I’d heard all the horror stories about Vang Vieng, the backpacker’s haven a 31/2 hr bus ride from Vientiane, but I went anyway.
I gave myself a good talking to on the bus (not aloud, don’t worry) that I was going into this knowingly. That, if and when I was turned off by hoards of twenty-somethings sporting fluorescent “In The Tubing” tank tops, vomiting up their lao-lao (the local brew) into the Nam Song river, that I had no-one to blame but myself. I knew what I was getting into.
And whilst the demographic of passengers on the bus ride didn’t do much to set my mind at ease (and made me feel like a very old 31-year-old), I enjoyed the drive through dusty villages and became excited when limestone mountains began jutting out from the earth, creating a dramatic landscape. The pictures I had seen of VV (that’s what the cool kids are calling it) always featured these beautiful formations, known as ‘karsts’ and I was hoping they would be as beautiful without photoshop.
I’ll admit to experiencing some anxiety in response to some of the things I’d read about VV, and if you haven’t heard about the place, the big draw card for young backpackers is the activity known as ‘tubing’ on the Nam Song river. Drifting down the river in a tire inner-tube sounds like fun to me, but add to that numerous bars teeming with drunken louts, said louts swinging from rope swings after one too many shots, bars pumping out cheesy music, and it kind of changes the image a bit.
“Maybe it’s not that bad”, we said to each other, both quite fond of the tubing concept, and holding out hope that we could avoid aforementioned shennanigans.
So, as soon as the bus deposited us in town, we formulated our plan.
I’d read about an organic farm about 7km upriver, that sounded really nice. Okay, the website said they make goats cheese and serve mulberry pancakes, and that’s really all I read before deciding “I want to stay there”.
The drive out of town on our rented motorbike was quite a challenge, balancing our two backpacks, avoiding potholes and swallowing huge quantities of dust from the unsealed sections of road whilst trying to find our way to The Organic Farm. I was sure that a goats-cheese baguette and a mulberry fruitshake was sure to make it worthwhile.
Exhausted but hopeful, we hopped off the bike at the Organic Farm.
Would this be our peaceful haven in Vang Vieng? I wondered.
Doof, Doof, Doof!
Loud, like really LOUD dance music drifted, no more like bounded across the water from a riverside bar. At first we bopped along, as though trying to convince ourselves that it was okay, that we were not like ancient or anything, and that we did in fact enjoy music (just maybe not hits of 2004). We were shown to a couple of rooms, which although were reasonably presented, were actually pretty pricey for what they were. Ranging from $20 to $30, they would be swallowing a large chunk of our daily budget and honestly, I had hoped for more.
Plus, the music was getting really annoying now.
We peered around the bend in the river and all our fears were realised. A platform holding what looked like hundreds of fluoro-clad youngsters was only meters away, with tuk-tuks depositing more and more tube-bearing hopefuls onto the riverbank right next to the farm. We were at the tubing launching point. O.K Then…
Whilst I tried to reason with myself that this was just the way it is, thankfully Tyrhone thought better of it, and suggested we check out a few more places.
After fruitlessly exploring the riverbank north of Vang Vieng town, we resolved (somewhat defeated) to return to town, where surely suffering the party crowd would come at a more reasonable price tag.
A Fantastic Find…
I always marvel at the way things turn out, even when I think things are not going right. I got off the bike at the southern end of town, on a quiet street, because frankly I’d had enough of driving past endless guesthouses and being no closer to securing a bed for the night.
“You have a look there, I’ll look here,” I barked to Tyrhone, who was busy balancing the bags and the bike.
“Huh?” he replied, puzzled, as I strided off down the street, determined to at least see a room, whilst he ignored me and stayed with the bike.
I wanted to see another place we had passed, but a young boy appeared with a wide smile, gesturing towards a pathway leading down to six bungalows set in a lush, manicured garden. The lady owner appeared with another much appreciated smile and the keys to a lovely, roomy, clean, quiet bungalow with a private bathroom and air conditioning.
“For you, very cheap, 80,000 Kip,” she said.
I bounced up the driveway to deliver the good news to Tyrhone, who was patiently (or not, I really can’t tell sometimes) sweating out the afternoon sun.
After a much welcomed dumping of bags followed by a hot shower, we set off down the road, towards a river-side restaurant I had spied on the drive earlier. It was part of the immaculate “Riverside Resort” and whilst I knew staying there would be well over our budget, I had a feeling a meal there wouldn’t break the bank.
Aside from the immaculate gardens and inviting swimming pool, the resort is situated on a magical part of the river. I couldn’t believe my eyes. We were right in town, and yet the scenes of local kids splashing each other in the water, mothers bathing naked toddlers and the setting red sun sinking behind the jagged limestone peaks looked more like a snapshot of rural Laotian life from a remote village, not down-town Vang Vieng.
Maybe the cool kids were on to something here after all!
From the restaurant, we absorbed the beautiful scene of daily life unfolding before our eyes, letting the joyous squeals of the local kids, seemingly oblivious to the drunken tubing happening just up-river, lift our spirits and renew our hope that Vang Vieng might hold more promise than we ever dared to expect.
The Bungalows we chose (or that chose us!) are called Sanachai Bungalows, at the southern end of town, on the road that runs along the river. It’s down from the Villa Vang Vieng Riverside Resort. The beds are hard, but that’s the only fault I can give it, and at $10 per night, you can afford a massage!!!