After we got our fill of Luang Prebang, we bought bus tickets to Vang Vieng, a city about 4 hours to the south of LP, known for its insane scenery, river tubing, spelunking, and formerly rambunctious party scene. One of the first pieces of information that pops up on Lonely Planet’s webpage for Vang Vieng is a Safety Warning, advising travelers that Vang Vieng is one of the most dangerous places in Laos – not for the usual reasons like muggings or scams – but rather for lawless (and booze soaked) river tubing, slippery/dark caves, and a heavy drug scene (like seriously major drugs, opium and meth!). We even heard of one slide that had been constructed along the river called the “Death Slide” and several people had serious injuries afterwards. Suffice to say the government intervened in 2012 and forced all of the illegally built bars along the river to close within 10 days and local law enforcement began to crack down on the drug scene.
The 4 hour bus ride between LP and VV is notoriously steep, windy, and long – most people we talked to said they will pack up to 15 people in average sized minivans and often several people are puking by the end of the ride, so we looked into all other transport options – taxi, renting a car, donkey, renting the entire bus – but none were financially feasible. We reluctantly took the packed minivan option. Being the wise husband that I am, I did the next best thing to prevent my motion sick prone wife from experiencing the worst ride of her life. When the empty minivan rolled up to the bus station and everyone went to the back to be the first to throw their bag in and grab a seat, I went to the front where the driver was still sitting and slipped him 30,000 kip (about $4 USD), pointed to the passenger seat, and said “my wife.” Worked like a charm! He walked to the back of the bus, pointed to Jax and said “You. In.” The ride was as expected – long and windy along steep cliffs with rather fresh looking landslides at several spots at the top of the mountain. We survived the ride and headed for our TripAdvisor booked hotel – Thavonsouk Resort – a mid-range hotel on the banks of the Nam Song River.
The town of Vang Vieng is a relaxed mix of locally owned homes and shops, expat -adventure-sport tour companies and restaurants/bars – including, of course, one notorious Irish bar. The river and scenic backdrop mountains though are what really makes this place magical and also provide the means for all of the adventure activities. Thavonsouk Resort was nothing special but it did the job with a nice balcony view of the river and mountains. We got settled and headed next door to Villa Nam Song for some food. The spread consisted of French and Khmer food. The yellow curry was decent but the Western food was blah!
We had heard great reviews about the hot air balloon rides in Vang Vieng – supposed to be one of the cheapest places to do it and everyone on TripAdvisor in the last 7 days had rave reviews. So, we signed up with a random ticket slinging lady on the street (she was very sweet actually) for the 6am hot air balloon ride the next day – just $80 USD per person (Most countries charge around $400/pp!) Hopefully that doesn’t mean they skimp on safety? We ended the night with dinner and cocktails at the Irish pub (who can pass up 2 for 1?) and some street food.
Day 2 we woke up before dawn and headed out to the front of the hotel for pickup. We were pleasantly surprised that the hot air balloon company was early – look at this service! We were the first two people out of about 14 to be picked up and we soon realized these guys often have to drive around town for an hour before the hungover party animals wake up from their deep slumber to join the tour. We literally went back 5 times to one hostel to see if a group of people had woken up yet. Luckily, they don’t wait forever. After an hour, they drove us to a large open dirt area in town where they had two balloons ready to go, with the first one being filled as we arrived. After just 10 minutes of fans and then hot air being added, balloon #1 was ready and we were told to hop in the basket with 6 others (3 of which we had chatter with on the bus – 2 from Aussie-land and one Brazilian). It was a surprisingly simple basket considering we would be at 2,000 feet in 10 minutes! The balloon operator spoke no English which added to the excitement/unknown. The views were incredible and we both took deep breaths and soaked it up… Being that high up was insanely still and quiet but also a bit like scuba diving – if you think about the reality of what you are doing, it’s really easy to get freaked out!
After 30 minutes of cruising and pictures, it was time to land. Our pilot took us down to a reasonable elevation and guess what, we are heading straight for the center of town! We’re all looking at each other like, hmm, how’s he gonna pull this off? As we’re getting lower, and lower, and lower, and the power lines are getting closer and, yep, now I can see the faces and waves from the people on the 3rd floor of that apartment… Our pilot throws a rope out of the balloon down to the ground, maybe 100 feet below and this group of about 12 Laotian guys starts pulling with all their might to stop us from over-shooting the small patch of green grass – literally someone’s backyard. The pilot was calmly yelling in a strange language and after just 30 seconds and a close call with a rooftop, they had us wrangled down to the ground. Nailed it! All of the neighbors came out to say hi at this point and check out the action. We asked the tour guide on the ground if this was normal and he was like “nope, we’ve never landed HERE before…”
After some breakfast at the hotel, we rented a moto and headed to the infamous Blue Lagoon. We had seen this on many of the reviews and blogs about Vang Vieng and we always love a good moto ride to get out and see what life is all about in a new city… We got further confirmation of our first bus ride – the roads in Laos are crap! That is saying something too because Cambodian roads are bad, but even compared to Cambodia or Tanzania, Laos roads were horrendous – a total mine field of potholes, vertical drop-offs, and large craters. Our African friend Peter likes to joke that roads like these provide a nice “African massage” on one’s butt. In that case, Laos is deep tissue, baby!
Blue lagoon was about an hour drive on a dirt road from the main part of town. The drive was gorgeous with the huge mountains surrounding us as we cruised through traditional Lao villages with people going about their business and the occasional chicken running into the road. We paid a few bucks to get into the lagoon area and entered the area to find a sort of Lao style watering hole with two high dives off a large tree and a cool rope swing. The water was an incredible blue color and also freezing but refreshing in the heat. The entrepreneurial Lao people that setup this area also setup a restaurant, shops, and now a zipline tour. We swam around for a while and then laid in the sun with some beers and cheap food while we did some serious people watching (tourists from all over the world!). Jax also made friends with a fellow dog lover and they took care of a teeny weensy puppy while we hung out.
That night we splurged on dinner at Riverside Boutique Resort – a gem of a hotel right on the Nam Song. If you come to Vang Vieng and are looking for the top spot to stay, this is it! Sometimes after being on the road for a while and eating questionable food for days on end, it’s nice to be able to head over to the nicest place in town and treat yourselves to some delicious salmon and pumpkin soup to bring your stomach back to earth and also perhaps to remind you of home.
Overall, Vang Vieng has come a long way from it’s “Death Slide” past and is entering a new era of – dare I say – responsible tourism. The scenery alone is plenty of reason to come have a look for yourself and experience the food, people, and sights of this sleepy Lao town.
The last and final stop of our trip was Vientiene. We had not read too much about it but we had to make our way down to catch our flight. Apprehensively, we boarded yet another van to make another 4 hour drive down. Unfortunately, this time the van was already packed with locals so we got stuck in a middle seat. Hoping it would be nice and short….. However, our wishes were not granted this time. After many stops picking up food, dropping mail and people off, picking more people up we were all starting to feel a bit queasy. The little tyke in the front must have had the worst of it because he puked several times. Poor thing had to wear a plastic bag over his ears so he would not puke on anyone else. The crazy thing is though we did not hear a peep from the little one…no crying, no complaining. There seems to be a pattern of this which seems very different than the states. Very interesting from a CC psychology perspective. Eventually we made it down to the local bus stop and grabbed a Tuk Tuk to our place. (This place has a nice pool and gym but it is a little far outside of town. They have a $2 shuttle service but it gets a bit tiresome if you are going back and forth. I think it would be a great spot for extended work trips but maybe not the best for tourists.)
The ride down seemed to foreshadow our time in this new spot. Adam got sick and had to stay in bed. I made my way into the city for the comfort of the chain coffee place that we have in PP, Joma. After wandering around to find some healthy juice for Adam from Noys Fruit Heaven, we laid around for the rest of the night completely content with movies and take “in.” The next day Jax caught the Adam bug and wasn’t feeling the best. We managed to get into the city again but were honestly pretty bummed with the food selection. We tried a sushi place outside of town but it was really pricey and didn’t look so great so we ended up giving in to a run of the mill pasta place. It was actually quite decent though which was a pleasant surprise. We attempted a trip to COPE museum but after learning the price, decided to stay at the place get a workout in and enjoy more movies. The last morning we hopped over to the aiport and tried to manage traveling while sick with fevers. 😦 All in all, Vientiane was not the highlight of our trip. However, we also weren’t in the best place and I am sure with a little more patience and better health just like everywhere there were a few hidden gems we missed.
Lesson Learned #21: Don’t do drugs, kids. Lesson Learned #22: Moto rental places always give you an empty tank to start – make sure you know how to find the gas station! Lesson Learned #23: Sometimes, no matter where you are in the world, the greatest thing is a comfy bed and a good movie.
“Be brave. Take Risks. Nothing can substitute experience.”