Please excuse my language, but there is no better way to talk to about the town of Vang Vieng. Set in central Laos, conveniently located halfway between the World Heritage City of Luang Prabang and Vientiane, the country’s capital, Vang Vieng is beautifully situated on the banks of a tributary of the Mekong River and surrounded by picturesque mountains. The nearby area is dotted with dozens of caves that you can explore by yourself or as part of a group, and the river is a draw for rafters and tubers. Our hotel room had one of the best views of any we stayed in all year!
This all sounds quite lovely until I tell you that the average tourist to Vang Vieng is a 20-year-old British/Aussie kid on his gap year before university. We knew we were stopping at a party destination on the backpacker route, but we were kinda surprised to find the Cancun of Asia. The behavior of most backpackers was troubling at best, and downright obnoxious and appalling at its worst.
When we first arrived, we ate dinner at a small restaurant on the main drag, both entertained and aghast by the steady stream of wet, drunken kids stumbling down the street. It was really disturbing to know that the local Lao people (a very laid back and warm people whose country only opened up to foreign tourism in 1988!) were witnessing this chaos everyday, and such behavior was the basis of their opinions of Westerners. I’ve lived in college towns all my life, and I understand that things get out of hand when people have been drinking excessively, but for a Lao teenager working in her parent’s simple noodle house to see girls stumbling in the streets in just their bikinis (considered inappropriate behavior in this conservative culture), couples groping each other publicly, and boisterous Aussies screaming obscenities at one another, it’s terrible and embarrassing that she knows little else of our culture but this behavior.
When people aren’t drinking and tubing down the river (the most popular activity by far), they are camped up in the “TV Bars” nursing their hangovers (or contributing to them) and watching reruns of Friends and The Family Guy that are on continuous repeat at these establishments (yes, I did watch some Friends and rather enjoyed it…).
I was completely overwhelmed by the vibe of this place, and we considered leaving the next day, but fortunately we decided to give it a chance. In the end, we were happy we did, however, I still feel bad for the poor old locals and the craziness they’ve had to endure as their quaint little river town has become the hub of backpacker debauchery in just a few short years.