In this article:
- Before the Ban – tubing in Laos before the government made important safety changes to the bars and put strict rules in place
- Tubing Now – what you can expect from tubing in Vang Vieng now, from backpackers who have recently visited Laos.
- My Summary – has Vang Vieng changed for the better, would I go again and what do you think?
For many years Vang Vieng in Laos has been an essential stop on the backpacker trail through South East Asia, and the attraction for most is Tubing down on the Nam Song River. It’s always been a contentious subject. The drunken antics of ‘Spring Break’ type partygoers give Vang Vieng a reputation similar to that of the Full Moon Party in Koh Phangan. Love it or hate it, it was very dangerous! I can personally verify that. So dangerous in fact I remember having a moment where I thought, “s*** if I’m not careful I could drown here!” And I was one of the sensible ones (believe it or not).
Before the Ban
Tubing in the ‘good old days’. I went tubing in Vang Vieng before it was banned in 2012 and given a safety makeover by the Laos government, when it was arguably at its most dangerous. It’s been reported that there are over 20 deaths per year, but there seemed to always be an inconsistency with the numbers and a lack of press coverage on just how dangerous it was. When we arrived, we’d heard that the same day a Norwegian guy had died after using a rope swing, knocking himself unconscious and not re-surfacing. That was the warning we needed to avoid the rope swings and make a point of really looking out for each other.
Back in those days over 400 people would head to one of the two shacks in town providing the tubes, you’d pay your deposit, sign your life away and get a number written on your hand. A Tuk Tuk would then take around 10 of you up the Nam Song River to the first bar. Backpackers would then float from one bar to the next with their dry pouches containing money and maybe a camera, getting more and more drunk along the way. Sounds fun right? Well it was. The main problem was just how drunk people got and the infamous rope swings. Drinking during the day will catch even the most hardened drinkers out, add to the mix Laos strength Whiskey, dodgy cocktail buckets and a deep, treacherous river to the equation and you have a recipe for disaster.
Then you have the rope swings and zip line. Having heard the horror stories I opted to avoid these tubing the first time round, but did give one a go the second time round, having judged their safety and chosen the one I deemed the least risky. But even this one had its hazards. The local Laos guy passed me the swing and said “don’t land here, here or here”, pointing at shallow spots and rocks in the river! Great. Thankfully I landed in a deep bit and all was well. But what if I wasn’t so cautious, sober or I simply slipped? It’s easy to see how accidents happen.
What about tubing now? Well, as far as I can tell all the bars were initially closed, then some re-opened with certain rules to abide by. There were certainly no rope swings and many of the bars on the river front were and still are closed for good. I’ve heard that Vang Vieng suffered, initially attracting little or no tourists what-so-ever. A backpacker recently told me…
[su_quote]It’s like going to a party that’s already ended, but the last few stragglers are still partying![/su_quote]
But, all is not lost. There are still plenty of people tubing, and if you want to party then the famous Vang Vieng bars still sell ridiculously strong cocktail buckets in the evening, if that’s your thing. Adam Poskitt, writing here for Travelfish explains that many tubers stop at strategic spots on the river to have a beer, throw a Frisbee and make new friends. This to me seems like a much healthier environment for tubing, rather than huge bars full of drunks pumping out loud dance music and upsetting the beautiful scenery surrounding you! I asked a couple of travel bloggers what their recent experiences were like.
Jenn, a travel blogger at Who Needs Maps went in July 2014. You can follow Jenn on Facebook.
[su_quote]We went tubing in Vang Vieng this past July and to our pleasant surprise, tubing was still happening. Every night. Rain or shine, drunk kids were roaming the streets of Vang Vieng in their Bikinis and a bathers looking for a way to continue their party. However, it isn’t as rowdy as it was a few years back! It’s a good thing, for sure. They limit the amount of bars open so it is more regulated (we only had 2 open), they got rid of all swings and ropes, and there was a few people waiting at the end of the Tubing session to help drunk people out of the water. They still do give you a free shot with every beer and a free bracelet but I’m not sure if the bracelets are drink counters or just a festive souvenir! Tubing was definitely one of the best days we have ever had![/su_quote]
Siobhan, travel blogger at her new blog Backpacking Mama went tubing in September 2014, and had a slightly different experience. Follow Siobhan of Facebook.
[su_quote]I was in Vang Vieng last September and it is a lot quieter than it was a few years ago. Many of the bars along the river have closed or at least they are now a lot more low key. When you hire tubes, you are taken around 2-3 miles out of town and it only takes 90 minutes to float back. It’s slower in dry season and faster after the rains. There are still a lot of bars open playing music, but they are no where near as busy as a few years back. In my opinion it is much better without the crowds, drifting down the river through all the gorgeous scenery is enough for me without being totally wasted. There’s time for that when you get back to the town.[/su_quote]
So in my opinion, for what it’s worth is this seems like a very good move for Laos. It may have taken the government a few years to get there, but with this balance it’s definitely made me keen to go back and do it again, in the much improved format. Laos, and Vang Vieng in particular has so much more to offer than getting drunk on the Nam Song River. In fact, I want to discover more of Laos, and not be victim to following the herd, rushing through and only scratching the surface.
If you’ve been to Laos recently, Vang Vieng or beyond, I’d love to hear about your experience. What are your top tips? Where are the hidden gems in this great country? (If you prefer you can email me these privately) 🙂
27 thoughts on “Tubing in Laos: Then and Now”
Wow tubing does look like really good fun! I definitely want to try and do this now 🙂
It really is Lizzy, and now it (to me) sounds better, you can take in the beauty of Laos and then have a drink later 🙂
I was in VV in 2007 and had a great time. I was not surprised when I heard a few years later that the bars had been closed though. There is still plenty to occupy the traveler in VV so hopefully people will go there for more than just a party.
Hey Tim, yeah I completely agree, maybe they have the balance right. I couldn’t really believe how dangerous is was, so something had to change
I went tubing in Vang Vieng back in 08, it was pretty crazy then! I remember being slightly alarmed by the booze/bars/swings/river combination but once passing the (many) bars noticing how spectacular the scenery was. Beyond the bars, it was peaceful and beautiful.
Hey Rachel. You’re so right, I remember looking to the right and seeing beautiful mountains, scenery and landscape, and to the left pumping dance music and drunken madness 🙂
We were in Vang Vieng in November 2014 and found it to be a charming riverside town. Our three night stay turned into six! There were plenty of people around but I’m sure it’s a small percentage of what the town used to attract. We opted for a kayak trip which included a stop at one of the bars…. Was all good fun and I’m alive to tell the tale 🙂
Hi Sarah. That sounds about perfect to be honest, I’d love to do it in a kayak too 🙂
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I was there in 2010 and 2012. It was a gorgeous place and the bars were fun, but obviously super dangerous. I never saw so many injured people on vacation in my life! And Vang Vieng is NOT where I would want to have to visit a hospital! I couldn’t even find Immodium at the “pharmacy”, nothing was in English and who knows what those OTC drugs were. I’m glad it’s safer now and maybe some of us backpackers will go back after our party-phase and enjoy more of what Laos has to offer, great food, great people, and gorgeous countryside.
Hey Lisa, Yes exactly, me neither, so many injuries. Ha ha, I completely agree, now my party-phase is (nearly) over I’ll go back and enjoy it properly 🙂
Yup, that’ll do it. You have my aprneciatiop.
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I was going to go to Laos on a SEA trip in 2010 but now am so glad I waited. This sounds way nicer really!
Definitely Sheena, have a great time when you do go 😀
I just got back from VV and had a blast tubing. I heard it’s a much more tame version, but they still put on a good party. It would have been great to see it during the “good ol days” though.
‘It’s like going to a party that’s already ended, but the last few stragglers are still partying!’
I totally agree with this, Vang Vieng was my least favourite part of Laos. We had heard that the party days were over and it is now a great place for a bit of action and adventure amongst beautiful scenery. We were disappointed. In my opinion the beautiful countryside is ruined by a dirty town and a handful of backpackers trying desperately to cling onto a party that’s long since died.
That being said, we did go tubing and enjoyed it. We set off earlier than the usual party time and floated gently downriver sober and relaxed!
I want to go there. Vang Vieng is my list of favorite destinations.
Actually Me and my friend we are planning to trip somewhere. then i saw your blog and read this post. I hope we’ll have great time & lots of fun there as it seems in this post.
I went back in 2002 and loved it. I only remember there being a couple of bars though and no rope swings. We stopped off at come caves along the way. I’d love to go back to Laos.
Check out the red tubes 2019 in Vang vieng on the south side. Instagram; tubing tours vang vieng kld
I went tubing in 08 with a group of about 20 people we met on the slow boat to LP and can confirm we had an amazing time! The location is spectacular, bar hopping via the river was an hilarious adventure (and the river bars were pumping) and the rope swings and flying foxes were brilliant fun. Wonderful memories.
I met my (now) husband in Vang Vieng in 2010, while I was there for just over a month, dishing out shots and headbands at Oh La La bar. I had an incredible time there and the country is so beautiful, but I’m completely unsurprised that it all ended up being shut down. I ferried so many people to the hospital on my scooter, with cuts and pink eye and infections… the local people were endlessly patient with all of us drunken idiots. I spoke to a few lads who said that their mums were really disappointed that they had ended up working “down at the river”. I hope they’re having a better time now.
Went in 2008 and again in 2012 or 2013 and it had changed so much. 2008 was absolute debauchery, with loads of bars and swings and slides. Hundreds of people absolutely smashed, bar after bar with different swings and slides, and every now and then some sort of unspoken herd decision was made to move to the next bar, where the party started all over again. Happy shakes (hard pass), free shots, buckets, people covered in mud copping off everywhere; just absolute debauchery. I vividly remember smoking a doobie at Mumma Lao Lao’s looking up at the incredible mountains. One of the best days of my life.
Every bar in town had Friends or South Park on a loop for people to stare at while recovering from the night before, and there weren’t any streets, just dirt roads. One mushroom bar, Happy Bar, was on an island and had to be accessed over a rope bridge which meant that they knew when the police were coming! Didn’t have any shakes but went for the experience. Stayed in a bamboo hut on another island that had to be accessed via rope swing for $2 a night and it was one of the best places I stayed at in Laos. Loads of great memories.
When I went back it had changed so much. Only a few bars, the swings and slides had been torn down, and the few people there seemed more interested in a leisurely meander down the river than partying, or were half-heartedly doing the ‘Vang Vieng Dance’. The town itself was pretty quiet too, and had been paved over and gentrified. A little sad really, but at least I got to see it at its height!
Was there in 2006…it was loose, to say the least…I remember watching the road through town get tarmac during our stay and on the last day the towns first ATM got unveiled….the times sure are a changin’
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