The Vang Vieng Vibe

Trip Start Nov 19, 2005
Trip End Feb 10, 2006

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Wednesday, January 18, 2006

I'd been in two minds about coming to Vang Vieng. It's supposed to be very beautiful - but also has a reputation for having become too much of a traveller hangout. Stories of being able to stand in the main street and hear 4 different episodes of Friends simultaneously playing in different bars sounded ominous. In the end I decided to stop there and I'm glad I did. Like Dahab, Ubud or many similar places round the world, it is a bit of a backpacker theme-park, but it's all done so well that I couldn't help but love the place (except for the Friends bars that is).

The setting is indeed stunning - sheer limestone cliffs rising above meandering rivers and lush green forests. And everything has been done to make enjoying that setting easy: from bamboo platforms covered in cushions where you can drink cold beer and watch the river, to the whole industry of "tubing" where you float down the river on a giant inner tube. After a very relaxing first afternoon just watching the river go by, I decided to go for a more adventurous option and booked onto a 2 day white water rafting trip. The river that actually flows through Vang Vieng is pretty gentle, so for serious rapids we had a 3 hour drive along a very rough road to get to the Nam Ngum river. This is in an area called the special zone which was for many years the scene of fighting between Hmong tribespeople and the government. Until recently no foreigners were allowed in and even now the company had to organise special permits for us.

Once at our destination we were given a briefing on white-water rafting which was pretty terrifying - all about what to do if you fall into the rapids and are sucked under-water or are heading for a rock. It didn't help that one of our group of 5 was an older New Zealand gentleman who turned up with fresh scars all over his face and legs. It turned out he'd had a motorcycle accident the day before but was doing the trip anyway. Even worse, this wasn't his first such accident or even his first this holiday (he'd also fallen off a bike in Vietnam). So we had possibly the most accident prone tourist is Asia in our boat with us who also proved very bad at following even basic instructions! The signs didn't look good.

Fortunately our guide, Sek, was excellent and somehow he managed to take us down a series of increasingly dramatic rapids with flipping over or even having anyone go overboard. Going down a big rapid feels like riding some immense and powerful beast that's trying to throw you off. It's exhilerating and terrifying at the same time. Ther river was very scenic and totally wild - we saw almost no human habitation. We spent the first night in a pretty basic fisherman's camp along with some fishermen, who joined us in some Lao drinking games.

By the second day we were up to grade 4+ (5 is the highest it's possible to navigate) again, amazingly, without mishap.

On my last day in Vang Vieng I spent the morning visiting a couple of caves 10km north of town, one of which you could float into on a tube - an unusual experience. Then I went kayaking down the river back to Vang Vieng. This was the same route that you float down on the tubes, but whereas the tubers are limited to a very leisurely pace, we kayakers could cover a bit more ground. On the way, we stopped off at one of the bars setup to service thirsty tubers. This one had a gigantic swing set up over the river. Eventually I plucked up the courage to have a go. Standing on the rickety bamboo structure a good 15m above the water was frankly terrifying but by then there was no turning back. Someone took photos of me doing it so I'll post them when I get them.

Lovely though Vang Vieng is, it's now time to rejoin Laos and head for Luang Prabang.
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