Travel: Rowdy Respite in Vang Vien

I returned last week from a 10-day trip in northern Laos, traveling and shooting a few stories with a writer from Saigon. We had a few days to waste before we had to be in Vientiane, coming from Luang Prabang, so we crashed for three nights in Vang Vien. It was fun. Kind of. Though note that by the last morning we were so eager to be rid of our backpacking brethren that we hopped a rickety pick-up truck for the four and a half hour journey down to the capital without a frown or backward glance.

I think if I had been there (Vang Vien) about a decade ago, when I was a bit younger and more bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, it could have been amazing (who amongst us doesn’t like a bit of a raucous party now and again?). Like Asia’s Elysian Fields, filled with feel-good drugs and tanned flesh as far your eyes can see. But I’m not 18 anymore and these days it was just kind of depressing: a small town with beautiful natural surrounds overrun by hoards of backpackers and recent college graduates likely mistaking mushroom shakes and binge drinking for a meaningful cultural/travel experience in Southeast Asia.

Looking back through the pictures I took while there, a lot of them exude a certain sadness and sense of exhaustion. Something underneath the party. Or maybe I’m deflecting. It was a worthwhile stopover for sure but I don’t know when or if I’ll ever be returning. To Vang Vien. Laos I could disappear in for a few lifetimes. But that’s another post.

4 thoughts on “Travel: Rowdy Respite in Vang Vien”

  1. Funny, the “deflecting” thing. It’s something that I have learnt about travel.

    In Hanoi I kid myself I see only smiley face while others will tell me Hanoians are sullen and unsmiling.

    Amazing how we make up our mind about places and then it’s hard to see anything other than what we expect to.

    For the record the pics are great but all I sense is a sadness too. Stick this lot in some concrete hellhole and I wouldn’t begrudge them their fun but in such a beautiful, natural setting it just looks hellish.

    Very depressing.

  2. Ourman, I really kind of tried to get into it while I was there. The writer and I had the (great?) idea to dive in headfirst, to see what all the fuss was all about. To smoke the hash and drink the happy shakes and watch Friends all the next day while nursing our inevitable hangovers. To come away with at the very least some kind of humorous first-person perspective on the whole thing.

    But truth is that it really isn’t something I could go back to. The backpacking party. No matter how hard I tried to try. He could put it more eloquently than I can. But basically you can’t go back to backpacking. With age comes cynicism and baggage and something else that didn’t allow me to just let go and have a good time while I was there. And I’m okay with that.

    Vang Vien is dead, long live Vang Vien.

  3. It’s an odd one because I did it quite late in life – I was 32 when I jacked in my job and went travelling. Okay so I was full moon partying and all that – but I was still around that culture and for the most part having fun.

    The change wasn’t age so much as living here. Suddenly you can’t escape from seeing yourself as local people see you. There’s something about being an expat that makes you very aware of when you are being a dick.

    I suppose the saddest of all is what do you do to stop these kind of scenes and the answer is – you can’t. You wouldn’t want to stop these people making money. Nor people having a good time within reason. You don’t want accusations of big bad government.

    All you can do is hopefully keep an eye on it from an environmental point of view and try to stop it from spreading much further.

    We tend to think of backpacking as low impact tourism but I am not so sure any more. Upscale resorts would be held far more accountable for their environmental impact and would be under far more pressure to be sympathetic to local surrounds.

  4. Good points all around. Age doesn’t matter. Maybe I’ll just call it growing up. I saw a lot of people much older than me in Vang Vien who had simply not yet grown up.

    There are two sides to the story here though. These kids are bringing the town a lot of money (I’m with you in that backpacking really isn’t a low-impact, low-cost way of traveling any longer, at least not in the way these things used to be defined) and the local residents probably don’t hate that side of it very much. It’s also very contained. If you drive anywhere outside of the town’s two streets and the area devoted to the riverside bars, it gets pretty peaceful pretty quickly. So there’s that.

    I think the government has it locked down pretty tight, but I could be wrong. It feels a bit like there’s an invisible fence around it. Like it’s allowed but not allowed to go any further. I did see some construction sites and there were rumors about larger hotels being built by the river. Who knows. It will be interesting to see if it spreads any in the upcoming years.

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