Vang Vieng became famous for being a big backpacker town, with people drawn to its karst topography and the river that runs through the landscape. I visited in 2010, and at its peak it was like a Wild West town for backpacker hedonism.
The town was best known for tubing down the river and stopping at makeshift bars along the way. “Tubing in the Vang Vieng” singlets could be seen all around Southeast Asia, worn by backpackers who had been there, done that.
[Tubing In The Vang Vieng singlets from 2010.]
I returned to Vang Vieng in 2022 as part of my trip to visit every major station on the Laos-China Railway. Many things have changed since my last visit. The fact that I got a train there is of course the biggest change; something I would not have dreamed of being a possibility while crammed into a small seat in a slow minivan ride.
It previously took the better part of a day to travel from Vientiane to Vang Vieng. Now the train makes the trip in 1 hour, so it’s possible for Vientianites to have weekends away in Vang Viang.
[“Vang Vieng Railway Station” is a combination of words I wouldn’t have imagined saying in 2010.]
I arrived by train from Muang Xai, and the station is around 4 km from the town centre.
I was here about a month after Laos had reopened, so the country was still dusting off the cobwebs while foreign tourists were still trickling in.
I made a booking for a guesthouse only to discover that it had closed down. Online travel agents who had laid off staff during the pandemic were not keeping up with updating their listings. This had happened to me a few times in this early reopening period.
The first place I stayed at was a guesthouse in the town, and I could see the mountains from my room. I forgot how beautiful this place is.
[View from Vang Vieng Camellia Hotel.]
Vang Vieng is one of those place that people tend to dismiss because it was a pillar destination on the banana pancake trail. In honour of being back, after I dropped my bags off I got myself a banana pancake.
One of the weirdest aspects of my last visit was all the backpacker bars that were playing Friends. Everywhere you walked you could hear the Friends theme song playing. Now I was here when there were only a few backpackers about, and many of the bars hadn’t reopened.
In the years since my last visit, the tubing business had become controversial as there were a number of deaths. I went tubing in 2010, and apparently there were 27 deaths in 2011. The combination of alcohol and water activities was never a good mix. The bars along the river also had slides and rope swings, which launched drunken tubers into the river. I don’t drink, so it was an odd experience to be a sober person floating through this party scene. The tubing business was closed down around 2012.
Vang Vieng is still an adventure travel destination, and tubing is still offered but it’s not like it was in 2011.
Vang Vieng has worked to change its reputation. There is less emphasis on tubing now, and more on other water activities such as kayaking.
I saw kayakers but no tubers on my walks along the river.
There has also been a pivot to higher-ticket activities such as dune buggies and hot-air ballooning.
I saw advertising for hot-air ballooning at travel agencies around town, and found more people talking about going hot-air ballooning on forums.
I saw balloons floating around during the day.
In addition to promoting more expensive activities, there appears to be more of a focus towards Chinese and South Korean tourists.
Marketing to Chinese makes sense now that there is a direct train line from Kunming. I was puzzled by the amount of signs in Korean, but I looked up the Vientiane Airport wiki from 2019 and saw that there were flights by four different airlines from Seoul and Busan. Also in the years that I was away, a new motorway had opened between Vientiane and Vang Vieng, reducing the road trip to two hours. Now that the trip takes 1 hour by a nice train ride, Vang Vieng may see more Korean tourists.
The border to China wasn’t opened when I was here, and South Korea reopened a week after I was here. It was truly weird to be here with so few tourists. I expect I will be back to do another train trip, so I will make another comparison.
On this trip I was more interested in seeing what Vang Vieng was like during this window of time when there were still few tourists. I wanted to experience local stuff like going to the morning markets. It was also good to be here during the rainy season to see the misty mountains.
There are some decent cafes here now, and I was happy to see that Naked Espesso from Vientiane was here. If there were a few more awesome cafes like this it would be a better digital nomad town (for me at least).
Vang Vieng is still without the major F&B chains that you see everywhere. I started this trip in Vientiane, and Starbucks were preparing to open their first store in Laos. It doesn’t look like they are coming here, though if there is a modern train in Vientiane then a Starbucks isn’t such a outrageous idea.
Cafe Amazon from their big neighbour in the south is here, so maybe we should expect Luckin Coffee from their big neighbour in the north, or Highlands Coffee from their big neighbour to the east.
[Cafe Amazon from Thailand in Vang Vieng.]
The best cafes are still the ones along the riverfront.
I was also here looking for stories on behalf of my other site, Future Southeast Asia. In my wanders around town I was gravitationally drawn towards unfinished hotels and apartment blocks.
There were also some big hotels being built close to the river that have been abandoned. They seem too close to the river, and it would be a shame if the entire river area was filled in with this type of development.
Walking along the river is the highlight of Vang Vieng for me.
It doesn’t take much of a walk before you are in a rural landscape.
I would occasionally think that this would be a nice place to live. I saw these ‘For Sale” signs and wondered if they snared people having the same thoughts.
I was happy to enjoy this view of the river without having to tube down it.
This was my last stop of this train-themed trip. After Vang Vieng I got the train back to Vientiane. Here is my Laos-China Railway review.