Vang Vieng, situated halfway between the cities of Vientiane and Luang Prabang is called by one web site as being a ‘a backpackers’ secret’. Oh well, 90% of the tourists visiting Northern Laos end up in Vang Vieng for a day or two. Ooops, there goes the secret…
Therefore, Vang Vieng is in fact a streamlined tourist factory, where the prices are fixed by various cartels: Fried rice comes at 20’000 Kip (U$ 2.50), Internet does cost 300 Kip/minute (18’000 Kip/hour – U$ 2.25) and even prices for T-Shirts are fixed and thus non-negotiable. In fact, businesses in Vang Vieng don’t have room to bargain. They do prefer to loose a sale instead. On the other hand, slight overcharging is common: This was the only city where we had to constantly check the bills and the change obtained. Several times, the salesmen and barkeepers apologized. This is very uncommon for the rest of Laos that we had visited prior to Vang Vieng.
Consequently, the main attraction in Vang Vieng are tourists – not local tribes. We found dozens of tourist restaurants having several strategically placed television sets hanging from ceilings. This makes sure, that the clients won’t miss a bit of the action on the screen, wherever they sit. It is actually hard to find a place, where you can drink or eat without such an entertainment backdrop. Usually, I don’t really mind drinking a beer watching with one eye a football game on the big screen. But Vang Vieng is different: The majority of the television sets show re-runs of ‘Friends‘ exclusively (try searching Google for “Watching Friends in Vang Vieng” and you’ll get the picture by reading through other travellers’ blogs).
Although I used to be a fan of this television series – watching the crowds fixated to the telly screens is both absurd and scaring. I came to the conclusion that the “Friends” series is bad for kids, since it obviously pushes subliminal images in some people’s brains, such as “Watch Friends”, “Eat Pringles“, “Obey the system” or “Travel to Vang Vieng”.
To be honest and fair, Vang Vieng has definitely more attractions than simply seeing how mindless hedonists are staring 45 minutes in one direction. Many people come for kayaking, cycling, trekking, rock climbing or massage by the blind (they probably watched too much ‘Friends’). But most notably, people stop here for tubing down the Nam Song river. This is the very reason I came here. Moreover, the place is absolutely scenic, with limestone rocks alongside the Western edge of the town.
There is also a cartel selling the tube ride down the river at a fixed cost (including life-jacket and the tuk-tuk ride to the starting point). Alongside the river, there are about a dozen bars catering exclusively for the “tuber”. They will throw you a rope or swim to your tube to grab you ashore, whenever you give them a sign that you want to stay at their place. Some of these bars also feature basic entertainment, such as swings from where Rene jumped several times into the water. At another bar, we spotted the ubiquitous “Petanque” field where I did beat Rene with a score of 13:11. The tube ride itself was absolutely relaxing and fun, although the usual suspects who get drunk beyond their limit were at times loud and annoying. Especially the blonde girl who threw up badly into the river did make us rethink whether we’d have dinner or a shower after the tubing.
We stayed two nights in Vang Vieng and spent both evenings essentially in Internet Cafes where we would cut our movie we’d filmed back in Vientiane. We managed to find one place, that would give us a cheaper price per hour, since we were looking for a computer – not wanting Internet connectivity at all. The owner of the place did let us use his most powerful workstation, coming with a DVD writer and some useful video codecs (needed for various video formats) preinstalled. Unfortunately, there was no video editing software installed and I had to do the cutting job using “Windows Movie Maker” (comes with “Windows XP” installed). But then again, our film was shot in a very improvised, amateurish way. Why should the final cut be any different? Needless to say that during our work, we entertained the whole Internet-Cafe.
Getting away from Vang Vieng is one of the other nuisances – thanks to the bus and travel agencies’ cartel. Although there are several local (non-tourist) buses, no one in town seems to know at what time they leave or how much they would cost. Even the bus station two kilometers out of town lists only tourist buses. The local buses are written in Lao script only. Tourists are being told to take “VIP” busses or Mini vans, because the road is bad and dangerous and that local buses are not good. So far, this years’ only bus incident on this route involved a “VIP” bus who drove into a roadside pit (source). Ooops, there goes to so-called safety argument.
As for the road between Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang, we were pleasantly surprised (having expected a really really bad road): This feels exactly the same as the “4-Pass Tour” offered by the Swiss Postbus. The road is winding through a scenic mountain area and although tired, I didn’t sleep on this fantastic road trip.