Tubing, for better or for worse, has become the activity most associated with Vang Vieng in Laos. It has become THE thing to do there, with the town’s entire industry effectively built around it.

To the uninitiated, tubing is essentially taking an inflated inner tube (or any ring-shaped floatation device, for that matter) and floating down the Nam Song River.  Every day (or more accurately, every afternoon), hordes of backpackers float down the river, stopping only to “refuel” by grabbing a Beer Lao or a bucket of some whisky mix.

It’s a love-it-or-hate-it thing for tourists in the area; some scoff at the idea and try it just once (or never try it at all), while others find themselves sticking around in Vang Vieng far longer than they thought they would.

If you are at all interested in tubing, here are a few basics you need to know before you do so.

bars along Nam Song River

WHEN TO GO. I’ve read some guidebooks and websites suggesting that morning may be the best time to go, but that probably works better in theory than in practice. Because Vang Vieng is decidedly a party town, most travelers sleep off their hangover in the morning, grab a banana pancake, and get started at around 1pm.

GETTING STARTED. The first order of business, of course, is getting the actual tube. Many guesthouses and tour operators will be able to arrange the entire trip for you, but unless you’re doing tubing in addition to other activities in Vang Vieng (such as caving or kayaking), this won’t be necessary.

The most common means of getting a tube is renting one. A towable tube for boating is a fun activity for the whole family. There is one major operator by the main road near the market (you can’t miss it: it’s the one with all the tubes in the shop), though its actual location seems to change week to week. (I don’t know if that’s common, but when I was in Vang Vieng, the tube rental place was in one place for two days, then another place for the next two.) Rental of the tube at the time of writing costs 55,000 kip, with an additional 60,000 kip deposit that will be returned in full if the tube is returned by 6pm. (If not, you’ll only get back 40,000 kip.) The price of tube rental already includes the tuk-tuk ride to the starting point. Once you rent a tube, the operator will put a number on your hand, which lets the locals by the river know you paid for a proper tube (and will – in theory – prevent those who didn’t pay for a rental tube from grabbing one).

number marking after renting a tube

The savvy backpacker can also find other ways of getting a tube, if one doesn’t mind getting a much smaller tube. If you ask the shops and other backpackers, they may point you to where you can purchase your own inflatable tube. (The caveat is that you’ll have to inflate it yourself.) Because of the apparent tubing cartel, these shops won’t be easy to find, and the tubes won’t be on display in the shop; one group of backpackers asked around for 20 minutes before finding the right shop. The biggest tube (and it’s already about half the size of the rental tubes) costs 35,000 kip, while the smaller one is 30,000 kip. Also, it may be wise to get to know fellow travelers in Vang Vieng; if you’re lucky, you may “inherit” one of their tubes (which was probably already passed on from backpacker to backpacker).

There’s also one final option: Not getting a tube at all. Do this only if you know you’re a strong swimmer.

GETTING THERE. The easiest way to get there, of course, is by tuk-tuk. Just tell any tuk-tuk driver that you want to go to the starting point of tubing; all of them will know exactly where to take you. If you’re renting a tube from the rental place, you don’t need to worry about costs as it is included in the rental fees. If you’re going independently, then prepare to haggle. It should be easy to get the cost down to 10,000 kip per person if you’re a big group (3 or 4 seems to be the magic number), but if you’re just a pair (or worse, by yourself), then you may see that number rise to as high as 20,000 kip per person (maybe even 30,000 kip if you’re solo). Haggle, and haggle hard. You may have better luck with the tuk-tuks further away from the main road. My travel buddy successfully haggled down the tuk-tuk price per person from 15,000 kip to 10,000 kip, but it was neither quick nor easy.

WHAT TO EXPECT. When you arrive at the starting point, you’ll be greeted by a couple of bars playing loud dance music (prepare to get sick of “Hey Ya” by Outkast, and anything by the Black-Eyed Peas), patronized by scantily-clad backpackers chugging beers or drinking whisky mixers out of a bucket. Depending on your opinion on this, you may jump right in and join them, or skip the festivities and start tubing. There are a few “tubing starts here” signs; any will do. When you’re ready, sit on your tube and begin floating down the river.

The river is lined with a good number of very creatively-named bars; thanks to their efficient naming system, you won’t need to think very hard about what each bar offers. First Bar is the first bar on the tubing circuit. Bucket Bar serves drinks in buckets. Mud Bar features a mud volleyball pit. Slide Bar has a giant slide. And so on. (One disappointing bar name: Monkey Bar doesn’t seem to have any monkeys at all.) Each bar has its own way of enticing you to make a stop there, from free shots (or “shorts”) to free french fries (or “french frieds”). My personal favorite is the relatively new Liquid (across the river from Slide Bar), started and run by a group of British mates, and offers shisha in additional to the usual drink menu. As for costs, a small Beer Lao is 10,000 kip, a big Beer Lao is 15,000 kip, and a bucket (depending on what liquor or mixers are in it) runs from 20,000 kip (whisky and Coke) all the way to 100,000 kip (Jack Daniels). Oh, and they have non-alcoholic drinks, too. Should you wish to stop, just wave at the locals working in the bar (they’re usually waving at you already anyway) and they’ll toss you a rope and pull you in.

beer pong at a tubing bar

Once at any of the bars, you’ll be able to try the many activities designed with the adrenaline junkie in mind. There’s the zip line, where you hold on to a bar and zip by on a short rope course until the end. There’s the trapeeze or swing, where you hold on to a bar and swing back and forth over the river. Finally, there’s the water slide. Inevitably, all activities end with you making a big splash in the water.

If drinking, partying, and jumping into the water are not your thing, then there’s always the gorgeous views of Vang Vieng to look forward to. It really is quite the sight, surrounded by the limestone peaks around you. Once you’ve blocked out the sounds of the bars – or have floated well past them – you’ll feel a certain serenity as you drift away. Kick back, relax, and enjoy.

GETTING BACK. I went tubing on three different days, and I experienced three different ways of getting back to the town center. On the first day, as we were floating down the river, a motorized boat stopped and offered to take us to the very end of the tubing course. It cost me and my mate 30,000 kip each.

On the second day, we ended our journey at Fluid, where – after much haggling – we hired a tuk-tuk back into the town center. You should be able to do this from most of the bars on the river course, particularly on the left side (assuming you’re looking forward). A bar called Last Bar (any guesses why?) has a helpful sign saying that it’s your last chance to hire a tuk-tuk back into the center.

On the third day, we actually floated right to the end of the tubing course. It’s quite an experience, though it may leave you well exhausted (not to mention more than a little bruised) by the end of it. It’s also the cheapest option, because it’s free.

 

WORDS OF WARNING. I’ll be writing another entry with more specific dangers and annoyances to look out for on your tubing trip, but it can’t hurt to name a few basic ones here. Keep an eye on your belongings, including your tube as some unscrupulous types may attempt to take it. Also, don’t get too drunk at the riverside bars. Once your senses are dulled by alcohol, it may be difficult to navigate down the river, or even remember that you need to get off.