As soon as we stepped off the bus we fell in love with Vang Vieng. The beauty of the surrounding karst cliffs, the green fields and the general sleepiness of the town and we hadn't even seen the river yet.
The hotel was a 10 minute walk from the bus depot and every single shop or stall owner nodded a greeting and smiled as we passed, no selling, no hassle of any kind.
Bags dumped, and off we went. We were so excited about being here. The town gained a bad reputation, tourists would come, get drunk or stoned and then jump into the river. The Nam Song river is shallow and rocky and in the season prior to the clampdown, 14 tourists died from injury and/or drowning.
The government did clamp down, the illegal bars along the river were demolished and laws were passed forbidding the sale of intoxicating substances along the river (you are free to take your own booze though).
Now, the town is quieter, there are still a few bars away from the river, but generally the vibe is relaxed. The streets offer restaurants, a few shops and a generous helping of hotels and tour agents. But once we got down to the river, the natural splendour of the area is unashamedly beautiful. A narrow, rickety bridge, constructed of bamboo and wooden planks forded the shallow river. As we reached a quarter of the way across, we started to bounce uncontrollably on the planks. We held on to the skinny bamboo rails as five locals on mopeds sped passed us, their handlebars missing us by millimetres.
We tentatively bounced the rest of the way across to the other side.
Cows stood grazing on the grassy riverbank, the calfs ran around and bucked playfully. This side of the river has a few sporadic guesthouses and bungalows and behind them lies acres and acres of farmland that lead to impressive limestone cliffs. The harvested fields created a sea of straw, before a green layer from the thin wood gave way to the craggy rock face. Patches of the deep crevices were framed by thick brush or more sparse woodland. This was the scenery we'd dreamed about, this was the walk we'd been waiting for, this scene wholly encapsulated everything we sought from our trip. It was perfect.
We walked through the fields towards the smallest of the peaks. Hidden by some thicker greenery, was a cave and a viewpoint (another bloomin' viewpoint). The friendly lad at the bottom of the hill told us that it was just a 10 minute walk to the viewpoint, no probs.
As we approached the entry to the rock, barbed wire had been strewn across every surface. Any place we wanted to place a steadying hand, barbed wire. Any wooden post needed for balance, barbed wire.The first bamboo ladder we came to was, on a scale of 1 to 10 for rickety-ness, would score a 5 - moderately rickety. We cautiously ascended, Jan first, of course. We reached a rock, that we could only assume was supposed to provide a platform for the next part of the climb, the problem was that rock had the same craggy surface as the surrounding cliffs, one slip and we'd have a broken ankle for sure. That led us to bamboo ladder number 2, (an 8 on the rickety scale - caution required) why cant they put hand rails on both sides?. We weren't even 3 minutes into the climb, this wasn't perfect, this wasn't even fun. Stupid Vang Vieng.
Upward, we got a glimpse of a slightly elevated view of the town and we very carefully considered whether it was sufficient for us. We agreed we'd try to get a little further up. As we looked at the next ladder (a 9.7on the scale, death almost guaranteed) group of 6 local kids, no older than 8 years old came barrelling down like a troop of monkeys, each giving us a breathless "sabaidee" (hello) as they sped past.
Now it was time to test our rock climbing skills, with a finger grip on the rock face and a toe hold on the minuscule ledge we traversed the gap over the sharp rocks below.
We got most of the way up when my fear of ladders got too much and I couldn't seem to work out my footing on a particular turn. Jan had already negotiated it and was still ascending but I just couldn't do it. I threw in the towel and Jan was very quick to agree that we'd now seen enough.
The route back down (on our bums) was no more enjoyable.
Back on terra firma, we suddenly had an irrepressible laughing fit, definitely a release of nervous energy, but it was now fun. As we walked through the fields we greeted a couple coming in the other direction. They asked us if we'd been to the cave and we told them what lay ahead of them. As we chatted about Laos' beauty, we all heard a low hum. As we turned to face where the noise was coming from, a swarm of bees (a real swarm that turned their patch of sky black) filled the air not 3 metres from where we stood. The four of us stood stock still, I held my breath too.
They passed us by without incident but what a thing to see.
Tubing is a must for anyone coming to Vang Vieng, we picked up a huge inner tube, got a number drawn onto our hands in permanent marker and shoved into a tuktuk. We were driven about 5 kilometres up stream to a rocky riverbank, inner tubes thrust back into our arms, the tuktuk driver sped off in a cloud of dust.
Well, it doesn't take a genius to work out what to do, does it? We watched an Aussie girl step into the middle of her ring, pop her carrier bag of booze on her lap, sit on the ring and topple backward into the river, ho hum.
We expertly got into our rings and our leisurely float down the Nam Khong began. It was a 3 hour scenic extravaganza, the limestone cliffs, the deep green forest. We floated along with the other tubers, chatting about where we came from, where we were headed to. Occasionally a group of kayakers would pass us by, we'd exchange greetings as they glided passed. As we went under the numerous bridges or as we called them 'bridges of happiness', locals clapped along to their blaring music, we clapped along too and caused bursts of laughter an shouts of encouragement (we like to think).
As the river wound its way, we came across some shallows, at which point we had to try to lay as flat as we could across the rubber ring to avoid our backsides being scraped along the rocky riverbed. There is only one bar left open along the river and as we approached, the only group we saw coming down the steps was a group of English idiots, shouting and swearing, the only disruption to the absolute tranquility of the experience. It made us feel so proud (I think we're getting old). We got ahead of them and peaceful bliss resumed for the remaining few hundred metres of the journey.
Only when we got out did we realise how cold we'd got, Jan was shivering uncontrollably and my fingers had gone blue. The red sun dipped to the horizon and cast long shadows of our spasming bodies as we jolted and jerked home.
The evening was cool, far cooler than we'd experienced for a long time and it was a bit of a shock. We grabbed a bite to eat and went on a mission to find the epic Vang Vieng nightlife. I think there were just two bars open that showed any signs of life. We chose one, got some drinks and managed to get a seat right next to the bonfire. As we sat and chatted to other travellers, a fire dance was being performed to some chilled out music, the atmosphere outside was so relaxed and easy. Inside, games of drinking table tennis were being played, a crowd huddled round the participants and would "oooh" and "aaah" as the ping pong ball landed in a glass requiring the opposition to drink its contents.
Our last full day in Vang Vieng rolled around all too quickly. We hired bicycles and hit the dusty road. We were trying to find a spot where we could sit by the lazy river and spend a couple of hours relaxing in peace. We missed the turn off and ended up cycling to a village a good few kilometres away. The bikes were single geared, the roads had long inclines that sapped our energy but it was occasionally fun, the potholed road wasn't too busy and the people sitting outside their houses never failed to give us a smile and a wave.
As the day drew to a close, we returned the bikes and watched the sun set for the final time in Vang Vieng. Hot air balloons passed over our heads and the roar of the burners filled the orange sky. What a spectacular end to our stay.
Our journey to Luang Prabang was going to be by minibus and was to take a meagre 6 hours on the infamous dusty, bumpy, winding roads, bring it on.