Exploring the Charms of Vang ViengHigh up in the hazy plateau in the north of Vientiane province lies a secret whose truth is slowly being discovered. Vang Vieng is a town few travelers have heard about and ever fewer would consider visiting; but for those who brave the windy roads, this gem that rests in the shadow of limestone cliffs and meandering rivers rejuvenates the weary soul. The recent past of Vang Vieng is inextricably linked with the Vietnam War. It was known as Lima Site 6 and was used by the CIA to conduct the largest bombing campaign in US history. The airstrip, now pot-holed and run down, is now host to the town's only bus station. The first thing one notices upon arrival is the total lack of hustling touts that are ubiquitous in Thailand and Vietnam. There are no taxi drivers shoving a card in your face and promising a five-star room for cheap. Although motorcycle taxis are available at the bus stop, the town is within easy walking distance. Vang Vieng has only recently begun to build up its tourist infrastructure. During my two visits in 2001 and 2002 there were small but noticeable changes in the number of guesthouses and restaurants. It remains exclusively a backpacker scene and, thankfully, there is no sign of a high rise of luxury hotels anytime soon. This aspect keeps with the simple, low-key mood of the town. Most visitors spend at least one afternoon floating leisurely down the river. Even the most frugal budget can afford the 5000 kip ($0.55) inner-tube rental which includes a motorbike ride up river (2, 4, or 6 km). At about one kilometer per hour, tubing is only a little slower than braving the mountain roads in Laos, albeit a lot more relaxing. A hand-drawn, cartoon map of the town and surrounding region can be easily found for $2.00. This is necessary for those who rent bicycles or motorbikes to explore independently the numerous caves or hill-tribe villages nearby. I managed to visit one cave, Phalusy, on foot one hazy morning. The walk across the river and through some farm fields was easy and well marked. The dry heat of the afternoon had not yet reached an unbearable temperature. A 5000 kip entry fee gets you a guide and flashlight. The tour, about 30 minutes, barely begins to uncover half the cave. Be warned however: even locals who are unfamiliar with the larger caves in the area have gotten lost. Two friends of mine and I signed up for an all-day kayaking tour. Our adventure started with a short ride up river in a pint-sized songthaew. In a typical Asian fashion, it was packed with six kayaks, paddles, and eight passengers. We walked through a small village of no more than 100 huts. This particular village is a mish-mash of ethnic Laos and hill tribe families who were re-located to this lower elevation. Those huts built on stilts, it was explained, were made by the (lowland) Laos so as to avoid flooding in the wet season. Alternatively, huts built low to the ground belong to the hill-tribe people, made to minimize damage caused by strong mountain winds. Peering into the huts and lives of these locals offers a strange role-reversal that makes itself immediately apparent. As if we were in a living museum, we moved slowly but surely through the village, taking account of people's activities. Some played, some cared for their children, and some talked. As quickly as our presence was noticed, my group was suddenly the focus of attention of all the locals. They stared back at us, took stock of what we were wearing and how we carried ourselves. For a moment, it was not clear who the real spectacle was. Only the children broke the quiet with their cries of "hallo" and "you have pen?" In what seemed like a flash, the experience was over and we arrived at the river. We had 3 local guides for the six person group-- all either America or English men. We started with a two-minute lesson and then we were off. As the rear paddler in a two-person kayak, I unassumingly took the role as navigator. Unfortunately for me and my fellow land-lover, I had no idea how to steer or navigate the small rapids that were to come. Within 5 minutes that fateful moment of panic came as the class one rapids forced my kayak to the rivers edge, and we were promptly capsized by some overhanging branches. We quickly recovered by simply standing up in the knee-deep water, turning over the boat, and humbly continued on our way, soaked. Luckily, the rest of the day went without incident. We made frequent stops to tour caves, sip tea, and have lunch. Unlike some tours in Vietnam, this one did not try to include too many sights, and I found the day's pace to be perfect. At night, there are two tourist bars in town at the intersection of the road that runs parallel to the highway and the road that leads to the market (there are no street names in Vang Vieng). Wildside is unmistakable as it pumps out loud, distorted music that accosts the ear and creates an ambiance that contradicts the serenity of Vang Vieng. Turned off by the blaring noise, I decided to plunk myself down in a much quieter and more peaceful restaurant/bar. Erawan guesthouse and restaurant has three barstools at the counter. It is run by an Australian, who has lived in Laos for 14 years, and his Lao wife, Van. This proved to be a much better spot to calmly drink a beer, watch some English Premiership, and converse with some locals. According to Van, there has recently been a conscious effort by the government to reduce illegal activities in Vang Vieng. During my first visit, I was told by a Canadian working in a bar (ostensibly illegally) that the opium den was next to the pharmacy, and marijuana could be easily found across the street. He said this with a sly smile so familiar to young travelers seeking a party. This quiet town was headed to becoming another Ko Phangan. At the behest of the locals (who couldn't sleep with the loud, drunk foreigners yelling every night), the government cleaned up the town. Now a midnight curfew in enforced for businesses. The logic is that if there isn't a place for tourists to loiter, they will simply go to bed. This policy may just have saved Vang Vieng from becoming a pilgrimage for rowdy backpackers. In terms of noise pollution, the worst Vang Vieng has to offer is the pre-dawn rooster calls that echo throughout the town. Beginning around 3 am, and continuing every half hour until an hour after dawn, neighborhood cocks signal the locals to rise, and remind peace-seeking travelers that these original alarm clocks are as authentic as stilted, thatched homes. The country charm that is the attraction of Vang Vieng will likely deteriorate as tourism develops, but for now it remains an idyllic stop in an unassuming country. Vang Vieng lies approximately four hours north of Vientiane and seven hours south of Luang Prabang. Inexpensive buses leave daily, beginning in the pre-dawn hours. I used a recent VIP bus that shuttles up to twelve tourists in a van between these three cities. From Vientiane, the bus leaves between 9-10 a.m. and arrives around 2:30. The return bus leaves at 3:00 p.m. and arrives four hours later. The cost of the van is $10-14 return; this is much more expensive than the public bus (7000 kip from Vang Vieng to Vientiane), and frankly isn't any more comfortable than the public bus. Unless the price of the private van comes down, I would suggest using public transportation not only because of the cost, but for the potential interaction with locals.
Published on 5/2/02