once little more than a bus stop on the long haul 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 a popular stop on the unofficial Banana Pancake Trail.
Anyone who has travelled in Southeast Asia will have heard about tubing, an activity that dominates this town and its visitors. It was opened up by hedonistic backpackers, and the atmosphere of the town is one of lethargy by day and debauchery by night. Tourists sprawl out in the pillow-filled restaurants, termed "TV bars", watching re-runs of US sitcoms, Friends and Family Guy episodes, until the sun goes down, and then party heavily until the early hours.
A couple of kilometres upstream, the pulsating music, drinking games and drug-fuelled debauchery of the increasingly lively riverside "tubing" bars starts at lunchtime. The majority of the bars from the start of tubing back into town have been closed in an attempt to improve safety; 27 tourists died in 2011 while partying on the river. In 2014 the government closed down many of the riverside bars to reduce the dangerously excessive partying. By February 2016 just two bars were open.
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, it can be considered a noisy "backpacker hell", and so those wishing to avoid noisy, selfish teenagers away from their parents for the first time and instead seek something Laotian would do well to either use Vang Vieng only as a base to explore the surrounding countryside or avoid it all together.
Since the 2014, the city has developed into a popular base for outdoor activities. Tour companies are everywhere in the city and offer tubing, cave visits, kayaking, ziplines, swimming in waterfalls, dirt buggies, and combinations thereof.
Tickets for tourist buses and minivans can be purchased at almost every guesthouse and should include pick-up at the hotel.
VIP buses from Vientiane cost about 50,000 kip. Minivans leave Vientiane all day and cost 35,000–50,000 kip. The express bus to Vientiane costs 60,000 kip. Slower local buses to Vientiane without air conditioning run in the early morning (05:30–10:00) and cost about 40,000 kip for a 5-hour journey. You can board them either at the northern bus station or the bus stop south of the airstrip.
From Luang Prabang, VIP buses cost 150,000 kip and minivans cost between 80,000-120,000 kip. If you're susceptible to motion sickness you'll be much better off on the slower bus than the minivan (or bring appropriate medication).
Bus schedule from Vang Vieng
|To||Departs hours||Approximate price (kip)||Duration (hours)||Comments||Last update|
|Vientiane (Songthaew)||Every 20 min||40,000||Jun 2011|
|Vientiane (Local bus)||05:30,06:00,06:30,07:00,12:30,14:00||40,000||Jun 2011|
|Vientiane (Mini)||09:00||60,000||Jun 2011|
|Vientiane(Express bus)||10:30,13:30||60,000||Jun 2011|
|Luang Prabang (Mini)||09:00,14:00||100,000||Jun 2011|
|Luang Prabang (Express)||10:00||90,000||Jun 2011|
|Phonsavan (Mini)||09:30||100,000||Jun 2011|
Hwy 13 is a sealed, two-lane road that is slowly deteriorating. The road between Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang is mountainous and boasts amazing scenery. The road between Vang Vieng and Vientiane is flatter and less interesting.
From the bus station
From Vientiane, buses will drop you off either at the old airstrip (from the Vietnam war, it's now just a giant gravel pad), and the tourist buses will drop you in front of a hotel on the main street in the town. The airstrip is directly behind the main street, so in either case there is no need to take a tuk-tuk or cyclo if you plan to stay in the main area of the town. The island and bungalows along the river are about a 10-min walk away.
Buses from the north Laos arrive at the new bus terminal 2 km north of the town. When leaving Vang Vieng, transport to the bus station is usually included in the price of your ticket.
Vang Vieng is so small that everything is easily reachable on foot.
If you want to venture out of town, bicycles are widely available and can be rented from hotels or local businesses. You should not have to pay more than 15,000 kip for a day's rental.
Motorbike rentals are also available. You can rent a small semi-automatic scooter starting from 40,000 kip (from morning till evening, 60,000 kip for 24 hr) or a dirt bike from 100,000 kip (125cc for a day) to 200,000 kip (150cc for 24 hr). There is a good selection of scooters for instance at M/c Rental (across the street and about 50 m east from Whopping Burger). Always check the condition of the bike and details of the contract before signing anything. At some places you will have to sign a contract which makes you completely responsible if something breaks or fails to function, even if it's normal wear and tear. Also you are not allowed to go out of Vang Vieng District, so don't count on renting a bike here to go on a longer tour of the district.
Several tuk-tuks are also scattered around town. 10,000 kip per person will be plenty to get to anywhere within Vang Vieng. It's also the price you'll pay to get to the tubing bars irrespective of how many other people are on board. It's better to sort out exact change with fellow passengers as tuk-tuk drivers are notorious for giving incorrect change.
To rent a tuk-tuk for the whole day costs about 130,000–150,000 kip.
The Hobo Map for Vang Vieng is excellent and shows the dirt roads and sites worth seeing. It can be purchased in few places in the town (Elephant Crossing Hotel, Maylyn Guest House, Pan's Place, Riverside Tours, Silver Naga Hotel, VLT Tour).
- 1 Padeng Cave and Ring Cave (cross a footbridge over the river, follow the signs and white flags (garbage bags) on sticks through the field). Across the river a 1.5-km path marked by white flags cuts through the fields towards the limestone mountains. The smallest hill has very rickety ladders, and somewhat dangerous, to aid in climbing to the top. Halfway up the mountain is a cave. Another 1 km along the path past the mountain goes through a small forest and arrives at a cave. A few sleepy Laotians guard the cave's entrance and will only charge 10,000 kip. However, on exit, they'll ask for 50,000 kip for the guide and 50,000 kip per lamp. A couple of men carving reeds with machetes are nearby so negotiation may be difficult. 10,000 kip for the hill, 10,000 kip for the cave, 50,000 kip for a guide and 50,000 kip to rent a torch.
- 2 Tham Poukham (Blue Lagoon) (7 km W of town, maps provided where you can rent bicycles, accessible by bicycle or motorbike). 08:00-18:00. A spring-fed lagoon at the bottom of "Golden Cave". Nice place to relax, swim and play on the rope swing. The waters are inhabited by a few hundred carp that will eat locally sold fish food out of your hand. The cave above requires a modest 100-m hike up a makeshift bamboo ladder. Once inside, there is a short walk to the Sleeping Golden Buddha and glimmering stalactites about 300 m further inside. 10,000 kip entry and 10,000 kip to rent a head-torch, recommended if you go deeper into the cave than the Buddha. Guides for the cave are advertised at 50,000 kip. A number of imposters claim to be the Blue Lagoon — keep to the main road and you should be OK.
- 3 Bicycle drink stop towards Blue Lagoon. A couple of small shops on scenic hill, selling drinks and simple meals en route to Blue Lagoon and several caves. Also mechanic shop providing bike tire air and possible repairs. Also, this is the starting point for hiking up to Pha Ngeun Peak.
- 4 Sunset Hill / Pha Ngeun (cross the river and take the westward dirt road to the Blue Lagoon; after around 3 km, in the village of Phone Ngeun, turn right at the "Sunset Hill" sign; the entrance is some 200 m further on the left side). An extremely steep half-hour hike that offers a fantastic 360° view over the surrounding valley and karst mountains. The trail is in excellent condition, with steps, banisters, fences and cables on the more dangerous parts. Bring adequate footwear. Try to be at the entrance at around 16:00-16:30, so you reach the summit on time for the breathtaking sunset. 10,000 kip.
- Xang Cave (on the S end of the main road. Turn right at the sign to Jam Mee Guesthouse). Decent cave but not worth the 15,000 kip entrance fee plus 2,000 kip per person/3,000 kip per motorbike bridge crossing fee. The cave is well lit and has stairs running throughout that makes it an easy self-guided tour. One part has a really nice view of the farms surrounding the city. If you've been to other caves it's really not worth the money as it's similar but more expensive.
- 5 Nang Oua Kham Cave (On the way to 'Blue Lagoon' turn left after Phone Ngeun village. There is a sign to 'Nang Oua Kham Cave, 8 km'. After around 4nbsp;km you come to an intersection where you turn right. The sign tells there is 1 km left but actually it's around another 4 km. After about 3 km you see third sign where you turn left. The last part is a small dirt road with one easy shallow water river crossing. After the river keep right and go straight across the field and you will see a fence and a sign written in Lao.). Very nice cave and superior to the one at Blue Lagoon. You might feel the entrance a bit tight at first time but when you get past that most parts are easy to walk. There is mud and water so be prepared if you wish to explore all the cave. Price includes head lamp. 10,000 kip.
- Kayaking. This covers the same part of the river as tubing (and a more untouched part further upriver). Kayaking includes lunch and different caves. Some of the caves takes more than an hour to walk through, with bats and other creatures.
- 1 Teach English to local children with EEFA (3 km N of Vang Vieng, close to where the main tubing run commences), ✉ email@example.com. Equal Education For All (EEFA) runs afterschool English classes for local children in Northern and Western villages of Vang Vieng. They are always looking for volunteers who can ideally stay for a month at least, but if you've only got a couple of days then it's better than nothing. Anyone is welcome to observe the classes, participate and contribute in any way you can. Look for Alex at Vang Vieng Organic Farm or message Equal Education For All on Facebook.
- 2 Organic Farm (3 km N of Vang Vieng, close to where the main tubing run commences). There's an organic farm that offers volunteering opportunities. It is noise-free until about 11:00 and again when the last revelers go back to town at about 18:00 as its location beside the river is also used as the starting point for tubing and the first tubing bars are nearby. If going tubing this is an option for a healthy lunch prior to commencing your tubing adventure. The organic farm has dormitory (30,000 kip), budget and more luxurious rooms for rent. They teach the village children, build mud brick buildings, learn/teach farming, eat organic food and go to sleep at 22:00. The farm has also a kitchen and sells organic food.
- River Swings. Playing on the very high swings over the river and sliding on a slide. Be careful. Perforated eardrums, broken ribs and permanent hearing damage are common injuries resulting from going the wrong way. Also foot injuries from hitting rocks, and sometimes death when going head first or falling off platforms when drunk. The local hospital is not equipped to diagnose or treat these serious injuries. Vientiane has the closest (if Spartan) EMT facility but no English speaking specialists, so you may have to travel to Udon Thani (Thailand) for treatment. All the rope swings and slides have now been removed for safely reasons.
- 3 Tubing. 12:00-14:00 is a reasonable time to go because earlier everyone else would be still asleep. Look at the magnificent view of the mountains rising directly beside the river. Tubes have to be back by 18:00 or you lose 20,000 kip from your deposit. In winter it gets a bit cold from 16:00, so start early. The Organic Farm is a nice place for lunch before commencing tubing). Beware of tubes getting stolen while stopping at bars, you may lose your deposit and the ride down. Tubes get stacked up at each bar so keep an eye on how many are left, especially at the first few bars where lots of people arrive without their own tube. If you're not used to drinking liquor, stick with beer and for reasons of safety and common sense consider avoiding alcohol completely if entering the water. As of 2016, only 2 bars remain open, and both are fairly close to the beginning of the tubing. Consequently, many people stop at the last bar and drink until night-time, then take a tuk-tuk back into town. During rainy season there is more water in the river and eye infections are common. You can hire dry bags (hire for 15,000 kip or buy own nearby for 50,000 kip), but they may not be of the best quality. Cameras can get ruined by faulty bags, so if in doubt, don't bring your camera. 55,000 kip for the tube + 60,000 kip deposit.
- 4 Sae Lao Organic Garden & Restaurant (200 m before Blue Lagoon). You can visit this organic garden and restaurant just before or after your visit to the Blue Lagoon. They also undertake eco projects to try and protect the natural environment in the Vang Vieng region, and you can volunteer.
- 5 Tham Nam Cave (the Water Cave) (15 km north of Vang Vieng is the village of Nadao where you will see a yellow "Natural tourism source" sign (which will mention Elephant cave and Water cave as well), with a rural road going to the left. Follow this road, after 1 km there will be a bridge. After crossing it go through the village, then turn left at the T-junction, then turn right at the small stream. It is just 200 m from there). The main attraction is to go tubing into the cave. It is really huge, taking 15-30 minutes to get to the end, and then the same time to get back. There are two ropes inside the cave, be sure to follow both. Water is rather cold, but bearable. There is also a zipline at the cave entrance. 10,000 kip for tube and head torch, 10,000 kip to cross the bridge (although you can swim across the river), 3,000 kip for parking a motorbike or a bicycle.
The small shops scattered throughout Vang Vieng sell the standard assortment of snacks, trinkets, sunglasses and bathing suits. The majority of tourists seem to leave with at least one T-shirt, vest, or dress with "In the Tubing - Vang Vieng" emblazoned on it.
Prices for tourist packages are quoted in both kip and US dollars. Restaurants, hotels, and pretty much everything else is priced in kip. Most places will accept kip, Thai baht and US dollars for larger purchases.
There are several ATMs that now take all major credit cards, but are known for running out of cash. Some tourists have reported only being able to use cards on the Maestro (MasterCard) network.
The Lao Development Bank changes money at good rates and processes cash advances. BCEL will also do cash advances on credit cards.
- 1 BCEL bank. Biggest bank building in town. Therefore safe bet for ATM withdrawals, especially during bank opening hours. Also offer good rates for money exchange on 2nd floor.
The numerous TV restaurants are interchangeable and all have a similar theme. When it comes to Wi-Fi 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 servings 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 gastrointestinal 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.
Many restaurants used to offer "happy" shakes and pizzas, although this practice is slowly disappearing. While this may be obvious to many, any food or drink with the words "happy", "special" or "ecstatic" will contain an undetermined amount of marijuana or magic mushrooms. There may also be plain-clothes police men around in the city watching out for tourists smoking weed and giving them hefty fines.
- Pan's Place Guesthouse (Pan's Place Restaurant) (on the main street 300 m S of the centre), ☏ . 07:00-23:00. Western-style menu. All-day English breakfast, spaghetti Bolognese, beef goulash, cottage pie, fresh fruit shakes, snacks and drinks. Helpful, friendly staff with Lao/Thai management and English reception.
- Peeping Som's Restaurant (Main Rd just past Wat Kang, next to Chillao Guesthouse). Korean and Lao (Sindaad) barbecue. Very popular.
- DK3 - Milan Pizza. Pizza for 50,000 kip.
- 1 The Green Restaurant (next to the bamboo bridge toward the island, in front of Aussie Bar). 06:30 - 23:00. Large menu with western and lao food for decent price. Great for breakfast. Serving can be a bit slow when busy. Great view. 15-50,000 kip (2017).
- 2 Gary's Irish Bar (The Irish Bar), ☏ . Pub food with homemade pies and burgers for 40,000 kip.
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 7-Up or Pepsi, lime and Red Bull.
There are eight bars within the first kilometre of the tubing route. Alternately, four of them open daily, two on each side of the river.
Beerlao 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.
- 1 Sakura Bar (In the village centre), ☏ , ✉ firstname.lastname@example.org. Popular backpacker party bar jointly managed by a Lao-Filipino couple. The bar is famous for its 'drink triple, see double, act single' singlets sported by backpackers across Southeast Asia which you can get for free for every purchase of two vodka drinks. It is the busiest nightspot in town with beer pong, dance floor and happy hour promos every night.
- Fat Monkey's. Popular backpacker party bar. Gets drunk and wild every night. Free beer pong, cheap drinks, very lively. Closes at midnight, as most bars in town.
- Kiwi Sports Bar (Between the hospital and Pan's Place Guesthouse), ☏ . The cheapest beer in town. Play your own music. Free pool, dartboard, Internet, whisky shots and sports on a 60" LCD. Excellent variety of Italian and Lao food. Also has mountain bikes for rent.
- 2 Jaydee's Bar. Free pool, table football, dartboard and wifi. The beer is a bit more expensive than elsewhere around town (15,000 kip), but this is compensated by the great atmosphere and friendly service. Bartenders Macky and Jaydee have a couple of funny serving tricks. Lao-Lao shots are usually served for free with each purchase, and even without them. Closes at midnight.
- Q-Bar (On the main street). A "club" environment. Depending on the revolving staff of Westerners they play Dnb, dubstep and pop. Open for food all day, and closes between 24:00-01:00 depending on the numbers.
- 3 Gary's Irish Bar - The Rising Sun, ☏ . The only Irish pub in Vang Vieng. Regular live music, 2 free pool tables and 3 TVs showing live sport. Cold beers and homemade pies. They play music extremely loudly at night; bring earplugs.
For serious drinking, the bars referred to collectively as The Island, reached via some ramshackle bamboo and wood bridges, are where most of the tubers end up after a day on the river, particularly after the bars in town start to close. The Sandwich Pancake pushers hover in a long line as people stumble over the bridge, waiting to prey on drunken Western tourists. But be aware of trying to buy eye drops for sudden onset conjunctivitis around this area. Stories abound of people being drunkenly extorted as much as 5x the normal price for treatment for their conjunctivitis.
As of 2015, there are only two bars open on the former party island. One, River View Guest house, has a stretch of low wooden tables along the river next to the restaurant. Theè is another bar at the north end of the island that is mainly a sunset place which closes early.
There are now a couple of halfway-decent mid-range hotels and attempts at boutique-style residences.
Generally though, double rooms go for USD6-15, make sure you see the room (and bath) before paying. More local, low-key (which is pretty low-key in Vang Vieng to start with) places are by the market and more shiny set ups are on the main road. The party crowd tend to advocate choosing a bungalow on the island, but expect it to be quite noisy if you want to sleep during the night.
Most guesthouses have large TV-viewing areas, practically coated in the Southeast Asia signature triangular cushions, where they serve food. But be forewarned - you'll be hard pressed to find a place screening something other than the US sitcoms Friends and Family Guy.
Due to problems with ownership and corruption, backpackers are advised to stay away from Spicy Laos VV and LPB Hostels. (Spicy Thai is still successful.)
- Bee Bee Guest House (near the end of the main bar street). Full of character. Rooms are clean and spacious and the family that runs this guesthouse speaks English and are always ready to help. Free Wi-Fi, all rooms have hot showers en suite, drinking water and supplies tourist information. Great roof views from the balconies, safe rooms and at a good price.
- Babylon Guesthouse. An established inimitable accommodation that's either loved or not. Free Wi-Fi and Internet for guests and a downstairs bar and organic restaurant. Politically incorrect jokes are a must and the English speaking staff are helpful. All rooms have hot showers en suite. Great roof terrace views.
- 1 Central Backpackers (on the main road between Q-Bar and the VIP bus stop), ☏ , , ✉ email@example.com. In the centre of Vang Vieng and a 2-min walk away from the tubing starting point. It has clean, cheap and safe rooms (doubles, twins, triples & dorms) with safety lockers. Good food available, friendly English speaking staff and big chill out area with table football, dartboard, drinking-related activities, water pipes (shisha, hookahs, nargila) and regular screening of TV shows & live sports. Free Wi-Fi. From 40,000 kip.
- Champa Lao Bungalow. Cheap huts on the island downstairs with river view. Friendly local family and traditional-style rooms. Mountain view from the wooden porch with hammock upstairs priced at between 40,000-70,000 kip. Breakfast included, tasty food and free Wi-Fi. 100,000 kip.
- Champa Lao Villa. Nice garden, tasty food, nice rooms. Breakfast included and free Wi-Fi. first price at USD24; family rooms 200,000-250,000 kip.
- Chanhthala Guest House. Check-out: 11:30. Free Wi-Fi, towel and soap. 25,000-50,000 kip.
- Chillao (on the main road N of Q Bar), ☏ , ✉ firstname.lastname@example.org. Check-out: 12:00. Centrally located, social hostel offering dorms and some of the cheapest single rooms in Vang Vieng. Adequately clean despite the rather unorthodox plumbing, dorm rooms have broken lockers, free Wi-Fi. 20,000-70,000 kip.
- The Elephant Crossing Hotel. Small hotel. All the rooms have a view of the river, with a restaurant right on the river. Good selection of food and beer. Free Wi-Fi. USD30-50.
- Greenview Bungalows and Restaurant (across the road from the Phoudindeng Organic Farm), ☏ , . Khamsone and his wife, Some, offer comfortable, clean bungalows with hot showers, great Lao food, and occasional campfires and singalongs. A great place to escape the noise of the centre. Bicycle and motorbike rentals available. Bungalows with double beds, 70,000 kip; double rooms, 40,000 kip.
- Jammee Guesthouse, Ban Meung Song, ☏ , ✉ email@example.com. On the quiet end of Vang Vieng village, but still within walking distance of the town centre with all the party activities. The surrounding views are stunning, the place is quiet and offers comfortable, large rooms, all with private bathroom, hot shower, and either king or queen size beds or twin singles all with innerspring mattresses. All the rooms have a veranda or a secured balcony with mountain views. Also a dormitory is available with free mosquito nets provided. Free Wi-Fi is available in all rooms and throughout the guesthouse. Water, coffee, tea and bananas, pickup service are all inclusive.
- Le Jardin Organique. Away from the party in a nice location with lovely rooms. Hot water doesn't get hot and some find the owners are difficult to deal with. USD18 for bungalows with hot water.
- Laos Haven, 047 Ban Vieng Kaew (end of the main street, 3 blocks from city centre), ☏ . Looks gorgeous from the outside. No dorm booking available. The family running the hotel are very helpful. Booking kayaking and other adventures through the manager may be cheaper than some other hotels/agents. 190,000 kip/triple.
- 2 Nam Song Garden. Lao-born Malay's and Norwegian Arne's place. Great view over the mountains from the shaded garden. Free 24-hour Wi-Fi, towel, water refill, in-room safes. Book exchange. Fan rooms and bungalows from 80,000 kip (May 2017).
- Nana Guesthouse (S end of main street). 3-storey, simple guest house. Friendly family-run staff, hot showers, a fourth-storey balcony and laundry. Good for sleeping away from the raucousness further north.
- Pans Place Guesthouse (on the main street). Clean rooms in a quiet location, 300 km from the centre of town and 200 m from the river. Restaurant open from 07:00 till late, snacks and meals, internet cafe, with discount rates for guests. TV room with cable TV and DVDs, Communal balcony with views of the mountains and sunsets, Laundry service, free drinking water. All rooms have fans, comfortable beds and are mosquito-proofed.
- Phoudingdeang Organic Farm (3 km N of Vang Vieng). Peaceful and serene, an employer of orphans, mountain views. Simple short-term rooms, long-term residences in adobe houses.
- Sengdeuan Guest House (just past the Kangaroo Sunset bar), ☏ . Check-out: 12:00. All rooms come with towels, soap, bottled water & toilet paper. The private pool in the garden has water in it from Feb-Nov. A great place to learn about the history of the area and the Hmong people. Fan rooms with own bathroom, 40,000/50,000 kip; air-con, 90,000 kip.
- Tony Guesthouse (S end of main street, just after Nana Guesthouse), ☏ , . Friendly family-run guesthouse. Large, clean and renovated rooms, probably one of the best values in town. Laundry service available and free Wi-Fi. From 60,000 kip with private bath.
- Villa Vang Vieng Riverside (Near the Kangaroo Sunset bar and the toll bridge), ☏ , ✉ firstname.lastname@example.org. On the river, with a great view. Buildings and rooms in Lao-style. Fast free Wi-Fi. USD30-50, with breakfast.
- 3 Malany Villa & bus stop, main street. This is where the mini buses stop. Therefore this is likely to be the first place to stay you will see.
- Molina Bungalows, main street. Small, clean bungalows in a local families backyard. air-con and free wifi. Approx. 80,000 kip.
Thousands of tourists pass through Vang Vieng without incident every year, but the combination of outdoor activities, drink and drugs still makes it one of South East Asia's most dangerous destinations for travellers.
Even the town's main street can injure the unwary traveller: you'll need to watch out for the large holes in the pavement through to the drainage ditch below as they are not fenced off.
The medical care available in the town's hospital is rudimentary at best - for serious injuries you'll want to go to Vientiane, or better still, Thailand.
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 hard liquor 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 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.
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 the stone-cold sober should avoid sapping their strength by swimming against it. It should be easy enough to swim across to shallower water instead.
Historically accepted drugs, such as marijuana, mushrooms and opium are freely available in many bars and restaurants around town. The majority of bars have "magic menus" offering most of these drugs. Consuming them on the premises is fairly safe, although drugs are illegal in Laos and nothing is totally safe.
Yaa-baa (ยาบ้า), the Thai/Lao name for a narcotic made of methamphetamine and caffeine, is available in pill and smokeable forms. It was formerly legal in Thailand as a way for long-haul truckers to stay awake. Yaa-baa is highly addictive. Manufactured locally, the drug can be cut with any number of substances.
Aside from the drugs already mentioned it is inadvisable to attempt to purchase any other substances not freely available on the magic menus around town. The dangers of most drugs should be well-known to travellers, and additionally there is also a police presence. Plain-clothed policemen frequently take unsuspecting tourists to the local police station for smoking a joint. The usual outcome of this involves having your passport seized until you cough up a hefty "fine", typically between 3-5 million kip. Once the fine is paid, however, the matter is generally taken no further and the passport returned. But the punishment will depend on the officer you are dealing with. Several local policemen are best friends and drinking buddies with restaurateurs who sell opium, mushrooms, cannabis and yaa-baa. Customers are not harassed at these establishments. The police wait until they leave. Some of these same cops own guesthouses near the island. Never surrender your passport if you can help it, and often the best way out of the situation is simply to pay.
A minor annoyance around Vang Vieng (referred to by locals and long-time residents as the "Vang Vieng plague") is conjunctivitis, or pink eye. This is a viral, and sometimes bacterial, infection which can be caught from the river or other tubers. The onset of conjunctivitis is often felt as an unnatural tiredness, and inability to properly fully open your eyes. If you sense this, or have been sharing buckets with people with conjunctivitis or wearing sunglasses at night, the best thing to do is shell out for eye drops as soon as possible to prevent the onset. If this should happen late at night, be aware that eye drops alone should cost a maximum of 20,000 kip. Some of the late night pharmacies attempt to extort tourists, charging up to 5 times the normal price for eye drops.
As well as eye drops, general antibiotics are available from any pharmacy. In some cases eye drops will cause an intense stinging sensation, this can be soothed with an eye bath formula also available at pharmacies. Of course the sensible solution would be to rest your eyes and ease the drinking, but Vang Vieng's non-stop party atmosphere makes this a hard option for most. Should your conjunctivitis last longer than a week you should probably seek proper medical advice, and stop drinking all that Tiger Whisky to give your body time to heal.
When tubing home late and its getting cold and dark, there are taxi boats who offer to take you home for a price of around 10,000 kip each. These boats will just take you to some place and stop there, refusing to continue. They tie up the boat, take away the engine and go away, waiting for you to get out and grab a waiting tuk-tuk for a high price back home, because they know that you are freezing and want to take back your tube. If you don't want to pay the tuk-tuk, the only way to get home is to walk.
It's common for places offering laundry service (priced per kg) to 'rig' their weighing scales so that your bag of dirty clothes suddenly weighs (and costs) twice as much or more!
Internet speed and reliability is variable but not bad by Laos standards. There are a few Internet cafes around town. Most guesthouses and restaurants now offer free Wi-Fi for their customers.
- Babylon Bar, has the fastest free Wi-Fi
- Pan's place, has qood quality Internet
- Sakura, has qood quality Wi-Fi (20,000 kip minimum spend)
- Luang Prabang and Vientiane are normally the next stop, depending on the direction you're heading.
- Rent out a motorbike and venture into Xaisomboun Province
- The adventurous can make their way Vientiane down the river by kayak. The trip should leave in the early morning, placing you in the capital by 18:00. For your belongings, dry bags are available or you can opt to place them in the accompanying van which will take them along and carry you at least part of the way. Expect to pay 170,000-220,000 kip
- You can book trips all the way to Bangkok (via Vientiane) but since you'll change mode of transport (there are excellent sleeper trains running from the Thai border town of Nong Khai) at least once anyway it's just as easy to arrange this trip at your own pace.
- Travel agents will be willing to book you to anywhere in Thailand, but expect some very long bus journeys and probably several bus changes.
- Buses to Vietnam are notorious for taking even longer than expected and being a really unpleasant experience.