You’ll find the three B’s in the town of Vang Vieng – backpackers, bars and booze. Not your thing? There are still waterfalls, caves and mountains to be explored in the surrounding area, but there’s no doubt about it, most travellers come here to take part in the main event – tubing.
When my friend and I were backpacking Thailand in 2009 we heard lots about how awesome tubing in Laos was but we hadn’t made time to visit. As Adam and I were doing Laos this time round, I was keen to take part in the fun but it kind of confirmed my preconceptions. I think we were a bit late to the party…
~ Nam Song River, Vang Vieng, Laos
So what’s tubing?
You head down to the tube pickup in town where you hire out a big old rubber ring and dry bag if needed (though it’s best to leave all valuables in your guesthouse). Once you’ve paid the 55,000 kip (£4.30) fee and 60,000 kip (£4.75) deposit it gets stacked on top of a tuk tuk and you and your fellow tubers hop aboard. You get taken a short ride out of town to the first bar and set off in your tube to float down the river.
Guys throw ropes out for you to grab and you get pulled into bars where there are lots of cheap drinks deals and drinking games as well as volleyball, basketball and ping pong.
It’s up to you how long you spend at each bar, but if you don’t get your tube back by 6pm you don’t get your full deposit. They say it takes 3 or 4 hours to float down the river, depending on the season, but you want to give yourself more time than that for the bars.
~ The tubing start point
Before 2012 tubing in Vang Vieng was known as Southeast Asia’s biggest party. However over the years the mix of alcohol, drugs, river jumping and swimming led to a number of deaths and injuries. So the government tried to crack down on this by removing the bars.
Since the deaths and subsequent removal of bars, there are now only 5 standing and they aren’t that far away from each other. It wasn’t hard to imagine the scale it once was. There are no rope swings, zip lines or slides insight but instead signs saying ‘do not jump’ although it still doesn’t stop people jumping off the rocks.
Our tubing experience in Vang Vieng
Adam and I weren’t in the best state to be tubing when we did, so that may have had a small impact on our experience! Let’s just say we were feeling a little fragile from the night before… Within 5 minutes of arriving in Vang Vieng we’d found ourselves prepping to head to a jungle rave. Basically an outside club space where we spent most of our time practicing our Swedish pronunciation with some dudes we met!
~ Beer pong at the first bar and giant game of flip cup
We arrived at the first tubing bar around midday (apparently anytime before this will be dead as everyone is still recovering from the day/night before) and as soon as we stepped off the tuk tuk we were immediately fed free shots and lured into playing beer pong and giant games of flip cup. After a while you could tell the western promo staff were trying to keep people here as long as possible, claiming that you have to go down the river in groups – not true. We followed a few others and snuck off to get going in our tubes as that was what we’d come here for!
Catching the rope and being pulled towards the shore to the second bar was fun. However the bar itself didn’t have too much to offer except a muddy volleyball pitch. This made for entertaining viewing whilst we chilled with some others! After a beer the place got filled up but a fair few people still seemed to be stuck at the first bar.
The vibe was more local here with no western staff luring everyone into playing games so after a couple more drinks we floated down to the third bar. There was a basket ball hoop here with a hose spraying a strong waterfall from the net. There were also lots of hammocks where we found ourselves for the majority of the time.
~ Enjoying floating down the river
It wasn’t long before we got back on the tubes to float down to the next bar. Except, just like the others had been, it really wasn’t far away and I was starting to think maybe we should have stayed at the first bar longer. But mostly wishing there was a bigger stretch of river to float down between bars!
We were too early to the fourth bar as there were only a few people with us. But we passed the time by playing darts and foosball and waited for everybody to catch up. By the time people came the atmosphere was still pretty disappointing so we eventually called it a day and got on one of the tuks tuks taking people back to town. It’s worth noting this bar claims to be the where the tubing ends but I now understand there was another bar.
We didn’t feel at all like we had left the party early and even made it back in time to get our deposit back! A lot of people assume or accept that they won’t make it back in time to get it back so spend a lot longer at the bars.
~ Local kid amongst the madness!
Is tubing in Vang Vieng over?
By no means is it the epic party it seems to have once been, with only a few bars now and none of the zip lining or rope swings you heard about a few years ago. I can imagine the days when it was in full swing would have been a lot of crazy fun. That being said it’s definitely still running and lots of backpackers are still making their way to Vang Vieng for the tubing experience.
A lot of people do it more than once whilst there but I can’t say we felt the need to. As for the party atmosphere, apart from the first bar attempting to gear everyone up, we found it to be overall pretty tame. I left feeling glad to have given it a go but it was mostly for floating down the Nam Song river whilst enjoying a few drinks.
Other things we got up to in Vang Vieng
The scenery around Vang Vieng is absolutely stunning. So when you’re not drinking your way down the river you can rent a motorbike or take a tuk tuk 7km out of the town to the Tham Phu Kham Cave and Blue Lagoon. Attempting to ride a bicycle in the near 40c degree heat is definite a no no. We found this out the hard way when we got about 10 mins out of town on barely rentable bicycles and collapsed in some woman’s roadside shack cafe. We ended up getting a tuk tuk the rest of the way, parking the bikes at the driver’s house and being thankful we hadn’t attempted to go any further!
~ Blue Lagoon
I’m not sure if we got there too late in the day but the lagoon was extremely overcrowded with both local and western tourists alike. The caves were worth a steep hike up many steps to find a reclining buddha inside.
~ The inevitable shirt and flat tyre on the way back from the lagoon – fixed in no time!