Long before I made my trip to Laos I had heard or read so many unpleasant things about Vang Vieng – from hedonistic river raves and backpackers behaving badly to the depressing tragedies surrounding it. Floating in an over commercialized, decrepit tractor-tyre inner tube down the Nam Song (Song River) wasn’t so appealing to me either, and apart from being a sleepy, small town on the long way to Luang Prabang I immediately concluded that Vang Vieng must be pretty dull. Visiting Phonsavan and its mysterious Plain of Jars was more on our thoughts back then. However we later learned that accommodating both Luang Prabang and Phonsavan in our tight schedule was rather difficult if not impossible, and since skipping Luang Prabang when you are in Laos sounds totally pointless, we had to pick up the ball and run with it. That’s how Vang Vieng ended up in our itinerary, simply another place to fit into our short trip. Or so we thought.
The countryside on our way to Vang Vieng
There was nothing much to say about the 5 hours bus ride from Vientiane to Vang Vieng, apart that we were cruising along a lonely road bypassing some green mountains and nondescript villages (but anyway lovely). By the time we arrived in Vang Vieng, things were a little sedate and we were a bit confused. There was no one around at the terminal except our bus troop, the bus operator and a lone songthaew (local pick-up taxi), which we quickly boarded, dreading to be left out alone in ghost town. I was biting hard my lips and was beginning to regret our decision of ever coming to Vang Vieng. We should have headed straight to Luang Prabang instead, I thought. Two minutes later we arrived at a cosy little town with guesthouses, restaurants and bars lining up the street (we could have walked!). It turned out that the increase in tourist fatalities had forced the government to shut down many of the river bars; and the once debauchery party town, Vang Vieng has returned to its unobtrusive self again.
The small town of Vang Vieng.
It was a short walk from where we were dropped off to the guesthouse of our choice – The Popular View Guesthouse, which we had decided prior to our trip to Laos. At 100,000 Kips per night it was not the cheapest lodging in Vang Vieng, but the name live up to the expectation. The room was clean and spacious, with two super-single beds combined as one, a flat screen tv, air-condition and an en-suite bathroom with hot water we could say it was a bargain. But what enticing me the most was the stunning view of the Nam Song and the svelte green landscapes that could be seen from the room!
Our spacious room in Vang Vieng, facing the beautiful Nam Song and the karst mountains. Contrary to what we read or heard, Vang Vieng was actually so beautiful and serene that we immediately fell in love with, and almost ditched the plan of ever going to Luang Prabang if not for our better sense of judgment.
The serene Nam Song and the green landscape viewed from our room’s veranda.
Since we were only for a very short time in Vang Vieng, we quickly settled our personal matters and went out again. We rented a scooter from the operator next door at 40,000 Kips and had our lunch at the nearby halal eatery. We should have known well about Laos from our inaugural introductions to their tardiness, and yet we wondered why our plain fried rice arrived only an hour later, with only us as its patrons. Nevertheless we groped our late lunch quickly as soon as they arrived, and in no time found ourselves cruising along the town’s empty streets.
Our first lunch in Laos; a plain fried rice at 20,000Kips per plate – what a bomb!
Equipped only with a rough hand-drawn map we got from the hotel and the directions given by the guy that manned the scooter rental shop, we headed out for our late jaunt around town. We decided to make our way to the Blue Lagoon which we read is interesting to explore (and no, they are not the one featured in the thought-provoking movie of a same name stars by Brooke Shields and Christopher Atkins).
From the main street we detoured into a small road, and were asked to pay some small fee upon crossing a ramshackle wooden bridge that led us across the Nam Song to a dirt road leading nowhere. We rode off bluntly from thereon, relying solely on our hunches and from asking locals around. The map we got was useless past the bridge and there was no sign what so ever indicating the way to the lagoon.
Bridge with toll in Vang Vieng
The view of Vang Vieng from the bridge. If you are thick in the pocket you could try the hot air balloon.
Ironically, Laos is the most heavily bombarded country during the Vietnam War; a conflict which they had no part into, and suffered considerable amount of collateral damage. As a result, a sizeable part of Laos is still under the monitoring of the country’s Unexploded Ordinance, known as UXO or landmines. Some old disarmed bombs now become villages landmark.
Unpaved road to the Blue Lagoon
As the day was getting late we were becoming more and more desperate (first, we only have a day to explore as we will be going to Luang Prabang the next day; second, because we were somehow in a middle of nowhere, no lamp post to where we heading and it’s going to be dark soon). We were cursing ourselves for having lunch (which unfortunately taken most of our precious time) but had to shamefully admit that we were somewhat starving back then. Further and further we went in with no conviction of where we were going, but somehow relieved upon seeing some bare-chested tourists in swim shorts coming from opposite direction.
All-in-all we could say that we enjoyed our long lost journey to the lagoon, amused by the typical rural life we seen along the way – dominated by green paddy fields that stretch across the land and the jagged karst hills. Silhouetted under the sinking sun we saw farmers tended to their fields, and occasionally we bumped into smiling villagers in their humble wooden houses, giggling kids with dirt on their faces, dogs barking at our sight and chasing us while the chickens clucking and scraping the earth. Not to mention there were times we had to steer away from those slow moving herds of cattle. Intermittently I had to ask DH to stop the bike and allowing me taking photos of the happy scenery.
Cheerful Laotian kids greeting ‘Sabaidee’ to every passing travelers.
We met a lot of kids on the way to the lagoon, which smiles eagerly at the sight of foreigners and scream “Sabaidee!” (Hello) in which we replied the same. They were so cute and bubbly, and their innocent grins and naïve hello made it straight into our hearts. “Sabaidee” could be the only Lao word we knew, but the exchange of smiles and friendly gestures were more than what we needed.
Paddy fields and green landscapes accompanying us all the way to the lagoon.
A typical rural life in Vang Vieng.
We finally made it to the lagoon an hour later, of what mentioned as a 20 minutes journey from the town centre (thank god we didn’t take the bicycle!). Well who of us haven’t been led on a merry chase by the locals or fallacious maps, when it actually took three times as long to arrive to somewhere?
Blue Lagoon, at last!
As we rode closer to the lagoon, we saw the water was indeed blue from the minerals, with overhanging tree branches and a rope swings. It was a gorgeous sight. We parked our motorbike beside the lagoon and crossed the wooden bridge to the other side, and immediately dipped our sore feet into the water. It was cold and refreshing, but I didn’t dare to go further as it looks very deep that we couldn’t see the bottom, but spotted a few fish nonetheless. The water seemed to flow down from the nearby mountain where the Phu Kham cave is, but unfortunately we have no time to look for it.
The water from the lagoon flows into a small stream, with small gazebo-style huts lining the banks.
There was no one in sight when we arrived as it was almost nightfall, and realizing that we had to return back to town before it gets too dark, we made it quick before jumping back onto the motorbike (too bad!).
We tried to ride as fast as we could, sensing that the sun was going down faster than we expected. But the pockmarked road and ruts made it impossible to run more than the old scooter could pull off. It was already pitch black and quiet half-way of our journey back to the town, and the weak beam of our motorbike’s headlamp not very much of a help either. But the worst was yet to come. Suddenly the motor seemed to lose power and slowing down, and after a few meter it abruptly came to a total halt. Dead. And what a perfect place it chose to fail us!
We were somehow in a stretch where there was no home or people in sight, and the last village we had passed was about a few kilometers away. And what good can it do to us, knowing that little these villagers could do to help us anyway. With that apprehension we accepted the harrowing fact – that we were now stranded in the dark and in the middle of nowhere.
DH managed to resuscitate the motorbike after several tries, but after running life for a few seconds it was dead again. We suspected it must be something to do with the headlamp’s wiring, as the problem begun only when we started using it. So we decided to turn off the lights and kick-started the motorbike again, and to our reliefs it came to life. We rode back in the dark to the town with flashlight apps from my mobile phone and with watchful eyes, in case we might miss a turn. Not later we were joined by a local on his bike, that upon seeing our trouble he was so kind to ride slowly behind us and lit up the way. We finally made it to town safe and sound, and could not thank our Good Samaritan enough. The beauty of Vang Vieng and the kindness of its people had definitely won our hearts.
It was already 9.00pm when we reached Vang Vieng town
Restaurants with futons and endless Friends or How I Met Your Mother reruns
I was still shaking from our ‘little misadventure’ and although DH managed to keep his cool, I knew that deep inside he was anxious too, and both of us seemed to lose our appetite for dinner. The first thing we did when we reached town was calling our kids back at home and that somewhat cheered us a bit. There was nothing much to do in Vang Vieng at night; most of the tourists spend their time lay on futons watching reruns of “Friends” and “How I Met Your Mother” over some booze. Us on the other hand, tried the cheap Lao traditional massage at a parlor nearby our guesthouse and it was great!
Morning in Vang Vieng
I woke up to a chilly morning the next day, with intention of capturing the sunrise but too bad the sun was nowhere in sight *sigh…*. It was not a perfect morning, but it was beautiful nonetheless that I was compelled for a morning walk, but alas too lazy to don proper attire. DH was still asleep and I didn’t want to trouble him searching for me when he wakes up, so I just sat quietly at the veranda enjoying the dawn of our new day in Laos. Cute little houses perched on the banks of the Nam Song that flows softly into the quiet valley, while jagged limestone mountains shrouded in mist jutting out to the overcast sky made the view almost ethereal. I breathed its fresh air and waited until the sky lighted up to the ca-hooting cries of roosters, and smiled at yesterday’s hilarious incident. Although it was too short, we definitely had such a fantastic time in Vang Vieng. And we could gladly say it has nothing to do with tubing.
Saw a fisherman casting his net
Beautiful isn’t it?