The beautiful Vang Vieng

At 9am on Sunday 6th May 2018 we were picked up from our hostel to get a bus to Vang Vieng which was our next stop on our journey through Laos. The journey was faster than we expected, only taking 4 hours and we arrived into Vang Vieng just before 1pm. We had booked into a hostel called Nana Backpackers which had a pool and seemed to be quite a party place which hadn’t really been our intention when we booked but it was fine as the bar closed around 11ish so you were never kept up at night. We started our time here by sunbathing by the pool which wasn’t as luxurious as it sounds as the hostel didn’t have sun loungers, just metal benches and chairs so it wasn’t the comfiest sunbathe I’ve ever had! It was nice to get more time in the sun though as our tan had faded quite a bit from being covered up for so long in India.Once the hottest part of the day was behind us we had a walk around town. The town of Vang Vieng is quite small and is really just a few streets. Unlike Luang Prabang which had pretty french architecture, Vang Vieng reminds me more of a holiday resort town with lots of restaurants, travel shops and guest houses. Laos isn’t a huge party country and places shut down reasonably early but there are a few bars and clubs here and all of them seem to have happy hours that involved getting some form of free alcohol which was pretty good.

Whilst the weather was so nice (we had no idea if it would last) we headed to a viewpoint called Pha Poak. We crossed the river and headed into some farmers fields which, if Niall hadn’t read a blog on the place, we’d not have believed it was the right way. A site we have used loads in planning things to do in South East Asia is called Travelfish. They have so much information on things to do in all the South East Asian countries and we wouldn’t have known about this viewpoint if it wasn’t for that site. You could spot the hill as it had an orange flag at the top (I think it was originally red but faded in the sunlight) but amongst the enormous limestone cliffs it looked very small! Once we reached the bottom of the hill we were greeted by two drunk men, one of which I think said his name was Phat. Phat owned the rocky hill and asked for 10,000kip (90p) each as payment for entry. We obliged and he unlocked the padlocked gate for us that led us up a rocky, steep path to the top. We were the only ones there as I don’t think it’s widely known about which was good as the top was a series of rocks that you had to balance on so not really anywhere to sit and relax which wouldn’t have been ideal had it been busy. Areas of the climb involved clambering over large rocks using both our hands and feet so we didn’t wait for the sunset here to make sure we could see what we were doing to get back down. Saying this, I think anyone could manage the climb as there are ropes and bamboo ladders fixed in the rocks to help you whilst the rocky nature of the hill meant there were plenty of footholds to keep your footing.

The views from the top were really nice and, despite the viewpoint looking quite small from a distance, it allowed us to see for miles out over Vang Vieng and the countryside that surrounds the entire area. All we could see was green and it was another reminder of how beautiful, green and untouched Laos still is. We had presumed that Laos had been severely damaged due to logging which is the case for most of South East Asia but, although we did see some evidence of logging on our bus journey, all we have really seen is thick, dense forest. I’m thankful for this as the scenery was breathtaking.

After a hearty hand shake from our drunken “host of the hill” we headed back to our hostel to shower and get some food. We were able to get food for around 15,000kip (£1.35) in a few restaurants near to our hostel and enjoyed our meals (Niall had fried rice with pork and I had noodle soup). The restaurant also gave us bananas at the end of our meal which was a nice, unexpected touch. We then went to the hostel for drinks as between 7pm and 9pm they offer free whisky and vodka. We had made friends with an Israeli girl called Reut who was our roommate and told us we could get a big bottle of coke at the shop for 10,000kip (90p) and that the hostel didn’t mind you drinking it so we were able to have vodka and cokes all night for only 90p in total which was ideal! The bartender would sometimes just give you a full glass of vodka to try and get you as drunk as possible (thankfully he would give you more cups incase downing a whole glass of vodka wasn’t really your thing!) but it did mean you could make the free alcohol last after happy hour had ended. Once the bar was closing we met a few Germans called Jen, Lenny and Nina as well as a Swiss called Patric and a Brit called Sam and we spent the rest of the evening with them. As we headed back to the hostel that night we had our first dose of Vang Vieng rainfall with a torrential downpour that was accompanied by thunder and lightning. Our only choice unless we wanted to sleep outside all night was to run through the rain back to our hostel and although we hadn’t been very far from the hostel, we were completely soaked through by the time we got back!

That is all vodka!

The next day we woke up to beautiful blue skies and got breakfast at a local restaurant that did great sandwiches with free fruit and tea or coffee all for 10,000kip (90p) each! We ended up going here every morning for breakfast and I think we could have had those sandwiches and fruit for breakfast for the remainder of our trip and not had a problem with it!

That day, we decided to hire some bicycles and cycle around the surrounding countryside. For 30,000 kip each (£2.70) we were able to hire mountain bikes instead of bikes with no gears which was a godsend as some areas were reasonably hilly and the roads weren’t always very smooth. This was our favourite day in Vang Vieng and probably our favourite of our entire time in Laos. The scenery was stunning and we were happy to cycle around all day in the sunny weather just to keep looking at the fields and limestone cliffs.

Vang Vieng has a number of lagoons that you’re able to swim in and a few of them are only a short cycle away from town. We hadn’t realised there was more than one until we were cycling and started seeing signs to lagoons 1, 2 and 3 all pointing in different directions. This confused us for a while as we’d only read about one and had also arranged to meet our friends Charlotte and Alex (from Delhi who we also met up with in Luang Prabang) so we weren’t sure if they’d be able to work out which one we had decided to go to. We managed to find the lagoon we had been looking for (lagoon number 1) which cost us 20,000kip (£1.80) to enter and had wooden huts to sit in next to the water, some swings in the water and a slide that you could pay extra for. There was also a tree you could climb that had some jumping off points on but we didn’t try these.

The water was freezing and probably seemed even colder as we were hot from our bike ride there. We got used to the water though and spent ages sitting on the swings relaxing and enjoying the peace as hardly anyone was there when we arrived. As the afternoon wore on the lagoon got busier and we were joined by Charlotte and Alex who had been able to work out which lagoon we would be at. It was nice to chill with them for a bit but we had already been there a little while and we wanted to go to Pha Ngeun viewpoint for sunset so we said our goodbyes and headed out to cycle around more of the area.

After a fruit shake stop at a random road side stand we went on the hunt for Pha Ngeun viewpoint. Just like with the lagoon, there turned out to be more than one viewpoint with the same name so we chose the Silver Point Viewpoint as it seemed to match the description and location that we had read about. The 640m high walk to the top wasn’t too bad although it was quite steep and involved using bamboo railings that had been fixed into the rock to pull yourself up. It wouldn’t be somewhere I’d want to climb had it been raining as I imagine it would get very slippery but we made it to the top without an issue.

This was a considerably higher viewpoint than Pha Poak that we had climbed the day before and gave you great views over more of the countryside instead of the town which was good as we wouldn’t have wanted to see exactly the same view again. There as a small wooden hut you could sit in but we chose to sit on the rocks to get an unobstructed view of the scenery plus we weren’t the only ones up this viewpoint as it was more well known and so it was good to get our own spot. The sunset was very pretty and we were able to see just how far we had cycled that day through the winding roads to the tree covered lagoon. Yet again, the viewpoint continued to show us just how beautiful Vang Vieng was.

We climbed back down the hill and cycled back into town in the very last of the sunlight and dropped off our bikes. We could hear thunder coming in the distance but didn’t get caught up in any rain which we were very glad about. We had such a great day cycling around Vang Vieng and it was the perfect way to see the countryside as cycling gave you the time to actually take in your surroundings in a way that driving around on a motorbike doesn’t let you. Some of the lagoons were further away and down unsealed, bumpy roads but if we had more time in Vang Vieng or came on another trip I think we’d definitely go check them out. Driving an ATV around the area has also become a popular tourist attraction and we saw loads of people driving around in long convoys during our bike ride. I don’t know how much it costs to rent one for the day (although I imagine it’s not cheap) but it did look like fun and would be ideal for visiting those lagoons that are further afield… maybe next time.

On our final day in Vang Vieng, Tuesday 8th May, we went tubing. The Nam Song River runs through Vang Vieng and is the home of the famous tubing which is one of the main draws to Laos. It’s such a beautiful setting by the river that has cut through tall limestone cliffs like we had seen in Thailand and the Philippines. You get into a rubber ring (the tube) and float down the river where you then get pulled in by ropes thrown out by bars where you drink and party and continue down the river to the end. Originally this was a wild activity involving zip lines, slides and bars lining the entire river. The party was crazy and Vang Vieng would be heaving with drunken and drugged up partiers from countries like Australia, the US and UK. This isn’t what tubing is like in Vang Vieng today as the death toll for partygoers was becoming worldwide news with 27 deaths being reported in 2011 alone in Vang Vieng and more and more deaths being regularly reported in the years to follow. It became such an issue that the government closed down the majority of the bars, removed the zip line and slide and have now placed restrictions on bar opening times and how long the tubing can run for.Bottom left: Jen

Our day started at 1pm where we were taken to the tubing centre to sign a disclaimer form to prevent us from suing them for death or injury and then we were given our tubes and driven down to the river. As our hostel was the main party hostel in town there was a large number of us tubing including our new friends that we had met on the first night. Our hostel was full of a lot of young travellers who had just finished school and so we were glad for the group we had found to tube with as they were older like us as we don’t party like 18 year olds do anymore! If you never got out of the river the route would take around 3 hours to complete and whilst we were at the bars we did see people leisurely floating down without ever leaving the water. It was lovely weather and floating down the river was really nice especially as you had the tall, grand limestone cliffs towering over you as you went down.

We weren’t here during peak season so I can’t speak for if it’s any different then but for us tubing involved going to two bars. We mustn’t have been in the tube for more than 5 minutes before a rope was thrown out to us to pull us into the first bar. They offered a free shot and had staff there trying to get people playing beer pong and other drinking games but it certainly wasn’t even remotely wild and it was hard to imagine what it would have been like when the river was full of partiers in its hay-day. Despite their best efforts, it was pretty relaxed and we chilled with a few beers. After around an hour we were back in the water which was probably my favourite part of the day. Floating down the river was so nice and we all held on to one another so that we could float down together whilst we chilled and chatted. It was a shame really because we had expected to spend longer in the water compared to the bars or at least get to stop off at quite a few different places but once we got to the next bar this ended up being where we stayed until our final float down the river. The second bar was a lot more of a party with drum and base playing and everyone being a lot more drunk. Everyone didn’t end up leaving the bar until around 5pm and then started the long float down to the end of the tubing course. This float down was peaceful and incredibly beautiful even if it was interrupted by chanting drunk people!

Top right: Lenny, Reut, Nina and Patric. Bottom right: Sam

Me and Niall got separated as we floated down the river and he ended up being quite far in front. I was with our friend Patric which was lucky as that’s when the storm hit. Dark clouds had come over and the winds had picked up and then pretty quickly the rain started and became really heavy. There was thunder and lightning nearby and the winds got even stronger and we quickly realised we needed to get out of the river. The water was moving us downstream but it was still a while until we reached a bit of the river with a bank low enough for us to be able to get out! No one else was around when me and Patric got out of the river and it had gotten dark. I just had to hope Niall had got out of the water too and was able to the get back to the hostel as it was raining very heavily by this point and was pitch black.

We sheltered under the roof of a nearby garage and a taxi came past to pick us up. He demanded a lot of money and wanted it upfront which we didn’t have (and to be honest I didn’t like how he was exploiting us to make a lot of money). When we told him we didn’t have the money and even when we said we’d pay once we got back to the hostel, he kicked us out of his taxi back into the storm. We walked in our swimwear and with the strong winds and rain we were getting cold, carrying our tubes along the side of a road willing the cars to stop and give us a ride. No one stopped which I’m not surprised about as we were soaking wet and they probably wanted to get home out of the storm too. We saw a small restaurant that had a couple of people in it who turned out to be the owners. We went in to shelter from the worst of the rain and also check that we were walking in the right direction as neither of us had brought our phones out with us incase they got wet whilst tubing. The couple couldn’t have been nicer and gave us a drink and some food while we waited for the worst of the storm to pass. I didn’t have a clue where Niall was and he didn’t have a clue where I was so I wanted us to be heading back to the hostel as soon as we could so once we saw the rain eased lessened we headed back out and started walking towards town. The couple’s hospitality and friendliness was incredibly nice and we were very grateful as we were getting very cold walking along in that weather.

After walking for a little longer we were passed by the man who ran the tubing company who had come out to check who was still stuck on the river and get us all back safely. He took our tubes and got us to continue walking toward town while he went to pick up people who were further up river, before circling back and picking us up. We eventually got back to the hostel where Niall was waiting for me. He had been with a bigger group of people who had all got out just as the storm broke and had managed to get a tuk tuk back to the hostel before the worst of it. He’d then waited around an hour and a half in the lobby before I was able to get back. I was freezing but a warm shower sorted that out and aside from that I was fine. It was alarming how quickly the conditions had changed and I’m just glad that we hadn’t drank loads as I don’t know how the people who were a lot more drunk managed to get back safely!

The storm aside, tubing wasn’t what we expected. I enjoyed myself more than Niall did as I’m more into going clubbing and dancing compared to Niall who prefers bars so when the tubing and partying turned that way it was still enjoyable for me more than it was for him. It would depend on the group you’re with and what they fancy doing about how chilled or party-ish it is or how long it takes to do but, unless I was back with a big group who I was really good friends with, I don’t think I’d do it again. Overall I had a good time but not in the way I expected and Niall really didn’t rate it at all. That evening Niall got an early night and I spent the evening chilling with Lenny, Sam, Nina, Jen and Reut which was nice after all tubing together.

Overall, Vang Vieng had been really good and that day of cycling and going to the lagoon made even getting caught up in a storm worth it. It’s such a different vibe to what we had heard about since the tubing had been changed and was a lot more chilled but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. We’d also miss the very cheap, tasty food here as we continued to our last stop of Vientiane. It would definitely be somewhere I’d visit again if I was back in Laos, that’s for sure.

Sending love x

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