When we first turned up in the small town of Vang Vieng, (must have been 92 or 93?), it was as close to paradise as anywhere we’d come across on our backpacker trail across Southeast Asia. An idyllic, bustling little market town for the surrounding Hmong villages and set on the banks of the Song River opposite some of the most picturesque karst scenery to be found in this part of the world.
Locals were all very friendly although they obviously weren’t used to tourists since several of them spoke to us in Russian! (Soviet advisors being the only foreigners they’d seen up until then.) In those days Vang Vieng was nearly the end of the road – the ‘highway’ from Vientiane running out of macadam at Muang Kasi a few clicks further on at the head of the valley – and from there it was an arduous and potentially dangerous dirt track all the way to Luang Prabang.
Ok, maybe it wasn’t totally paradise then since we’d been warned about venturing too far into ‘Indian country’ across the river and trucks heading on to Luang Prabang, (no buses in those days), had to form up into convoys with military escorts in Kasi before venturing any further north. (There were problems with anti-government Hmong guerrillas at the time.)
Seem to remember there being a choice of 2 guesthouses in Vang Vieng at the time and during a stay of 2 days in high season we met an English cyclist, (hi Ian), one Aussie (hey Matt) and a Japanese couple.
The security situation might have been a ropey around the edges but the town and surrounding landscapes were certainly paradisaical yet it seem these days that the scenery’s taken a back seat to the ‘scene’ itself. Backpackers don’t necessarily go there for the limestone features they go there to paaaarty! They don’t go to discover Hmong culture they go to share buckets of ‘vodka Red Bull’ with like-minded ‘travellers’ (sic) from Tel Aviv, Toulouse, Munich or Manchester. Forget the caves – let’s go tubing! Buy the t-shirt, get stoned, get drunk and get laid. If the Gallagher family travelled to Asia they’d go to Vang Vieng!
Ok even cynical old us were backpackers once and who doesn’t like a bit of a party, (and of course everyone has their own perceptions of what paradise should be like), but go and do it somewhere else less idyllic that can’t be ruined, or already has been – like Pai or Ibiza?
Sure a lot of money has flowed into the town along with the tubers but in other ways Vang Vieng has paid dearly for being pretty and will certainly never be the same again.
If you are backpacking around Laos you’ve got to go there – it’s a rite of passage – but just try and consider the locals and local culture: don’t forget to check out the scenery a bit, play safe and show some respect! (Last time we were there we felt compelled to say something to 2 English girls we came across about to ‘visit’ a Hmong village in their bikinis!?)
A silver lining to the over-popularity of Vang Vieng cloud is that it takes the pressure off other small, picturesque, northern Lao towns, so whilst we gave up including Vang Vieng in our Lao itineraries a long while ago, (primarily due to customer feedback), we now include a 2-day stay in the equally spectacular surrounds of Nong Khiaw, so check that out whilst it remains idyllic!
Cheers and sabai dee!