Vang Vieng Adventure - More Than Just River Tubing

In 2012, the Lao Government banned river tubing after several deaths and many injuries. But Vang Vieng has reinvented itself as a destination for adventure seeking nomads.

Photo © GettyImages/AaronGeddesPhotography

Surrounded by mountains and limestone karsts, with emerald green rice paddies, these days Vang Vieng has left its hedonistic past far behind, focusing instead on its breathtaking natural beauty and adventurous outdoor activities like caving, kayaking, mountain biking, and rock climbing.
First established as a staging post in 1353, before being colonized by the French in the 1890s, and used as a secret US Air Force base during the Vietnam War, Vang Vieng’s most recent reincarnation is just its latest. Nonetheless, it has managed to retain its small-town feel, with its main draw the beautiful setting along the river with a mystical backdrop of limestone karsts and jungle.

What Happened to Vang Vieng's River Tubing?

A key stop on the road from Vientiane and Luang Prabang in the heart of Laos, the small town of Vang Vieng was once the spot for partiers and backpackers to let loose in an otherwise very laid-back and conservative country. Tourists would flock to the village and float down the river in rubber inner-tubes, sipping on buckets full of cheap alcohol, launching themselves into the water from homemade trapezes and aptly named ‘death slides’. However, this unfortunate combination resulted in injuries, deaths, and an unwanted reputation, resulting in a 2012 crack-down on tubing bars, loud music, illicit substances, and inappropriate behavior.

Life After The Crackdown

Since then, Vang Vieng has worked hard to re-establish its reputation as being about so much more than just tubing, with adventure seekers flocking for rock climbing and yoga. The majority of Friends and Family Guy bars have been replaced with organic health food cafes, volunteering opportunities and countryside farm stays. There are also inspired boutique hotels for those who fancy something a little more upmarket. Nowadays, this sleepy town feels more like the hippie-haven of Pai in years gone by rather than the place to be for hedonistic party-goers looking for a good time.

Can You Still River Tube in Vang Vieng?

Although river tubing is still popular, it’s more tightly controlled, run by police-affiliated bars where scams between Tuk Tuk drivers and the rental places are rife. After paying to rent the tube for the day, and paying a deposit (around 20,000 kip), you’re driven upriver by Tuk Tuk. With beers, buckets, and backpackers, there’s still plenty of fun to be had floating down the river. But when the day is done, the Tuk Tuk drivers will try to prevent you getting back in time to get your deposit after returning the tube.

Adventure Activities in Vang Vieng

If the tales of rope swings and trapezes leave you wanting more, then the nearby Blue Lagoon – 7km out of town – is worth visiting. A bit of a tourist trap, the lagoon features an array of rope swings and wooden platforms where adrenaline junkies can leap into the bright blue waters below. If you decide to take the plunge, then it’s at your own risk and if you do get hurt, your travel insurer may ask questions about unnecessary risk. Be sensible.

Fast becoming popular, caving is a great way to explore Vang Vieng’s unique geology, with hundreds of caves – many still unexplored – dotting the nearby landscape.
Some are easily accessible by bicycle, while others will necessitate hiring a Tuk Tuk, a motorbike, or an ATV. Just beware that you’ll need to wear a helmet and hold a motorbike license to be covered by insurance. The quality of the roads, especially in rainy season, makes riding a scooter or a motorbike a risky affair for anyone.

Pukham Cave near Vang Vieng Photo credit: GettyImages/fotoember.

Adrenaline junkies can also check out the zip lining trails at Tham Nam Cave, where visitors can soar across the jungle. Visit the Elephant and Water Caves, where you can swim and tube underneath the stalactites.
Kayaking trips up the picturesque Nam Song River are a great alternative to tubing, with some of the best vistas and natural highs, without the booze and debauchery. Some tours will take you more than nine mi (15km) upriver through pristine jungle, where you can go paddling through ancient limestone caves. 

There are also amazing mountain bike trails and great trekking opportunities for both beginners and the experienced,  including the relatively easy Sunset viewpoint. Laos has some of the best rock climbing opportunities in Asia and a variety of local companies offer trips like the two-day mountain assault for adrenaline junkies, which includes trekking, climbing, wild swimming, rappelling down waterfalls, zip lining, abseiling and jungle camping.

If all these adventure activities sound a little too strenuous, and sitting by the river watching the world go by is a little tame, then flying over the mountains and rice paddies in a hot-air balloon is another option for those not afraid of heights. Whatever activity you choose to do, always do your research and check the company’s safety record.

Almost unrecognizable from previous years, Vang Vieng has become one of the region’s biggest success stories. This resilient little town is a testament to how unsustainable tourism can sometimes be, and how by putting safety first, and focusing on the spectacular natural beauty the region is famous for, the locals have been able to turn their fortunes around.

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  • Spencer C. said

    When my boyfriend and I traveled to Vang Vieng March 2011 we were saddened at the state of the little town. There were so many tourists there just for the party who had no respect for the Laos people and their culture. Flouncing around wasted and half naked as so many of these tourists did is deeply disrespectful to the culture. Not to mention some of the behavior they exhibited was disgusting as well. We stayed on the quite side of the river and avoided the tubing all together. Our favorite activities when we were there was climbing up a couple of the limestone karsts and taking a motorbike trip into the countryside. The breathtaking scenery is what Vang Vieng used to be know for, and I am happy to hear the debauchery has been shut down. Hopefully now Vang Vieng can make a comeback as a local friendly, sustainable tourist destination that visitors respect.

  • TCR said

    These cheap backpackers are a real problem. They ruined VV. Ruined Koh Phangnan, ruined Pai...and so many other beautiful destinations. What's wrong with these travelers? They take advantage of the local situation, complete disregard for the local culture. What a shame. As the article says, they just want to party, heck with the cultural attractions.

    Now that this is closed down, I'll go back. In the long run, the locals will make more money off respectful tourists who'll pay good money to visit such a beautiful place. Develop it properly and the money will follow.

  • Evan Tea said

    I spent a few days in Vang Vieng several years ago and was disgusted (to put it mildly) by the scene. But I stayed on the edge of town, rented a motorbike and had a great time exploring the countryside. Went back to Laos last year with my new wife and skipped VV altogether - the thought of a rural, Laotion-style Khao San Road was too much, no matter how beautiful the place. I, for one, am happy to hear of the closures and would love to go back in the future. Respect for the local cultures seems to be in ever shortening supply in Southeat Asia. This is a step in the right direction.

  • Soloartwork said

    I have just returned from two years travelling in Asia and, despite the fact that I like a drink and to have fun, I deliberately kept away from VV and a few other choice places where the irresponsible backpackers seem to head. There are some beautiful areas in Laos, Thailand and other SE Asian countries that have been, or are in the process of being ruined by irresponsible folk. Travel should be both fun and educational. All too often the conversation with young backpackers, many of them gap year graduates, is limited to how many 'buckets ' they drank and how many 'shags' they had. I for one, am glad for the intervention. Such is the beauty of these places, tourism will return. It will just be a different type.

  • Pud said

    Vang Vieng is a beautiful part of Laos but it was like the wild west - a little too wild I think. I was drugged while having dinner and was fortunate enough to wake up in time to chase a nasty woman out of my room before she ripped me off. Anything they can do to save lives and keep this beautiful place safe is good by me because it's definitely worth a visit.

  • Marmot said

    I met my wife, a Thai native, in Bangkok in December 2005, and since then have been traveling the world with her. When we were on a bus in 2006 from northern Laos, we stopped in VV, and found it to be pretty serene, with a nice quiet river, friendy local folks, and wonderful unspoiled areas surrounding it. Having seen what some younger tourists do when not stopped by local authorities in some third world places, I now stay away from that scene. By the same token, the government needs to take some responsibility, and as in parts of Thailand (and other places), there is just too much money available from these type of tourists, and I know that payoffs to continue the craziness often continue. I have, on 2 occassions, dealt with Tourist Police in northern Thailand who I am sure did not follow Thai law. As a retired U.S. law enforcement officer, I asked other govt people about their behavior, and they confirmed that it was wrong. So even govt officials may not know, or care about the actual law. Travelers really need to understand that these places are NOT their home country, and legal, medical, or police help might not be available until far too late. YOU are ultimately responsible for yourself.

  • Claudius said

    Let them kill themselves off as quickly as possible. Less disgusting behaviour and less methane gas in the air.

  • susan said

    I first went to vang Vieng in 1998, it was paradise. the countryside and river were unspoilt. There were minimal backapckers and the place was remote and quiet. Opium dens still operated, but not for tourists, instead for elderly locals. It was amazing! I went tubing, but it wasnt a craze, it was a quiet way to enjoy the scenic beauty of the area. Since then Ive been twice and each time the area has got worse. the last time I was disgusted and shocked at the unfettered building and crazy, disrespectful travellers. Im glad the army has shut the place down!

  • Pete of Oz said

    "Let them kill themselves off as quickly as possible"... Likewise, I have no care, nor sympathy. And to the friends and families, please don't blame someone else - how alcohol and drugs are provided to them, blah, blah, blah. They don't have to go there, and they don't have to consume them. And if they consume them, like alcohol, there's no need to drink to excess AND engage in risky behaviour. They can kill themselves in their OWN HOME TOWN!!! Stay AT HOME AND DO IT. Don't go to another country/culture, shite on them and then blame them! Not even half and half blame, like supply and demand explanation - that is part of the article. And when you get hurt, there'll be your mummy and your pappy - to blame everyone else as well, how the government need to do this and that. I'm familiar with Western and Eastern culture - travel a lot elsewhere as well. Presently, I'm from the Nanny State of South Australia. Then we want to blame the government (Lao of course) is too restrictive this and that. They (government and people) were fine before the w*nkers and j*erks of this world came along...

  • Lou said

    We decided not to pass through Van Vieng on our trip through Loas in 2011 as we had read about the tubing scene and it was not for us.

    We would love to go there so I will be keeping an eye out for what is happening there in the future we did hear that if you can look past the tourist trash it was a beautiful location......

  • Andrea Leber said

    People seem to think only their home country warrants respectful behaviour while other countries apparently don't. Why not treat a foreign country as if it was your own home? As they say, take only pictures, leave only footprints - and a good impression of yourself. Went to VV in 2006 and it was wonderful. Sad to hear how it changed.

  • Rebecca &Helena said

    We travelled to VV specifically to stay with mr T at the organic farm where the tubing started. After seeing the impact that the tubing was having on the farm and the local community we are both glad to hear it has been closed. While this will have an initially devastating effect on the local community with the loss of tourist trade we feel that this will recover and the right visitors will return to VV!
    The complete disregard for the local people, customs, environment and even themselves shown by these tourist was utterly heartbreaking!! We watched risk taking behavior to the extreme with limited to no regulation and were horrified to think that this disregard for human life (young human life mostly) could occur for any profit!
    Local people we spoke to about the tubing gave mixed feeling around it, while providing income there was a greater cost to the people. As for the drugs, we were told by one local that even the Laotians won't take the mushrooms they were feeding the tourists, say something?!?!? There had been a body found the week before we arrived yet this did little to slow the flow of drunken tubers.The locals seemed unphased as it was something they got use to down stream, pulling young corpses from the water.

    A bit about the farm.... Sadly the silk worms didn't like the noise and stopped producing silk, impacting on a vital resource for the local community. The farm employes locals, contributes to the local economy and gives valuable training and education of good ethical buisness. The farming skills and knowledge mr T has and is willing to share is amazing, he is a true inspiration for any green thumb.
    Not only does the farm help support local families, but there are children who have been adopted, schooled and supported by mr T. Have a look at the web page, a pretty amazing experience!

  • Halley said

    Damn, what a strange range of comments to a very saddening story.

    These 'children' who go there to screw and fukk their with their minds, really pay the ultimate price. Its a shame that no stops were introduced along the way, or behaviour encouraged, to try to avoid this tragedy.

    Of course the other side would have been to have a risk assessment of costly measures, to make sure the rope was strong, and that people were looked after, and not allowed if unable to control themselves in the presence of dangers.

    Teaching people to be responsible, is a smaller price to pay, and ultimately allows the establishment to earn a living, respectfully.

    I dont think people can seem unaffected from such tragedies. These kinds of things always leave a mark, however small.

  • Crystal said

    I am going to be backpacking through SE Asia soon and one of my stops is Laos. I have heard many things about people tubing and never realized it had gotten so out of hand. It is really sad that these people are disrespecting the locals and their culture, and almost killing themselves while doing it. Not all backpackers are crazy partiers, I for one am going for the experience and to lend a hand to the locals in need. Would you want someone to come into your home and leave it in shambles, giving the excuse "I'm on vacation"..no, well then simply don't do it to someone else.

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