Vang Vieng and Vientiane: From Chasing Adrenaline Rushes to Wandering a Sleepy Capital
There are two vacation styles: planning everything in advance, and just winging it. My personality is definitely more suited to the former, and I know where I get it from–my dad 🙂My father has been a master vacation planner ever since I can remember. When my sister and I were young (back in the pre-Internet dark ages), our dad would ensure our transportation, dinner reservations, and activities were orchestrated to the T from the moment of arrival to departure. A binder accompanied us on every trip that listed each day’s itinerary from sunup until sundown. Every family vacation was as intricately planned and choreographed as a fine waltz.
If you’re like me, you love the details of trip planning–figuring out where to stay and what to do is part of the fun and makes you look forward to traveling even more. However, being obsessed with pre-travel research has its downsides, especially in the Internet age. Reading too much online can give you preconceived ideas–both positive and negative–of what a place will be like.
I fell victim to the downside side of this as we prepared to journey south through Laos to the town of Vang Vieng and the capital, Vientiane. I found a lot of negative opinions online about both places. People said Vang Vieng was an ugly town overrun with hard-partying backpackers; Vientiane was characterized as a boring, dirty capital with few activities and no culture. These notions got under my skin more than I care to admit. Will I even like these places? I started to wonder. What if they’re awful? What if I hate them??
I should never have researched so much before we went. Both Vang Vieng and Vientiane, in my opinion, were lovely places, each with different allure. Visiting them taught me a valuable lesson that you shouldn’t rely on other travelers’ opinions of a place before you judge it–it’s better to go and see for yourself.
Vang Vieng, a small town located between Luang Prabang and Vientiane, is known for its staggeringly beautiful karsts, or limestone mountain formations, that tower into the sky. Just twenty years ago, it was a farming village with little tourism. Then, in the late 1990s, a local started a river tubing company along the Nam Song River, which runs right through town. Business took off, tons of bars opened up along the tubing route, and young backpackers started flocking to Vang Vieng to drink and party.
Eventually, the partying escalated to a point where the Lao government intervened. In 2011, after a reported 27 foreigners died on the river (many in alcohol and drug-fueled accidents), the bars were shut down and the river went quiet. Vang Vieng decided to rebrand itself as an outdoor adventure destination in the hopes of attracting more sophisticated travelers.
We bumped our way into Vang Vieng (literally) one hot afternoon on a minivan. Laos has no public mass transportation (although a Chinese-funded train system is currently under construction) and the only ways to get around are to fly or take a van or bus. The roads are notoriously bad; the five hour journey from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng was the most spine-rattling, bumpy trip we’ve ever taken. We had to stifle our laughter when two fellow passengers spent the first part of the drive whining that the van picked them up an hour later than promised. (Umm…if you want everything to happen on time, then let’s just say that Southeast Asia is NOT the destination for you). Traveling in this part of the world is a healthy lesson in patience. That being said, the journey wasn’t for the faint of heart (or anyone with motion sickness). At one point, we crested a mountain pass and came upon an overturned oil tanker leaking fuel all over the highway. Locals stood around the disabled vehicle casually smoking cigarettes. I was happy that we got out of there fast!
Our driver didn’t exactly inspire confidence either; he spent about four hours and 57 minutes of the five hour trip loudly video calling people on each of his three (three!) different cell phones. About halfway through the journey, we ascended a steep, foggy road and found ourselves in a pure white-out–you couldn’t see more than a couple feet in front of the van. Instead of doubling down and focusing on delivering us safely to our destination, the driver whipped out one of his phones and started filming through the windshield (probably to get some footage for his next Instagram story).
In any case, we survived! The town of Vang Vieng itself wasn’t much to look at; those in search of Lao culture and history should definitely go elsewhere. In recent years, the town has become popular with young tourists from South Korea. Apparently a Korean reality T.V. show was filmed there a few years back, drawing a huge influx of people. While the town was congested and loud, filled with tacky bars blasting electronic dance music, the mountains and views were breathtaking. They brought to mind a more dramatic version of the rocky landscapes in Yosemite National Park. We checked into a family-run guesthouse and promptly booked a day of kayaking, caving, and hiking for the next day with an eco-tourism group.
During our day of exploring, we were struck by how unspoiled the natural scenery in Laos is–and how utterly empty the countryside is. Aside from some other kayakers and a smattering of tubers, there was hardly anyone on the water. Every time we rounded a bend in the river, we looked up, gasped, and said, “Oh my god!” This became our refrain all day long; each vista was more spectacular than the last.
In the afternoon, we stopped to explore a cave that served as a bomb shelter for locals during the Vietnam War. We slowly picked our way through the dark passages, shining our flashlights on peculiar rock formations and spiders larger than our hands. A huge swath of light greeted us at the mouth of the cave, where a farmer was tending his crops. He barely glanced at us as we passed by, shuffling off through the dense vegetation to carry on with his day.
Itching to see more around Vang Vieng, we decided to rent a motorbike the next day and strike out on our own. Full disclosure, I was terrified to ride the thing–I’ve never been on a motorcycle before, and Southeast Asia didn’t seem like the best place for my inaugural ride. Laos, as with its neighboring countries, isn’t exactly known for orderly traffic and highway safety. Add poorly maintained, pothole-ridden roads to the mix and I was practically hyperventilating as I wrapped my arms around Mike’s waist and we headed off into the countryside, Easy Rider style.
Even though it took me awhile to relax and enjoy the ride, it ended up being a memorable day. We were able to see parts of rural Laos that would have been impossible to visit on an organized tour or even in a car. The whole nation of Laos is like a national park in the United States, made all the better because crowds are essentially non-existent. If you love outdoor activities and want to get away from organized tourism, Laos is the destination for you!
After a couple of days in Vang Vieng, we headed on to our final stop in Laos, Vientiane. Although the drive began inauspiciously when the travel agency we booked with tried to stuff us onto a full bus (the driver seemed genuinely puzzled when we refused to sit in the aisle), we were herded onto a van that, miraculously, had two open seats for us! After another hair-raising journey, we arrived in Vientiane.
Vientiane was the smallest, quietest capital city I’ve visited, but Mike and I ended up wholeheartedly embracing the sleepy atmosphere. Like Luang Prabang, Vientiane has a lingering French influence, with wide, tree-lined boulevards and even an Arc de Triomphe-like structure you can climb for city views. Also, the food scene was absolutely killer–we ate some of our favorite meals of the whole trip in Vientiane. You can find everything from traditional Lao kitchens to French cafes to Egyptian bars. There’s even a North Korean restaurant! We took advantage of our last chance to eat Lao larb and curry dishes, but also feasted on some familiar favorites we’ve been missing, like French crepes and Indian samosas. Needless to say, as we strolled around the city, discovering one culinary gem after another, we looked at each other and said, “What was everyone on the Internet talking about?? This place rocks!”
Evidence of the future is everywhere in Vientiane, the hum of construction noise a constant sound in the background. It’s rapidly becoming more modern as it looks to catch up with neighboring cities in Thailand and Vietnam. Some of the locals we talked to bemoaned the changes. For instance, the once-dirt trail along the Mekong River is now a paved four lane highway with a modern river promenade. Vientiane will probably not remain a sleepy backwater capital for much longer.
On our final evening, we watched the sun set over the Mekong, setting the sky afire with vibrant shades of pink and saffron. We reflected on our two weeks in Laos, where we traveled slowly and spontaneously, spending many days without a particular agenda. We both knew we were ready to get back to the hustle and bustle of a big city again, but Mike put it aptly when he said, gesturing at the city and river, “I know we’ll miss this when we leave it.”
So much of travel is stockpiling snapshots of little moments you don’t want to end, storing them away for a day you’re back at home and ready to dust them off again, like opening a familiar book. I closed my eyes and tried to commit my last Mekong sunset to memory. Eventually, night fell over the city, and we slowly wandered away from the river, ready to move on.
Until next time, la kon from Laos.