I'd heard a lot about Vang Vieng since first coming to South East Asia, having to endure the same overheard conversations as each new group of fresh backpackers is wowed by lecherous travellers' tales of drunken tubing down a river in 'some country called Laos.' It was enough to put me off going this far, but the prospect of another half-day bus ride direct to Luang Prabang convinced me to stop here along the way and see whether it was as bad as I feared.
It sort of was, but weighted more towards the amusing end than just depressing.
That's 'bad' as in 'bad for me,' of course, which probably means it's the sort of place you should definitely check out if you have anything approaching a regular personality. Especially if you feel at home in Bangkok's Khao San Road area and Kuta in Bali (I avoided that one at least) and if you found the more rural parts of those countries to be a little lacking in beer bucket bargains, stalls selling vests, hygienic-looking tattoo vans and poor quality speakers vibrating masonry with the bass line of what used to be a song but is now only identifiable by its dental records.
This grumpy old dick persona is a mild exaggeration, by the way. It's easy enough to escape from the party crowd unless you're heading up-river, so the drinking, dancing, vomiting kids can be a temporary amusement when you feel like it, sort of like those 19th century freak shows.
I've got nothing against the tubing either, which looks like a lot of fun as long as you're not stupid enough to load yourself up on alcohol and 'happy shakes' before trusting your life to an inflatable torus and the will of the current. I would have gone tubing if the friend I was travelling with could swim, but with an average of two tourists dying each month from water-based activities in Vang Vieng as it is, I didn't want to overburden the Reaper.
Like the 'saunas' in Macau that scantily-clad, dead-eyed women coincidentally hang around outside, you have to wonder why these opium dens even bother with the pretence of subtlety
Things aren't much better in the town itself, which has been willingly engulfed by the tourism explosion. Every building that isn't a travel agent is a restaurant/bar serving predominantly French and British food and the worst Thai and Laos food I've tasted anywhere, but there are still some quirks, like the ubiquity of Friends. In what presumably started as an entrepreneurial move and got out of hand, pretty much every one of these places plays DVDs from the mediocre sitcom on a perpetual loop, whether anyone's head is lolling in that general direction or not. The ones that don't show Friends show Family Guy instead, catering to the niche market of hungry stoners who prefer their poor quality comedies animated.
Downg-nowng-nowng-nowng, nowng nowng, nowng-nowng-nowng, bloooowwwwnnng
I briefly flirted with the idea of opening up an alternative for the people who pass through Vang Vieng looking for something other than a low budget inland Ibiza, but the best I could come up with was a tea house ripped off Tchai Ovna in Glasgow, that would sell fantastic smelling blends and screen Seinfeld on a perpetual loop, possibly switching to Peep Show after the watershed. But switching those DVDs every 90 minutes would get tiring, even if I unethically hired a young child to do it for me like all the other bars do, so I think I'll stick with the day job of visiting places that I know aren't my cup of Yogi Yogi Chai and criticising people for having the time of their lives.
The kid on the left is on a five-minute break from offering free alcohol shots to passersby. She was the most world-weary nine-year-old I've ever seen
If your idea of a good time sounds like the polar opposite of mine, take this as a glowing review of Vang Vieng. If not, there are some nice caves and things to see before you hit the road again.