01 Feb Cleaning Up in Vang Vieng Laos
Tubing in Vang Vieng, Laos – does the phrase conjure up images of drunken young backpackers partying on riverbanks under the sun and throwing themselves off rope swings into the water? Well, it certainly did for me before we visited Laos. I’d heard too much about intoxicated or perhaps just plain-stupid travellers injuring and even killing themselves during tubing trips in Vang Vieng to ever want to visit the place myself – it seemed the very epitome of bad tourism.
Last summer things got so awful in Vang Vieng following a recorded 27 tubing-related deaths in 2011 and at least seven in 2012* that the Laos government stepped in to clean up the mess. Riverside bars were dismantled and tubing once again became about floating lazily down the Nam Song River, taking in incredible views of the surrounding limestone peaks instead of getting off your face. So is it safe to visit Vang Vieng now? Andrew and I thought we’d give it a try.
Tubing in Vang Vieng: Then and Now
Before the clean-up operation, Vang Vieng was often touted as the ‘Party Capital of South East Asia’. The gentle pastime of floating down the river in old inner tubes unwittingly transformed the once peaceful farming village of Vang Vieng into a well-established backpacker hotspot, with an estimated 170,000 tourists visiting each year by 2012*.
Articles like this one by blogger Adventurous Kate paint a vivid picture of what tubing used to entail; dozens of dubious rope swings and water slides lined the bank alongside bars blasting music and offering free shots – tubing seemed to be less about actually floating down the river and more about getting drunk in the bars. The lack of safety standards and regulations coupled with young backpackers away from home and out to party resulted in frequent accidents and fatalities – the true figures of which no one seems to know.
As we sat eating breakfast one day in Vang Vieng, we got chatting to a Laos guesthouse owner who’d witnessed first-hand the effects of the old tubing culture. While locals were making good money from the boom in tourism, he told us, they were disturbed by the deaths and injuries which occurred primarily from people jumping into shallow, rocky water or drowning. It was also difficult for the modest Laos people to see half-naked tourists wandering around town and to put up with their constant noise and partying.
“It was so noisy that I often couldn’t sleep; I’d just sit out here all night. Now, it’s very quiet in Vang Vieng and people come here for the nature instead,” the guesthouse owner told us, gesturing towards the limestone mountains across the river.
Our Tubing Experience in Vang Vieng Laos
The ghostly remnants of tubing culture are still visible in Vang Vieng today. Bars in town still play loud music or incessant repeats of Friends at all hours of the day, restaurants continue to advertise Happy Pizzas or Mushroom Shakes and there are still a fair few backpackers out to party. It’s hard not to notice though just how empty the town feels; restaurants and hotels which must have been packed to bursting during the tubing heyday now court a dozen or so visitors at a time and the many businesses in Vang Vieng must be finding it much harder to survive. Hopefully, in time more tourists will return to Vang Vieng for the right reasons; to enjoy the scenery and the river.
Although Andrew and I found the atmosphere in Vang Vieng strange and were put off by all the bars, we were awed by the beautiful surroundings. On the second day of our visit we rented tubes from a shop in town and were driven four kilometres up river to begin our journey, accompanied by three girls clutching bottles of Beer Lao, seemingly intent on keeping the old tubing spirit alive.
Since it was dry season the sun was hot and the river was at its shallowest and slowest; it would take us two hours to float back to town. Settling into our tubes we set off under the blinding sun and within minutes we heard the ominous heavy thump of music in the distance puncturing the afternoon peace. As we sped closer three men called out to us from a wooden pier next to a deserted ramshackle bar, they held a rope to tow us in with, promising free shots and cheap beer.
Declining, Andrew and I floated onwards, relieved to find this was the first and last noisy bar we came across during our tubing trip. Although there are a couple more quiet restaurants on the riverside, all evidence of the dangerous rope swings and water slides of yesteryear have disappeared. Aside from the girls at the start of our journey who’d gotten off at the first bar, we saw only two other tubers while we were on the river, a pair of middle-aged Spanish women.
We craned our necks upwards towards the sky as we drifted onwards, watching clouds sail above the mountains and fields. Our journey took us past a local man fishing with his son in the shallows and a woman herding cows along the bank while a small group of tourists cut by us in kayaks. A bright-pink dragonfly landed on my knee and the time passed slowly and dreamily until we arrived back in town; our peaceful tubing experience at an end.
Pin Me For Later!
*Sources: The Guardian, Sydney Morning Herald
We think Vang Vieng is a great example of how bad tourism can be cleaned-up, what do you think?
PattiPosted at 06:38h, 01 February
Tubing is so much fun, we haven’t done it for years (and years) but your experience sounds lovely. Isn’t it a shame when the wrong way of doing things takes on a life of its own and everyone else has to pay the price? I’m glad you feel as if things are on the mend. As always, I enjoy reading your adventures! Pretty tough life you have, tubing, foot massages, great food!! Good for you!
AndrewPosted at 06:43h, 01 February
Thanks Patti, sadly the ‘great food’ seems to have made Amy a bit sick at the moment though. 🙁 We really hope that the tubing stays the way it is now in Vang Vieng since it was such a peaceful experience.
JoPosted at 23:46h, 01 February
Get well soon, Amy. Great post. Good to know the tubing scene has changed for the better.
AmyPosted at 03:51h, 02 February
Thanks Jo,nice to hear from you 🙂 You would have enjoyed Vang Vieng, the river and the surrounding countryside was beautiful.
Steph (@ 20 Years Hence)Posted at 10:41h, 01 February
It’s weird for me to admit this, but when we were still in the planning phases of our trip, if you had asked me the one thing I was the most excited to do, I probably would have mentioned tubing in Vang Vieng. I wasn’t at all interested in the party scene, but something about the thought of lazily floating down a river in a tube was really appealing. I’m glad the tradition has survived in a far more low-key format, and I think I’ll probably enjoy the experience a lot more now than I would have 2 years ago!
AmyPosted at 03:57h, 02 February
Hi Steph, I think that the tubing situation in Vang Vieng now is much better, I hope you get to visit when you’re in Laos. We’re currently in 4,000 islands and you can rent tubes here too, it’s also a nice peaceful place to float down the river.
Jamie NewmanPosted at 05:55h, 02 February
My wife and I have just recently left Vang Vieng on our journey. We’re now in Luang Prabang. I just wanted to add our thoughts in agreement with you. We knew the back history of Vang Vieng, but would rather judge for ourselves. Boy are we glad we did! There seems to be a nice balance going on in Vang Vieng. If you want to party you can find it, but if nature and adventure is what is what you’re afterafter it’s a simple bicycle rental away. Vang Vieng is simply too beautiful to miss IMO!
Jamie (nomadic) Newman
AmyPosted at 06:02h, 02 February
Hi Jamie, thanks for commenting. I’m glad you had a good time in Vang Vieng; you’re right, there does seem to be a good balance and people can still party there if they want to. I’m glad we didn’t miss out on experiencing the natural beauty of Vang Vieng. Hope you have a great time in Luang Prabang – we absolutely loved it there, be sure to check out Kuang Si waterfall, it’s spectacular!
KerriPosted at 05:06h, 03 February
The pictures make Vang Vieng look really pretty. Hopefully the changes made will be sustainable and the temptation for $$$ will not win out in the long run. Laos is on our list of places to visit. What do you think about Vang Vieng float for children?
AmyPosted at 05:52h, 03 February
Hi Kerri, we were there in November, it was dry season so the river was slow and I’d say tubing was pretty safe for children as long as they have life jackets and are accompanied by a parent. I’ve heard that it can be a bit rougher in wet season though, I know the guys from World Travel Family went there in July/August and the kids went tubing, they said the water was pretty rough – here’s their post about taking kids to Vang Vieng.
CatherinePosted at 13:19h, 03 February
Sounds like you had such a lovely, peaceful day 🙂 It’s great that managed to turn the area around.
AmyPosted at 14:48h, 03 February
Hi Catherine, we certainly did have a peaceful day! I’d definitely recommend a visit to Vang Vieng.
Les / The Indie TravellerPosted at 16:00h, 10 February
I went to Vang Vieng back in 2011 I think it was, in January. Those were the crazy times with no health and safety regulations. I was in the middle of a long backpacking tour through the countryside of SE Asia and Vang Vieng is where I took a break. Decided to relax and go with the flow. So I joined a crowd of backpackers and … I had a blast! Honestly, I realised how many dangers there were, home made slides, swings etc. Ones that looked way to dodgy I avoided, but I did use some. And it was fun fun fun. There was no trouble, no brawling, just lots of young people having drinks, dancing, floating down and having the time of their lives. True, there are one who lose some sense of reality and misjudge how safe they think they are or how much alcohol they can take. One of the girls I knew got slipped some drug into her drink at one of the bars. That was seriously bad! However, that could happen in any bar in NYC or London or wherever. So I think people should stay streetwise wherever they go. I know there has been a lot of opposition to tubing in Vang Vieng, despite all the dollars that foreign kids left there. Yet as I said, I enjoyed myself and would probably do it again if I happened to be in the area – all with a good sound common sense of course. Tubing and partying in the bars of Vang Vieng definitely helped me let out some steam after a strenuous month of trekking, heat, back roads and rickety buses and definitely remains a very fond memory of mine. It was a tiring experience though, so when I got offered to go again the following day I politely declined and went to explore the countryside which really interested me and what I had been travelling across before, and was after.
As for peaceful non-party related tubing experience, I had plenty of that in Don Khong, southern Laos, and I admit that it has a lot of charm too.
AmyPosted at 03:46h, 11 February
Hi Les, thanks for commenting, it’s really interesting to hear from someone who was in Vang Vieng during the tubing boom. It sounds like you had a great time; I’m not against people drinking and I would have loved it there when I was a teenager or student (I don’t have the stamina for it these days though)! However, I do think that without any safety regulations it sounds as if the situation in Vang Vieng got out of control. Hopefully more people will come back to tube in Vang Vieng but I hope we don’t see a return of the dangers there were back then. We are currently in Don Khong actually, it’s beautiful here 🙂
Les @ The Indie TravellerPosted at 23:54h, 11 February
That’s awesome – I’m super jealous! Which island you’re on? I rented a little shack on Don Det with a hammock just above the Mekong. Beautiful sunsets and serenity 🙂
As for tubing, I know what you mean about the age. I was in my late 20s but you got this sense of exhilaration there and age didn’t really mattered in the end. But as I already wrote, going once is enough. Besides, me and my mates spent the first 4 hours tubing down the river, having fun, dancing and drinking and when we thought we are well on our way to the end, we realised we can still see the spot where we started! Time flew fast in there and you spent sooo much energy. So yeah… it was fun, done once, for the experience 🙂
AmyPosted at 05:49h, 12 February
Hi Les, we’ve spent the last couple of weeks on Don Det and Don Khong, we also cycled around Don Khon – the scenery was beautiful! Thanks again for sharing your tubing experience 🙂
JuliePosted at 02:17h, 02 April
Thank you for all of the great information. I am just looking into traveling to Laos with my family during an around the world trek. We will most likely be in Laos January or February 2015. Reading your post makes me even more excited for our trip. I am happy to hear that Vang Vieng has cleaned up its act, although I wouldn’t mind having a few drinks myself while relaxing on the river!
AmyPosted at 06:18h, 02 April
Hi Julie, I hope you enjoy Laos and Vang Vieng; it’s still possible to have a few drinks along the river too if you so wish 🙂
HanifPosted at 17:55h, 28 April
Hi! I’m taking it there were no scary things in the water!?
AmyPosted at 03:59h, 01 May
Hi Hanif, we didn’t spot anything scary apart from the murky moat water which we tried to avoid at all costs 🙂
carolPosted at 18:48h, 06 May
As two 48 year old females in 2011, we went tubing 2 days in Vang Vieng. We were the oldest people there by 25 years. We drank at all the bars, had our faces painted, played drinking games and mud volley ball, did all the zip slides etc, danced all day, had a mushroom shake, managed to lose our 6ft tubes, doubled up laughing for houre……had the best day of my life!
AmyPosted at 12:33h, 07 May
Hi Carol, thanks for reading and commenting. I’m glad to hear you had an awesome time in Vang Vieng, it’s interesting to hear people’s experiences from the tubing heyday.
savage travelerPosted at 00:01h, 03 August
I went tubing during the hayday and I would have to say, it was a blast. We went off of zip lines, water slides, rope swings, hung out at the bars and had a great time. It was a party that didn’t end. I am glad I got to experience it before it was over but it is probably best that it has calmed down for many reasons. I went there with the intent of partying my face off and that’s what I did. When I go back, I will be going back for the nature. Great post thanks for sharing
AmyPosted at 17:43h, 03 August
Thanks for commenting, it’s great to hear your thoughts about experiencing tubing during its heyday. We loved the surroundings in Vang Vieng and had a peaceful time there.
AndrewPosted at 22:56h, 28 August
Hope you are enjoying your trip. Oddly I’m in Glasgow, so looking at your latest post, you’re not that far way from me.
I stumbled on your blog having done some research on Vang Vien Tubing for a freind who is thinking about heading to SE Asia in 2015. I was there in 2007, seems like a lifetime ago now, but Vang Vien was definitely one of my highlights. I agree that maybe during the hayday some of the ‘point’ of Vang Vien was missed when the bars were there. I don’t really remember the scenery, but I remember the death slide!
I don’t feel guilty about not appreciating the scenery there though. I took a fairly well trodden path through SE asia and did plenty of temples, museums, historical stuff (Plain of Jars, Don Det etc) and sometimes it’s nice to blow off some steam…
Anyway, no real point to this post other than “happy travels”. Regretted coming home after my trip, so stay on the road as long as you can! Jobs suck!
If you’re still in Scotland, the weather’s supposed to be nice this weekend!
AmyPosted at 06:48h, 29 August
Hi Andrew, thanks for commenting and sharing your experiences of Vang Vieng, it sounds like you had a good time there 🙂 I hope that the town now develops a good balance between bars and partying and sports and nature. We’ve actually just got back to Hanoi in Vietnam now where we’ll be living and teaching English for nine months to replenish our travel fund before we head back out on the road again. We loved Scotland though and hope to go back there next year. Enjoy Glasgow and Happy Travels to you too 🙂
TomPosted at 08:42h, 30 August
Hi i was there in 2005 and I must say it was fantastic everyone happy, but I can quite easily see how people get injured with some of the things they were doing. I don’t know if I was just unlucky but I hit quite a few rocks just floating down there so have to be carefull. I think it’s a shame that a lot of the bars have gone but they certainly needed to do something I’m actually surprised there have not been more fatalities. Enjoy
AmyPosted at 14:10h, 31 August
Hi Tom, we saw a lot of rocks too and it made me shudder to think people used to jump into that water; no wonder there were so many injuries. Hopefully Vang Vieng won’t get into that state again.
Russel BluePosted at 08:25h, 06 September
Great article about VV. After a recent trip there in July, I can safely say the party isn’t over. It’s definitely changed, but it’s still a great day out!
AmyPosted at 08:34h, 06 September
Hi, thanks for commenting, it’s really interesting to hear what Vang Vieng is like now. We were there in November last year and the party scene was very minimal; we only saw two bars on the river while tubing. It sounds like you had a great time 🙂
MillyPosted at 11:37h, 30 September
Myself and my other half were there in 2010 as part f a round the world backpacking holiday, in the heyday of the chaos and had a brilliant time. Yes I drank many beers but I never did the rope swings or zip lines and yes H&S didn’t exist but it seems a shame to have thrown the baby out with the bath water and swung (excuse the pun) to the other extreme as the extra $ must have made life a bit easier on the locals. I can’t think there wasn’t a happy medium to be found rather then stop everything and I’m so pleased we did it (I was 34 at the time so maybe a bit older and a bit wiser then some of the other backpackers). I’m a mum now, would I want my so to have experienced the chaos in some ways yes but we’ll take him when he’s old enough to remember and tell him the tales of how it used to be….
AmyPosted at 14:13h, 30 September
Hi Milly, thanks for reading and sharing your experiences. It sounds like you had a great time but also stayed safe. I agree, it would be nice if there were a happy medium; from what I hear that is now developing in Vang Vieng so I hope it stays that way and doesn’t become too dangerous again 🙂
TomPosted at 15:35h, 25 February
I went in 2012 when it was the ‘old’ Vang Vieng and spent a day tubing, rope swings and all, and it was great fun, it seemed crazy that you were allowed to do all this stuff with no regulation. However it also didn’t quite feel right, and later on I felt quite guilty about being a part of it. Not so much the danger aspect, as I think people should to a certain extent take responsibility for their own safety, but it was so out of kilter with the local culture, and it had turned the town into this sort of zombie place full of half-naked westerners staggering around out of their head, and the bars all showing the same Family Guy and Friends re-runs all day. I’m glad they’ve toned it down a bit as it’s such a stunning part of the country, and has real potential for a more responsible type of tourism – I enjoyed reading about your experience and would love to go back and see what it’s like now, and do the tubing sober!
AmyPosted at 03:48h, 26 February
Hi Tom, thanks for reading and commenting, it’s interesting to hear about your experience tubing in the old days. I hope too that a better balance can be found in Vang Vieng 🙂
YsabellePosted at 22:37h, 26 February
Thank you so much for the great information!! I’ll be in laos this coming april and I’m on my own and can you recommend a location where most backpacker stay and probably near the tubing party? It’s my first time to travel alone and im a female so I wanna hangout with the other backpackers 🙂
AmyPosted at 05:34h, 28 February
Hi Ysabelle, thanks for reading and commenting, I hope you have a great time in Laos. Vang Vieng is a pretty small town so it’s easy to arrive and walk around and look at a few guesthouses before choosing where to stay. We stayed in a quieter spot near the river but you’d probably be better off in the heart of town which is a bit more lively 🙂