Despite having a really good time in Phonsavan, we were very happy to head south to slightly warmer climes. It took around 7 hours to Vang Vieng, including a stop to change an exploded tyre, and we arrived in the early afternoon. Annoyingly, we were dropped about 2km outside the town (damn that tuk tuk mafia), and after a quick look around and some excellent haggling from Law we had a nice hotel room for about 50 cents more than the Phonsavan ice box.
Vang Vieng is a strange place. It became infamous as a backpacker paradise a few years ago, chiefly because you could hire a tractor tyre inner tube and float down the beautiful scenic river, which happened to be lined with bars. People would spend all day getting free shots and drinking buckets of Lao-Lao whiskey, jumping and rope-swinging into the water before stumbling back into town. With fairly low health and safety standards, quite a few people died doing this! It all changed last year though, with a government crackdown on the bars and now Vang Vieng is held up as an example of how not to develop a tourist town to the rest of Laos.
It feels a bit soulless now, with the vast majority of the buildings being guesthouses or western restaurants. An odd (and awesome for us) side affect is that a huge number of bars in town show episodes of Friends, Family Guy and South Park on endless loops! Despite being high season, the place was quiet, and it seems now to be stuck as not quite a full-blown party town and not quite a cultural site.
The scenery is amazing though, with huge limestone karst peaks along the river and rice paddies all over the place. On the first afternoon we went and booked a days kayaking and cave tubing for the next day, figuring we had do something like that and agreeing not to drink too much whilst on the water. We started the day with a trip an underwater cave, which was amazing experience. Sitting in a tube, we were given head torches and then we were in the freezing river, pulling ourselves into the pitch black, 300 metre long cave by ropes tied to the ceiling. Stalactites dripped from the roof, and we wound our way through until the rope stopped, before paddling on further to the end. Back outside, the sunshine was a welcome relief.
In the afternoon, we kayaked about 10km down the river toward town, admiring the countryside. After navigating a few rapids (a couple of people in our group capsized!), we joined up with where the tubing still starts. Despite all but 3 bars being closed down, the remains of the bars still dot the riverside, which mars the view a bit. We stopped at “Last Bar”, an imaginative title for the last bar of the river, and whilst I had a beer Law had a Lao-Lao and coke.
By the time we got back into the town, we were pretty happy spending the evening watching episodes of Friends whilst Mrs. H felt the effects of drinking whiskey in the sun!There isn’t masses else to do in Vang Vieng, so we spent the next day wandering around, sunbathing and watching Friends in the bars, and sorting out the onward travel to our last stop in Laos, Vientiane.