Vang Vieng: eerily peaceful

For a town made infamous by its party goers and crazy atmosphere, Vang Vieng was for the most part, anything but.

I came in on a local minibus from Phonsavan, surrounded by local women who vomited into small car sick bags that they would throw out the window as the minivan whisked around corners and sped up and down the great hills. Thankfully, somehow my Australian stomach was faring far superior to those around me and I got through the entire journey unscathed. We stopped here and there  very irregularly for toilet breaks and snack stops, but I had purposefully filled myself to the brim at breakfast so as to get myself through the whole journey without having to branch out and try the questionable rouge choices along the way. There was a designated doorman who would crank open the “door” to the van whenever someone wanted to get out, and luckily, after learning from previous mistakes, I had loaded the Google Map for Vang Vieng prior to leaving my breakfast spot so I would be able to follow where we were heading at least for the last part of the journey.  I napped now and then, the twists and turns of the Laotian hills rocking me to sleep, and tried to take a few snaps of the beautiful rocks and vast greenery, however the numerous potholes nor the drivers inability to stop for them did not aid that task at all.  Eventually we were drawing closer to Vang Vieng. A few lone women hopped off a fair way from the town according to my map, so I sat tight and waited as we drew closer on the map.

Well, I thought the driver was well aware of where I was headed, obviously not. We took an interesting turn as we headed towards the town, continuing along the highway instead of the  veering right to the main street, and that as when I finally mustered up the courage and decided to step in, I knew if I didn’t I would wind back in Vientiane (where the bus eventually ends up) if I didn’t say anything. ‘Vang Vieng?’ I asked. The door man shouted to the driver and about 3 seconds later we had screeched to a halt. Thank god, was all I could think to myself, right decision- who knows what would have happened if I hadn’t loaded the map or awoken half an hour earlier or questioned the doorman. Well thankfully, they are all stories for another day. I clambered off, my big backpack on my back, my matching smaller backpack strapped to my front. The bus hummed away, soon enough a spec of its former self, leaving me in a cloud of dust. I did a 360° circle, looked around for  anyone that might speak english and sighed. Once again the ‘what the hell have I got myself into’ thoughts rushed into my head, but thankfully, before I worked myself into too much of a panic, a nice man called out to me and pointed in the direction of what I would soon find out was the main street. I said thank you and turned to walk towards the backs of the shops and houses. The street was parallel to where I was standing, however, unfortuantely there was an old runway and a swamp between where the bus had dropped me off and where I was meant to be…

I put my phone and anything else I was holding securely in my bag on my front and headed over to have a look. Yes, mud it was, but perhaps I could walk briskly and it would be fine I thought… Well thongs (flip-flops) and quicksand mud, are not a good combination, especially when you are holding 20kg strapped to your back/front. I took about two steps and my thong was stripped from my foot. Sinking into the ground before me, I clambered to grab it, wobbling, with the weight of what seemed like the world, I managed to stay relatively upright but my hand and arm were offered as tribute in the process. I returned back to my starting point. ‘Now what?’ I asked myself. I headed back to the main road where the nice man had helped me, and a few others had come out to see the struggling westerner battle the conundrum before her. They pointed across the swap but a bit further up the road this time, and low and behold, a series of wooden planks in the mud that acted as stepping stones to get you across. Well a fool I was. I thanked them all, covered in mud, bare foot with my broken thong in hand, I clambered across the planks and then the runway and eventually onto the main street. It was slightly more built up, with guesthouses and restaurants lining the streets, and the odd travel agent dispersed between.

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This time around I had looked into hostels, in case I wasn’t up for the Russian Roulette of guesthouses before me. And after my initial welcome, trudging from one to the next was the last thing I felt like doing. Using Maps I stumbled upon Central Backpackers, it had a decent write up, and exhausted from the journey I stumbled inside and soon enough I had myself a $5 dorm bed in a 6-bed mixed dorm. I put my stuff on my bed, and headed to the lounge where the wifi was, so I could update the family on my safe arrival and check out potential plans for the next few days. It was here at around 3:15pm in the afternoon that I met one of the best people of my entire trip. Her name was Victoria and after coming from Vientiane and checking in a couple of hours earlier, she was considering changing backpackers because of a lack of vibe around the place. We got chatting and eventually she agreed to wait it out at least one night and see if things improved. We went to grab some food- I was still full from breakfast, but was keen for a refreshing fruit shake after the delicious concoctions I’d stumbled upon in Vientiane.

Well, the one thing I learnt from my short stay in Vang Vieng was that Central Backpackers was a great place to sleep and meet people, but a shocking place for food. We sat down in the restaurant part and grabbed a menu, however, soon enough the waiter came over and told us that there was nothing in the kitchen and that he could only make fruit shakes and no food. Useful restaurant when you’re actually hungry. The wet weather was not making a traipse outside appealing, but we needed real food. We clambered across the street to an interesting joint where the family spent most of their time watching TV and very little engaging with customers or trying to make a living. But they did have bread and sandwich ingredients so we were sold. I ordered a mango fruit shake and Victoria a ham and cheese sandwich. About 5 minutes later the lady came back and informed us that they in fact didn’t have any mangos but could do an orange fruit shake. Well today was just not my day. I settled for whatever scraps they could put together and we waited for our food. With the fruit shake sub par and not what I had originally desired and a sandwich with more mayonnaise than ham and cheese combined, our afternoon snack was a complete let down. Nonetheless, we didn’t let it dampen our spirits and decided to go for a walk around town and grab a drink somewhere. We stumbled upon  Smiles Bar along the river and set ourselves down in hammocks. We ordered fruit shakes, finally Mango to my liking and chatted about our lives for over an hour as the sun set before us. We exchanged stories of our families of boys and of our travels. The serenity was incredible, the peaceful cliffs standing tall and the river flowing quietly, it was pure bliss.

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We eventually returned to the hostel, bumping into a group of travellers that Victoria had met in Vientiane and agreed to meet them in an hour or so for dinner. We relaxed for a while and shared ideas for the next day’s plans, happy that we’d both found a friend!

Dinner was a hit, about 13 of us gathered together in the end from all corners of the globe, Germans, Japanese, Swiss, French, Iranians, Koreans, myself as an Aussie- any and everyone that was keen to join! Hamburgers were on the cards, the Germans were determined to show us the ‘best hamburgers’ they’d had travelling so, off we trotted for a very traditional dinner 😉 ! After many Beer Laos and some very good burgers at a very cheap price, we headed to Sakura bar on the advice of the Germans also for a fun and Korean?! filled evening! We are still unsure why so many Koreans (young old and everywhere in between) flock to Sakura Bar, but they were a lot of fun, especially when Gangham Style was blared throughout.

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The next morning I clambered out of bed, still keen to go tubing before I had to leave the next day, I went for a walk in search of some breakfast and to investigate tubing options. Most woke by about 10:30am, including Victoria and a bunch of the Koreans who were keen to join me. We got Victoria some questionable breakfast- milk was a necessity to combat the extreme hangover- who knows, Swiss cure perhaps? Anyway, after buying some sweetened long life, children’s milk and an average croissant, we hired ourselves tubes and chucked our valuables in the dry bag. We bumped in the Koreans also renting the tubes and off we all went down to the river entry point. Now although many would have heard that tubing in Vang Vieng gave the town bad wrap a couple of years ago, it was actually in fact the stupid idiots that decided it would be a good idea to float down the driver drunk and on drugs and would end up drowning. Tubing itself in Vang Vieng was incredibly safe. Individuals line the river to throw you a rope to pull you out of the river at the couple of bars still lining the streets or at the end of the couple of kms, and the scenery is just beyond belief. Unfortunately due to the water I was unable to take many photos of the huge cliff fronts and beautiful sight but it will forever be remembered. It truly was an unforgettable experience of about 2 hours of blissful floating under the warm sun.

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We headed back to the hostel, grabbed some lunch and hung out for a while. I went for a walk, and took some final snaps and chilled out. I was keen to go to the blue lagoon but no one wanted to come for the ride so I decided not to and was happy to just book my bus ticket for the next day to Luang Prabang and catch up on my journal. Lunch and dinner were often fruitshakes and sandwiches or “pancakes” (read deep friend batter) from the street stalls and soon enough we knew our favourites that made the most delicious snacks.

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Vang Vieng had an eery peacefulness to it. It was quite sad to see the empty restaurants, the brand new guesthouses, all abandoned by tourists. The bad rep it got years ago did mean it needed a clean up, and there was no doubt the locals were behind it to some extent- no one likes 100s drunk people roaming the street, but it has also been extremely detrimental to the welfare of these people. Hundreds of locals capitalised on the booming tourism of the early 2000s and moved to town to set up businesses. Now they are left with very few visitors and half empty guesthouses and restaurants. I hope that the beauty of this place will bring back larger groups of tourists and that the rules will keep the unruly behaviour away in the future. It was an unforgettable experience and no way were the bars and drugs necessary to fully appreciate the town’s beauty, there is no doubt that these individuals were not even appreciating Vang Vieng for what it really has to offer.

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