There are two types of people who go backpacking Southeast Asia - those who will never step foot in Vang Vieng, and those who want to see what all the buzz is about...
Vang Vieng is the most polarizing city for travelers in Southeast Asia. The reason is simple: it has a dark, seedy past.
These articles are from 2012, and represent a fraction of those published on Vang Vieng during that time. They vividly paint a picture of the debauchery and lewd behavior occurring in Vang Vieng 5-10 years ago.
Each piece goes discusses the "situation," quoting locals, sharing pictures of backpackers in crazy costumes, and telling anecdotal stories about drunk party-goers.
Everyone knows the story: People started having too much fun in Vang Vieng, and an alarming number died tragically while tubing and partying.
So, what happened? With an average over 24 annual deaths from partying, Vang Vieng had to clean up its act.
So what is Vang Vieng like now?
When talking to backpackers in SE Asia, you'll never get the same answer.
"There is no partying there anymore." vs. "You have to go tubing - it is epic."
So, I had to go and find out for myself.
Vang Vieng is a tourist town. Every business sign is in English, and chances of blending are scant... unless you are aiming to blend in with the other tourists.
Vang Vieng new thing is eco-tourism. Paragliding, kayaking, biking, and hiking tours are now advertised in lieu of tubing parties and drug-laced food.
On my first lap around the town, an older couple in their late 60s asked me for directions to the river... I doubt they would have stopped through Vang Vieng a few years ago.
However, that being said, partying has not left Vang Vieng entirely.
No, no, no. While it is no longer a dangerous mess, everyone in the backpacker crowd is still trying to get very inebriated.
Bars blare music every night. Sakura Bar gives out free whisky until 9pm. People stumble into your dorm room at 3AM every night. Street carts serve late night munchies into the early hours of the morning. Drugs can still be found... you just have to ask.
But isn't that everywhere in Southeast Asia?
This place just has beautiful views, a river, and a bad reputation.
Yes, people still go tubing every day.
Here is the thing about tubing: if you pay for five hours of tubing, you will actually be in a tube, in the river, one out of those five hours.
While the river used to be lined with bar after bar after bar, there are now only 2-3 river bars are allowed to be open on the same day. So less traveling down the river, more hanging at the same spot for 2 hours.
Here is how a tubing day goes:
- Get picked up at your hostel and taken to the tube warehouse. Complete chaos ensues. No organization at all while people sign wavers and get handed their tube and a number.
- Get driven to the river entrance. Get in your tube, and tube 30 seconds to the first bar.
- To get reeled into the bar, they chuck a filled water bottle tied to a rope AT you - don't get hit!
- Spend 2 hours at this bar, sitting in the sun and paying for drinks. They will probably organize a game of musical tubes or something.
- Tube 5 mins to the next bar. At this point, everyone will be very drunk and the reeling in will be difficult, as everyone cant manage to catch the bottle or stay on their raft as they are pulled in.
- Spend even more time at this bar. They will probably play music for dancing, as everyone is drunk by this point.
- Get in tubes to tube to the final bar "for sunset." Now, this is the longest time in the tube - it is over an hour of tubing to the next bar. If it is starting to get dark, get out of the water. This is how things get dangerous. The water gets freezing cold in the dark, and you will get very lost trying to find your way home.
- I never made it to the last bar because it got dark, but I was safe and happy, so I didn't care. If you are that concerned about missing the fun at the last bar, get out and pay $3 for a tuk-tuk to take you there.
Top tips for tubing:
- Bring your own booze. I had a small bottle of whisky and a coke in my waterproof sac for the day. No, it wasn't as pretty or refreshing as the frozen shakes they serve at the bars, but I spent $2 total on drinks all day, as opposed to $4 for just one drink.
- WEAR SHOES! People tell you not to, but my god, does that rocky bottom hurt your feet! Seriously, wading through the river was probably the most painful part of my entire trip. If you have anything with straps (tevas and chacos are perfect) wear them!
- Don't bring anything you don't want to lose. People are afraid of water damage, but those waterproof sacs work. You should be afraid of losing it! I saw plenty of go pros floating down the river.
- Bring cash, not your whole wallet.
- Eat a lot beforehand, food is expensive at the bars.
- BE THE FIRST PEOPLE TO LEAVE THE BAR. You will get a good spot at the next bar, and have a better chance of getting reeled in. Later, everyone comes at once, and it is total chaos trying to get pulled into the bar.
- Only bring a shirt to cover up, not a whole outfit. Whatever you take with you, you have to carry around all day.
- That being said, do not walk around town in a bikini when you are done
Moral of the story:
Is tubing in Vang Vieng still a thing? Yes
Is it as big as it was before? Not at all.
Is it safe? Eh....
Is it recklessly dangerous? Not really.
Be safe and have fun everyone! If you have any questions about tubing in Vang Vieng, feel free to email me! I remember being very nervous and confused about it before I went! firstname.lastname@example.org