If you’ve heard about Vang Vieng, it’s because you’ve heard about Tubing in Vang Vieng. And if you’ve heard about tubing in Vang Vieng, you’re either incredibly worried about us or have heard about how it has changed.
While it’s nowhere near the experience it used to be, it’s still a great stop if you’re traveling between Luang Prabang and Vientiane in Laos (we recently covered taking the minivan from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng). In this post, we’ll cover an overview of tubing in Vang Vieng, both past and present, and share everything you need to know for a great (and safe) day on the river.
A Brief History of Tubing in Vang Vieng
Back in its “heyday” (if you can possibly call it that in good conscious), Vang Vieng beckoned boozed-up backpackers to its tiny, rural streets. Gap-year travelers would rent tubes and then spend the day drinking buckets of vodka and ordering opium from the menu the same way you’d order a sandwich. If you want to see the full picture of how this tiny, poor town in rural Laos became the backpacker party capital, I highly recommend this piece by The Guardian.
As you can expect, booze + drugs + poorly constructed shanty bars + a shallow river yielded tragic outcomes. After a grotesque 2011 recorded 27 tourist deaths in the river alone, the Laos government shut it down. In 2012, all the bars closed, the death swings were taken down, and all tubing on the river ceased. People stopped coming here and the tiny town was nearly swept off the tourism radar completely.
A few years later, with strict government regulation, tubing was reintroduced and tourism started to bounce back. Tourists in Vang Vieng now outnumber locals three-to-one, and you can’t walk down the dusty main road without passing a few greasy-haired, elephant-pant-wearing travelers lugging their packs to their hostel.
Today, there’s a few places in town allowed to rent tubes, and they all send you on the same route for nearly the same price. You can still stop at rickety bars, but only four are open at a time. You won’t find drugs on the menu (although I’m sure you could probably try) and the crowds are surely smaller than they once were (I’ve heard numbers ranging from 1/3 to 1/4 as many on the river as there used to be).
What Tubing in Vang Vieng is Like in 2018
While I’m sure young partiers would say that Vang Vieng isn’t what it used to be, I would not say it with the negative tone. There might not be as many people on the river, and it’s surely not as drug-laced, but the river is still filled with travelers looking to have a good time.
Since the number of tubers is smaller, the group seemed to stay together as they bounced between bars. It felt more like a group of friends than a huge mass of people. The booze was flowing, the weather was warm, and the people were friendly. You can still get vodka in buckets (if you’re into that) and you will not likely find anyone particularly sober by the time you reach the river’s end at dusk.
While the obvious death-traps have been removed, like high wooden swings over a shallow river, you might still come home with some bumps and bruises. The worst thing we saw was a board of a bar patio break beneath a girl, and her leg slipped through to her thigh. They were able to pull her up, but she was likely in some pain the next day. Personally, we only found some cuts from scraping rocks getting in and out of the water.
By most accounts, tubing in Vang Vieng is still a great time.
Where to Rent Tubes in Vang Vieng
Sidebar: One of my absolute biggest pet peeves about travel writing is the phrase “you can’t miss it.” Because I can, and I do. Every review I read about tubing in Vang Vieng said there was only one place to rent tubes in town, and just to ask someone and they’ll all point you there. This was completely untrue. While maybe only a handful of places rent tubes, there are many places that will sell you “packages” and it’s certainly not as easy to find the “official” tubing office as people would lead you believe. So I’m here to share some directions so that you really can’t miss it.
The tubing office is located east of the main road in town, right across the street (to the north) from Hallys Coffee. Like many places in town, the office itself isn’t on Google Maps. Hallys is one of the few places in town with a reliable Goole Maps location, so it’s a good one to save on your map.
The office is a small shed with some tubes outside and a small yellow sign that says “Tubing”. There are a few tuk tuks lined up outside, but certainly not enough for it to be a dead giveaway of its location.
The Cost of Tubes in Vang Vieng
The rental prices are very clearly marked and posted.
- Tube Rental: 60,000 kip per person ($7.20 USD)
- Tube Deposit: 60,000 kip per person ($7.20 USD) which will be refunded if you return the tube by 8 PM.
- Tuk Tuk Up-charge: The rental price includes the tuk tuk ride to the start of the tubing point if there are at least four people. If you have fewer than four, you will be charged an additional fee (+5,000 kip each if only 3 people, +10,000 kip each if only 2 people, +20,000 kip if only 1 person). You can either pay the fee or wait for other people to get there and ride with them.
We arrived around 11 and there were two girls checking in at the same time, so we we didn’t need to pay the additional fee. If you’re leaving anytime after 11, I’d recommend waiting instead of paying the up-charge. Someone is bound to arrive shortly.
You will be asked to complete and sign a waiver, which requires your passport number, so be sure you have that memorized or have a copy handy. (Given the activity involved, we strongly recommend that you do not bring your actual passport with you.) The check-in process takes all of five minutes and you’re loaded up with your tube into a tuk tuk.
What Time to Start Tubing in Vang Vieng
The river can take up to four hours to float down, and the sun starts to dip behind the mountains as early as 3 PM. However, when we arrived in January, the sign anticipated the journey to take about 2.5 hours (excluding any stops).
If you’re looking to enjoy the scenery and don’t plan on drinking, I recommend you plan to arrive at the tubing office between 10:30 or 11. You will be on the river less than 30 minutes later, and will catch prime daylight hours. You will also beat the drinking scene.
If you’re looking to have more of a wild time, it seemed like everyone knew to head to the river around noon. We were at the first bar by about 11:30 and were the 3rd and 4th people there. By 12:30, several tuk tuks filled with people arrived on the banks just up the river and were at the bar shortly after.
Bars Along the Nam Song River in Vang Vieng
Only four bars are allowed to be open on any given day. We only stopped at two, and no one in our new group of new friends remembered even passing the third, so it may have been closed that day. The final bar is at the end, which we didn’t stop at.
As soon as your tuk tuk driver drops you off on the riverbank, you can see two bars and a third is just around the bend. Only one of these bars will be open on any given day.
These bars might have names, but I’m referring to them as Option 1, 2 and 3. If Option 1 is open, there is a small ferry that will shuttle you from the river bank to the other side without even getting into the water. If Option 2 or 3 are open, you will have to float to them and will be “fished” out. There are people on the banks of the river with water bottles attached to ropes. They’ll toss them out to you and tow you in. From there, you just have to awkwardly climb up whatever rocky steps there are to get up to the actual bar.
Option 2 was open during our trip, so we were fished out and promptly ordered two big Beer Lao for 20,000 kip each ($2.50 USD and about the going rate in town and throughout Laos). It was slow to warm up, but by 1 PM, we had a good crowd there and were all starting to become easy friends.
A few friendly folks really rallied the troops and started up the beer pong and organized a few rounds of flip cup (which was unfortunately ruined by one bad egg and no one wanted to play anymore). The group stayed together and we all headed off to the next bar together around 2:45.
The second bar had fewer drinking games and turned into more of a dance party. We danced, we played some basketball and one lucky partier fell through the floorboards, but no real damage done.
The sun was starting nearly set by the time we left around 5:45 PM. It was pretty cold at this point, but if you drank enough beers you didn’t notice. There was allegedly another bar, but we must have missed it because before we knew it, we were being ushered out of the water at the end of the line. There’s a bar at the end, but we headed back to the tuk tuk with most of the rest of our new friends.
Getting Back to Town After Tubing in Vang Vieng
There was some confusion getting back to Vang Vieng after we reached the end of the tubing line. The way I’d read things, I expected the tubing to end within walking distance of town, but that was not the case. Several others in our group seemed to think that the return tuk tuk was also included in the rental price, which was also not the case.
When we got to shore, there were a few tuk tuks loading people up. Our driver quoted us each at 20,000 kip per person ($2.50 USD). We overheard that the other tuk tuk was only charging 10,000 kip per person ($1.25 USD) and we all told our driver we were only giving him 10,000 too or we would go to the other guy, so he relented and gave us the lower price. He did end up charging the last girl to board 30,000 kip and wouldn’t give her change back, but she was over it by this point and didn’t fight it.
The other thing that caused issue with some people was that the driver was demanding money upfront. This is actually a relatively common practice for tuk tuks in Asia, so we were fine with it, but many others were frustrated because they didn’t have any more money on them. We were all on our way to get our tube deposits back, so while the riders thought the driver should be fine waiting for the money until then (since they were good for it), with that many drunk people, I understand the driver not having interest in tracking down who paid and who didn’t when we arrived back in town.
Tips for a smooth return:
- Check for your tube. Make sure there are as many tubes on the tuk tuk as there are riders inside! This is your responsibility because if you get back to town and are the last one off the tuk tuk and there’s not a tube left, you’re not getting your deposit back.
- Know your price. Research a fair tuk tuk price in advance and be sure to stand up for yourself when it comes to pricing. Don’t be afraid to get out if you’re not happy with the price and wait for another driver.
- Save cash for the ride back. Be sure to save at least 20,000 kip for your return trip. You might not spend it all, and you might get lucky and have a driver who lets you pay when you get back to town, but don’t bank on it.
What to Bring Tubing in Vang Vieng
In general, only bring as much stuff as you’re okay losing. Such as:
- Copy of your Passport — Emphasis on copy, do not bring the original. You will just need to know your passport number to rent a tube from the tubing office. Alternatively, you can memorize your passport number.
- Dry Bag — Bring your own or you can buy one from any of the tourist shops in town. There is absolutely no other way your stuff is staying dry without one.
- Cash — The bars only take cash and you’ll need money for the trip back. The two of us spent about 200,000 kip ($25 USD) on drinks on the river, plus the 240,000 kip (~$30 USD) for tube rental and deposit.
- Sunblock — You don’t want to be hungover and sunburnt the next day.
- Beer Koozie — This is a pretty American tip, but I love having a koozie on me to keep my beers cold. I also have Lattes & Runways branded ones so I took advantage of the free marketing.
- Cheap Shades
- Towel and Dry Clothes: If you’re bringing a dry bag and have space, it can’t hurt to throw in. I didn’t use mine, but if you plan to go straight out in town after you return, you’ll be happy to have some clean, dry clothes to throw on.
- Long rope or shoelaces. If you want to float with your friends, you may want to tie your tubes together. There are no handles on the tubes, so you’ll need something pretty long. If you don’t have long rope (who has that with them?), two pairs of shoelaces tied together should do the trick to connect two tubes together.
What NOT to Bring Tubing in Vang Vieng
- Your Passport (as noted above)
- Dry Bag — Funny that it’s on both lists, right? Well, if you absolutely need to bring stuff, a dry bag is required, but I actually recommend not bringing any stuff at all if you can. The tubes don’t have handles so there’s nothing to clip to. You’ll end up having to carry it the whole time, which is kind of annoying when you’re trying to get in an out of your tube. Plus, the less you have, the less you’re likely to lose.
- Anything you aren’t fine losing — Between the drinking and the river, things are bound to get lost. Just don’t bring anything you’re attached to.
Has anyone else been tubing in Vang Vieng lately, or even back in it’s wilder days? I’d be interested to hear your thoughts!