Until recently, Vang Vieng was known as a backpacker paradise, as a city where tourists came to party hard and to go down the river on a tube while consuming illegal substances. Following a bad streak of fatal incidents (around 20 tourists death/year) the Lao government tried to put a stop to this situation a few years ago. Since we had read several blogs from families who were saying how much they loved their stay in Vang Vieng and were reporting that the town was now much more accessible, we decided to spend a week and a half there. Has Vang Vieng really changed? Honestly, there is still a large proportion of tourists who go there for the party and the “tubing” scene and who obviously left their civility home. The city is completely dedicated to guesthouses, restaurants, tourist agencies or, most often, a combination of the three. Alcohol and drugs are ubiquitous and the contrast to the peaceful character of Laos is immense.
Nevertheless, except for a little discomfort with what is clearly not our scene, we where able, without great difficulty, to stay away from the party crowd and we discovered a region that pleasantly surprised us! The town of Vang Vieng is located in a beautiful environment on the banks of the Nam Song River and is bordered by magnificent limestone mountains. The tourist agencies mostly focuses on adventure tourism, including hiking, kayaking or mountain biking so, as you can imagine, we have all been able to enjoy our time there. Honestly, there is not much else to do in Vang Vieng apart from these activities so we decided to space them out during the ten days of our stay. We took advantage of the outdoors and our free time to relax. We played Yum and UNO, read books and enjoyed every moment of our family time. We loved lying in a hammock to chat quietly while sipping a “shake” or a beer. We told ourselves how beautiful life is, that the world is full beautiful places and how blessed we are to be able to experience this fabulous family experience.
We wanted to do an activity that the boys could associate with Laos and we opted for a private 18km kayaking tour. We were very lucky to have this activity during a nice cloudy day which helped us not to get torched by the burning sun of Laos. We floated down the Song River on our kayaks. Our guide, See, was very funny and we felt quite safe in his company which is the most important thing with children on a river with rapids. Since we were in the dry season, the water level was not that high and the flow was rather slow. However, there were plenty of mini-rapids and each time we went through one, Hugo exclaimed with his most beautiful smile “Wow, it’s so cool!”. Our kayaking day included two cave tours and a BBQ lunch prepared by our guide. We got a few beef skewers cooked on charcoal with fried vegetables rice, a baguette and bananas. We felt like we had 3 lunches rather than one and we felt like we were going to sink the kayaks. But that was not all, after this hearty lunch we went to visit an organic farm where we enjoyed a mulberry tea while discussing the differences between Laos and Canada. We all loved our kayaking tour. What a great experience!
The soil of the region is composed largely of limestone causing numerous holes in the rock walls and creating a large number of tunnels and caves. The caves were cold during the day and it felt good to explore them while cooling down. Combining cave exploration with headlamps, stalactites and stalagmites we had a winning combination for our two little adventurers. Our kayaking tour allowed us to visit two caves and we visited some more. Tham Sang, which is a tiny cavern including an elephant-shaped stalactite, was the first we visited on our kayaking tour. It also contained some statues of Buddha as well as an foot print of the latter. The second cave that we visited during our kayaking excursion was Tham Nam. This cave was used during the war as a bunker. It was certainly our favorite cave because in order to visit it, we had to sit on a tube and pull ourself with a rope to move over the water. After a few minutes on this ride, we were in total darkness and had to use our headlamps to see something. At the end of the canal, we had to continue exploring on foot. Some passages were a bit tight for adults and we had a special thought for our friend Alex G. who would have been too athletic to get through;). Another cave that we visited was Tham Chang which was also used as a bunker during the war. In this last cave we did not need a flashlight since the passage was very well-lit up, which gave us the opportunity to make an extraordinary shadow photo shoot.
The Blue Lagoon
No, unfortunately we are not talking about the famous Blue Lagoon from the movie with the same name that made dream every little girls who are in their thirties or forties today. Close to Vang Vieng, there are three lakes called Blue Lagoon. To differentiate them, they call them Blue Lagoon 1, 2 and 3. Our taste for adventure and our desire to avoid a place with too many tourists, made us opt for option 3, ie the furthest from Vang Vieng. Anyway, a short 15 km is easy to do on a bike, right? We unfortunately did not take into account that the road was not paved all the way and that we would ride on a dirt road strewn with stones. When we finally arrived at the Blue Lagoon, we got a teased by Tuk-Tuk drivers that saw us arriving on our bikes. The lagoon was very nice and was not busy, just as we wanted. Even though it was not really the paradisiacal image of the Blue Lagoon from the movie, it allowed us to cool off and rest before our way back to town. We especially loved our experience of cycling in the Laotian countryside and this, despite the bum pain due to the bumpy roads that we are still feeling as we are writing these lines. We had the opportunity to visit several small villages and since we could not go very fast, we had ample time to observe the authentic daily life of these small villages and to take in the beauty of the stunning landscapes that surrounded us.
Those who have already visited Vang Vieng know immediately what “Friends” mean. We are talking of course of the very popular TV series “Friends” which plays in loop in some restaurants of the city. The young and not so young backpackers sit there comfortably and watch shows after shows. For our part, we had to yield to the incessant demands of our dear Hugo who absolutely wanted to go and watch an episode or two of this American classic. The boys were not disappointed, what more is there to ask than eating while watching a funny TV show? Even though they did not understand all the jokes, they laughed a lot and they greatly enjoyed their improvised tv-evening.
Despite our first impression, we were pleasantly surprised by Vang Vieng. We greatly appreciated the natural beauty surrounding this town, the mountains, the river, the serenity. There is no need to be worried to visit Vang Vieng with children, it is a great place for relaxation and outdoor activities and even if a less desirable crowd is still present, it is not very difficult to avoid it.