During the ‘freezing’ month of December, when we sat in our local Highlands Coffee in Hanoi researching our travel destinations, Vang Vieng frequently cropped up on travel info sites, probably because it was once a hotspot for drug-taking and tubing. As we discovered on arrival, it’s not quite the hippy mecca that it used to be, thanks to the authorities severely clamping down on the debauchery. We heard that in 2011, twenty two people died from drowning. The river used to be lined with beer bars and zip lines which, given the non-existent safety precautions, caused havoc and was becoming concerning to locals who felt it was destroying their culture. Nevertheless, it seemed like a cool place to go even if we weren’t planning on drunken tubing.
The journey to Vang Vieng was probably one of the smoothest of all the routes we took during our time in Asia. Not only was the driving smooth, but we weren’t required to share seats for once. And it was just four hours which was felt like a quick walk by comparison.
The happiest I ever looked on a journey
Arrival was slightly anti-climactic. Once again, we were dropped off on some dusty road where there was very little sign of human activity, but once we hitched up the rucksacks and took a wander we soon reached the Nam Song River framed by karsts and greenery. Despite the volume of tourists, it was very tranquil. I can certainly see the appeal of tubing, drunken or not.
We crossed the river by the one and only bridge – which meant paying 4000 kip for every crossing – and enquired about a bungalow owned by a French man. He was fully booked but the nearby Paradise Bungalows were vacant. We were greeted by a girl on reception (which was really just the drinks bar) who barely looked a day over 14 and got ourselves a cracking little wooden house on stilts. This was possibly one of my favourite places to stay throughout the whole trip; it was lovely and cool inside with super comfy mattresses and a good sized bathroom. Happy days.
After the obligatory collapse-on-the-bed-and-recover-from-the-bus-journey we set off to back over the river to have a look around the town. There were some super swanky apartments on the river edge which were lovely but looked completely wrong in a quiet place like Vang Vieng. The centre of the town is super touristy, and consisted mostly of restaurants showing episodes of ‘Friends’ (and probably still serving a ‘happy pizza’ or two) as well as a variety of massage bars, mini supermarkets, money bureaus and tour shops. Tourist-tat aside, there was something very pleasant about the place that we all liked.
We stopped at the end of the town at a pretty restaurant that over looked the Nam Song and surroundings. The place was owned by an Austrian husband and Lao wife whose cultures were reflected in their menu. We spent the evening sat outside on the veranda sampling the delicious menu and wondering why on earth Lao food isn’t more renowned (no Lao diaspora I suppose). I think the view from this place is one of the things I’ll remember most from Laos.
Not so perfect spider
We returned to our bungalow in a post-digestion daze, ready for a good night’s sleep. Getting into bed wasn’t quite so straightforward as only one of the beds had a mosquito hung over it. There was a spare net which resembled some sort of cake fly-cover, but it was broken and wouldn’t stay up. Sarah had a spare, but it was only single-sized, so whilst I was protected I certainly had a strange looking bed for night.
Well, it worked.
The following morning was Valentine’s Day. Being morning people, Lindsay and Sarah were up and about fairly early but I decided to stay tucked up in the cosy bed to catch a few more winks. When I finally dragged myself out of bed I made my way back to the town and picked a small café for breakfast. It was an excellent choice as their mint and ginger tea was delicious and they did sticky rice with mango which had become one of my faves. So I spent the morning enjoying nosh whilst sat cosily on the balcony overlooking the wonderful view once more. Five hours later and I was still there.
After such a sedentary morning it seemed appropriate to write the day off so I went the whole hog and had a traditional Lao massage. It’s pretty similar to a Thai massage with the masseur performing some pretty intense stretches and at times rather terrifying manoeuvres which you think will end in broken bones. At one point, my masseur was lying with her elbows resting in my hip sockets which is the most bizarre sensation. She also massaged my adductors which far too sensitive for me. Nevertheless, it was worth it and I felt all loosey-goosy after.
Bursting a bottle of water like a boss.
Whilst I’d be lolling around in the massage parlour, Sarah and Lindsay had arranged a tour to see a blue lagoon, so the following morning we made our way over to the French place (where we had originally planned to stay) and boarded a tuk tuk. We were introduced to an older French couple, Jacques and Marie, who were also on the tour, and conveniently Sarah could do any translation for us. We stopped at another bungalow on the way to pick up an American couple, Martin and Linda. Whenever I think of them I have the urge to say ‘Martin, it’s Linda…’ a la Little Britain.
Driving along the dirt road through the lush countryside was wonderful. The contrasts between the land and karsts was magnificent. We also enjoyed discussing our travels with Martin and Linda who gave us the lowdown on Myanmar. I think the comment that sticks in my mind most is: ‘back in the 60s people used to complain about the “ugly Americans” always on tour in unflattering outfits, and now in Myanmar you find the ugly Chinese instead.’ (!)
Before we got to take a dip in the Blue Lagoon, we were equipped with head torches so we could explore a particularly large cave first. It was a rather hairy venture and required a lot of slipping and sliding through the ledges and crannies. At first I wasn’t sure why this cave was so spectacular but once we reached the darker recesses we found some pretty cool glittering rock formations.
Shiny rocks. Looks crap through the camera.
After a drink of sour coconut water, we decided to take a dip in the lagoon. There was a Korean tourist group already at one end of the water but we found a quieter spot where Sarah and I had a quiet swim.
Another mahoosive spider
Happy, but curious to know why the water is so blue…?
Once we returned to the tuk tuk we were unexpectedly taken through a local village. The off-coconut water had obviously worked its way through me and I was actually pretty desperate for the loo. But obviously there weren’t any public toilets in this village and I could hardly go and squat in someone’s garden either. Our driver asked me ‘can you go in the nature?’ I told him yes, so long as it was reasonably private, but instead, he led me down the road to the local school. I felt like such an intruder when we made our way across their playground (field). The children were outside playing games and all stopped in their tracks as I trawled behind the guide. When I first began teaching in Vietnam, some of the Hanoi schools felt small, despite the number of students, but this school was tiny. It was made up from just one long building and the toilet block behind.
Once we (and all of the children following) reached the two toilet cubicles, I saw that they were just holes in the ground. They were dirty and there was no toilet roll, but what I was most concerned about was the missing lock. I had to pray that none of the children would come and open the door mid-flow! Thankfully, they didn’t.
Back in the tuk tuk Linda asked me about the classrooms: ‘did they have textbooks? Are there lots of resources etc.’ but of course, I hadn’t stopped to look as I felt awkward trespassing on their school in the first place. It’s certainly not something that would have happened at home.
Cows and pigs casually wandering around the village
As it was lunch time, our final stop was at a family restaurant. It was a small place with pink wooden veranda that we could sit under to enjoy some sticky rice and fried vegetables. There was something so nice about lying back on the floor mats and napping in the sun before making the journey back. I spotted an old woman sat under a small veranda a few metres away who waved at us. She looked very happy indeed and seemed to be doing pretty well for her age. Perhaps that’s what happens when you age in such a warm and peaceful place.
A tourist mecca, maybe. But possibly one of my favourite stops of the trip.