Tubing With No Tube and Watching Friends in Vang Vieng

A rainbow over the restaurant and bar-filled streets of Vang Vieng
A rainbow over the restaurant and bar-filled streets of Vang Vieng

I’ll admit it; Vang Vieng sucked us in.

We came to the city for a lazy inner tube ride down the river, as advertised in our guide book, and figured we’d be there for a day or two max. However, upon arrival we were greeted by streets filled with rows of bars and restaurants: most of which have TVs going 24/7 playing Friends, Family Guy or The Simpsons.

Catering entirely to western tourists, these places have low tables, comfortable mattresses and pillows to recline on. The food is average, but after the sixth episode of Friends in a row it doesn’t seem to matter.

Instead of a quick stop, we wound up spending four days relaxing, drifting from restaurant to restaurant, taking in marathon TV sessions while waiting out monsoon rains, surfing the Web and sleeping in. We were also reunited with Claire, who we had been in Malaysia and the Full Moon Party with, as well as her friend Ellen. It was with these two that we set forth on the adventure known as tubing in Vang Vieng.

Anything but a lazy ride down the river, tubing would better be described as spring break for late teens and early 20s kids from Australia and Europe. The goal is to visit a series of bars, all very close to each other, while swinging off of high platforms into the water and partying with fellow travelers. In fact, a tube is not needed at all.

A tuk tuk drops tubers off at a row of three bars connected to the mainland. After that there are dozens of other bars, all accessible by water. Were bars not involved, the total tubing time would be at most 30 minutes. In reality though, those who rent tubes spent about five minutes total in them. Knowing this, we opted to swim.

One of the swings used to drop into the river
One of the swings used to drop into the river

Each of the first three bars has a rope swing with some sort of rollers attached that tubers line up to use. The process is simple: climb up, hold on and jump off. Some allow you to hold on indefinitely, swinging back and forth until you are ready to let go and fall into the water.

Others are just a straight line and, if you haven’t let go before the rollers hit the stopping point, your entire body is catapulted forward. While all swings can be done solo, a few of them allow two participants to go at once. Carrie and I tried this once but didn’t make it too far before both falling into the water.

After finishing up at the first three locations, tubers can finally toss their rings into the water to float for less than a minute to the next bar. As we had been told that the tubes were pointless, we jumped into the water and swam. Things got a little scary for a minute for me when the river split around a little rocky island.

A mix of the strong current and my lack of strong swimming skills pulled me to the far away side while Carrie was safely at the shore of the next bar. I clamored for the rocks of the island and finally, grabbing onto branches dirt, was able to pull myself out of the water. Barefoot, I hobbled across the island and jumped back in before the guys on the shore tossed out a soda bottle on a rope to pull me in. Not my favorite part of the day.

The local bus stop in Vang Viang
The local bus stop in Vang Viang

Safely back on land, the main activity of the fourth stop was two mud water pits where everyone spent hours wrestling, jumping in and basically acting like big kids. This was my favorite spot of the day and we spent so much time there that by the time we swam to the fifth place it was dark and time to take a tuk tuk home. After my troubles with the water in the day, a night time swim did not interest me at all.

While we thoroughly enjoyed our day of “tubing,” one day was more than enough. The same can not be said for many other people there who were on their fourth, fifth, sixtieth or even hundredth day of tubing in a row. It’s almost like a mini-cult, and repeat tubers have their consecutive day number proudly written in Sharpie on their arm.

I hate to say it, but Carrie and I found ourselves wondering how much longer we could even do things like this without being dubbed “the old people in the corner.” Most tubers were in their late teens and low 20s. True, there there were plenty of other folks on the other side of the age spectrum but we were definitely outnumbered.

Monsoon rains were a daily occurrence, like this one I filmed while watching Friends and keeping dry