Vang Vieng was first settled around 1353 as a staging post between Luang Prabang and Vientiane. Originally named Mouang Song after the body of the deceased King Phra Nha Phao of Phai Naam was seen floating down the river, the town was renamed Vang Vieng during French colonial rule in the 1890s. Significant expansion of the town and its infrastructure occurred during the 1964-73 Vietnam War when the US constructed an air force base and runway that was used by Air America. The airstrip was then called “Lima site 6”. In more recent times, the town has grown substantially due to the influx of backpackers attracted by the opportunities for adventure tourism in a limestone karst landscape.
Vang Vieng has become a backpacker-oriented town, with the main street featuring guest houses, bars, restaurants, internet cafes, tour agencies, and Western tourists Attractions of the town include inner tubing and kayaking on the Nam Song River, which, until the third quarter of 2012, was lined with bars selling Beer Lao and Lao-Lao, and equipped with rope swings, zip lines, swimming and diving into blue lagoon, and large decks for socializing.
Vang Vieng locals have organised themselves into a cooperative business association to sell tubing as an activity, in a system in which 1,555 participating households are divided into 10 village units, with each village unit taking its turn on a ten-day rotation to rent inner-tubes to the tourists. Thanongsi Sorangkoun, owner of an organic farm in Vang Vieng, says that tubing inadvertently began in 1999 when he bought a few rubber tubes for his farm volunteers to relax on along the river. During the wet season, the river can be a series of rapids.
Other activities include trekking and rock climbing in the limestone mountains. There are also numerous caves, such as Tham Phu Kham half an hour north of Vang Vieng by tuk-tuk or the Tham Non and Tham Jang caves closer to Vang Vieng.
A market five kilometres north of town sells Lao textiles, household items, and foodstuffs. The town is on the main north-south highway, Route 13 from Luang Prabang to the capital, Vientiane. It is about eight hours by bus to Luang Prabang and four hours to Vientiane (152 km).
Just a short walk from town are many ethnic Lao, Kmou, and Hmong villages, while Vang Vieng Organic Farm is around 4 km north of the town in the village of Phoudindaeng. There are opportunities for community involvement such as teaching, while it’s also possible to stay in a house made of mud bricks at the organic farm. Another new organisation since December 2012 providing community activities is FruitFriends.
Wat Done Hor is the oldest of the five temples in Vang Vieng, built in 1903.
Due to the influx of backpackers, Vang Vieng locals have seen drastic changes in their community. In recent years, Vang Vieng has become a stop on the Southeast Asia backpacker circuit and the main street has many guest houses, bars, restaurants, internet cafes and tour agencies.
There are concerns that the town is in danger of losing its charm as it becomes full of tourists, mushroom shakes, and episodes of Friends, a US sitcom shown in many bars. The New Zealand Herald wrote, “If teenagers ruled the world, it might resemble Vang Vieng”. Safety measures for the tubing have been described as “non existent”. Tubing combined with heavy drinking has resulted in tourist drownings. It was reported that 22 tourists died on the river in 2011.
The Lao government is planning to put more controls on the urban sprawl of Vang Vieng, while the Laos National Tourism Administration has “awareness programs” that ask tourists to “respect and strictly follow the rules, regulations, tradition and cultures of the Lao people”, while also educating local people to maintain the Lao identity, way of life, tradition, and culture and not imitate tourist behaviour. Vang Vieng is known to have a problem with drugs, which are easily accessible to both tourists and local children.
Locals have said that tubing and tourism are destroying the town’s culture and encouraging crime among children, while loud music destroys the area’s tranquility. A report on the future of tourism in Vang Vieng found that many budget tubers were “oblivious to, or uncaring about, the types of social, economic and environmental impact they are associated with.” A master plan for Vang Vieng notes that local grievances include pollution, inappropriate behaviour of tourists and environmental damage.
Brett Dakin, the author of Another Quiet American, a chronicle of two years in Laos working for the tourist authority, said, “Each time a young Australian woman strolls down the street in a bikini, a bearded American smokes a joint on a guesthouse terrace, or a group of Koreans tumbles drunkenly out of a restaurant, it saps a little more of the essence of a town like Vang Vieng.”