If the most peaceful place on Earth and the most adrenaline-fueled, wildest place on Earth were to fuse into a single location, that one single spot would be Vang Vieng. Easily one of the most scenic places I have ever seen, which path you choose to take when in town is entirely up to you.
Nestled in a pristine valley 3 hours north of Vientiane—and 7 hours south of Luang Prabang on a treacherous, winding mountain road—Vang Vieng is a simple hamlet turned international party scene. A non-descript town that is booming with guesthouses and cafes, the real action in Vang Vieng lies on the outskirts of town rather than downtown. Bisected by the Nam Song river, somewhere in the last 13 years (Laos wasn’t officially opened to tourism until 1996), someone decided it would be a peaceful adventure to drift down the river in an inflatable tube, surrounded by nothing but the towering mountain peaks and the gentle sounds of the river. Then some brilliant entrepreneur thought it would be a good idea to build a bar along the river in case those tubers got thirsty. What surely started as a simple venture has turned into an all out hedonistic circus of adrenaline and alcohol. Bars thumping loud techno music line both sides of the river, each trying to one up the other with cheap beer, free shots, and legitimately dangerous rope swings and ziplines. While many come with the intention of tubing the entire river, most simply get stuck at the first few bars and down copious amounts of cheap alcohol, all the while engaging in various stages of undress and throwing themselves from serious heights into the rushing cool waters below. It’s quite a scene to say the least. What makes the entire atmosphere so surreal however, is the geographical fact that not only have this many people all simultaneously gathered in this pretty remote part of the world, but it is an all out MTV-esque party taking place in the midst of some of the most stunning natural scenery on the planet. As young Westerners inhale buckets of cheap whisky and spray paint each others naked tops, in the distance, fisherman cast homemade nets from dugout canoes while elderly Lao farmers methodically tend to the rice crop at the base of misty mountains. It is just such a surreal scene.
The river scene isn’t the only adrenaline-fueled game in town though. At the base of the cliffs that erupt from the rice patties, endless systems of caves carve their way deep into the mountainside, seemingly acting to hollow out the entire mountain. Towering stalagmites appear as mere bumps in the rocks inside these expansive chambers. Those waning to properly spelunk can go as far as they dare with headlamp, ropes, and a local guide, and there are plenty of operators in town ready to take people into the bowels of the mountain. Most of the caves feature some sort of swimming hole or lagoon situated right at the cave entrance, as is the case with the remote Phu Kham cave and it’s accompanying “Blue Lagoon”. Add mountain climbing, backcountry trekking, mountain biking, and kayaking to the caving and tubing and Vang Vieng turns into an adventurous wonderland in the middle of nowhere.
Now everyone in Vang Vieng, however, is bust hurtling themselves off of ziplines or penetrating the inner depths of a mountain. There are plenty of riverside cafes that consider turning the pages of a book overlooking the bank of the river a fast-paced enough activity. In the countryside on the opposite side of the river, on the rugged dirt roads heading out to many caves, life in the local villages moves at a pace that is barely faster than the growing grains of rice. The type of villages where the streets are dominated by clucking chickens and the incessant ringing of cow’s bells. Only a few kilometers outside of town, life in the villages on the other side is an entire world away from the booze-fueled party scene of the river, and it is a welcome respite and a literal breath of fresh air.
With all of the nonstop adventure, serenely peaceful countryside, and ludicrously cheap prices by Western standards ($5 for a private guesthouse, $1 for a beer, $1.50 for meals), Vang Vieng is the type of place you could easily get stuck in if you’re not careful. I met a couple of people who had come to Vang Vieng as travelers and over a year later still haven’t left. While the world has definitely caught on to this once remote hilly slice of countryside, it’s hard knowing that one day it will probably become just another tourist megalopolis that is overrun and dominated by hordes of travelers on the same pre-set itinerary. In a town like this, it’s a foregone conclusion, while many may argue that it has already happened. With such stunning natural surroundings and such an expanse of land to work with however, Vang Vieng will always retain some if its spirit that brought all of the crowds in the first place.