Vang Vieng: More than just a party town

Since Vang Vieng evolved into a party town, people have either loved it or hated it. Sure, this party culture has brought plenty of tourism in along with lots of wealth to the people involved; there are a lot of things however that most locals have seen that they didn’t choose to be exposed to.

Vang Vieng town with its limestone rocks in the background. Photo Credit: Pigalle, Flikr.
I’m one of the people who has gone tubing and partying in Vang Vieng and I will admit that it is a whole lot of fun. There’s music, young men and women willing to have a good time, lots of dancing, tubing (of course), parties all night and yes alcohol and drugs. Also, all of this is available on a budget.

“I’ve been here for 5 months and I’m not ready to leave”, a 21-year-old Swedish girl I meet on my first day tells me. She’s been in Vang Vieng for a long time working in a bar in exchange for food, alcohol, and fun.

This is a pretty common trend in this town: people come here and then forget about leaving.

It’s always Party-O-Clock in Vang Vieng. River Side Bars, Nam Song. Photo Credit: Brongaeh, Flikr

I can understand why the crowds are drawn to Vang Vieng but I have also seen the damage it has done. I saw it as a great place to meet people, dance, jump in the water when it gets too hot and just cruise around from bar to bar. However, I am also aware that I am among the small percentage of people who absolutely love a good party and at the same time do not need gallons of alcohol to fuel the fun. If you’ve been to VV, as it has come to be known, then you know that the party area with all the tubing is outside the main town. The way I see it, the people who’ve built the bars there and get all the money from the tubing – party-loving tourists know what they are in for.

Tubing down the Nam Song past the river sidebars. Credit: Adam Groffman

The problem arises when people get back from the river into the town absolutely shitfaced. You hear a lot of “Aussie Aussie Aussie” chants in the middle of the street (seriously, every single night), people walking around like zombies with next to no clothes on and at times even harassing locals who’re just trying to earn a decent buck. I’ve seen that happen and it is shameful, sad and damaging. It made me feel ashamed of myself for being a part of the scene in some way. Any party town needs to be about a good time and not be associated with the guilt of damaging its local culture and even though I didn’t directly disrespect anyone, did I feel that guilt? Yes, I did. In that sense, I guess it’s not possible to isolate the two: the riverside parties and the town. There is bound to be a spillover which is a shame because if everyone was responsible and respectful, I reckon we wouldn’t have these debates all the time. Due to the recklessness and drunkenness that entails a good time for most, many a life has been lost in the river. Not good statistics for a “party place”. Everyone knows that “Health and Safety” is a nonexistent term in S.E Asia and that’s just the way it is. You need to look after yourself but what goes down in Vang Vieng is the opposite of that.

The Vang Vieng tub hire system works on a rotating basis set up by the locals. Photo Credit: Joffley
Vang Vieng’s excessively popular image as a party town is also harming it in another way: some people end up skipping the town altogether. That in itself is sad because really, there is so much more it offers. Tomorrow even if they close down every single bar in and around Vang Vieng, I’d still choose to spend time there. If you’re an outdoorsy person there is so much to do there! You can hike up limestone mountains, go kayaking in the Nam Song for miles, venture inside the cavernous depths of Tham Nam Cave whilst tubing (sans alcohol this time), explore the gigantic abyss of Tham Phu Kham caves or go swimming in the blue lagoon which is home to countless butterflies, tree jumps and friendly locals. For those who are a fan of heights and views, hot air ballooning over the village is also a popular thing to do. This is definitely as budgeted as ballooning gets.

 Ballooning makes for stunning views both from the balloons and of the balloons Photo Credit: GoingPlacesSG

Recently, after years of talking about it there has finally been a massive crackdown on the partying scene and while the number of Western backpackers has decreased, tourism from the rest of Asia has begun pouring in. Having been there, I feel confident of Vang Vieng’s future and the financial well-being of its people because party or no party, nothing can take away the inherent charm and beauty of this little limestone town by the river.

Hopefully, for the sake of the locals, my idyllic beliefs will hold true in reality.

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