When you arrive in Vang Vieng, a visually unappealing town, you'll be faced with a choice: fight or flight. Resist the urge to flee. Fight through the central backpacker ghetto, with its guesthouse restaurants blasting Friends DVDs on a constant, mind-numbing loop, and make your way to the Nam Song River and the breathtaking karst peaks beyond. The surrounding natural beauty more than makes up for the appearance of the town itself -- less than a mile across the fast-moving waters rises a complex of karst limestone mountains rippling into the distance to a great height, their summits often wreathed in trails of cloud. A few days spent exploring caves, kayaking, trekking, or just sitting at a riverside bar and enjoying a cocktail while admiring the scenery (a personal favorite) is highly recommended. Vang Vieng also lies at the start of one of Asia's great mountain journeys -- the spectacular drive to Luang Prabang.
Beautiful as it is, the development of Vang Vieng is a serious cause for concern and is held up across Southeast Asia as a cautionary tale. It was popular on the hippie trail before the Communist takeover in 1975. After 1990, the stunning attractions of the area, not surprisingly, immediately drew tourists back. Vang Vieng became known as a mecca for those whose main aim was to take drugs and do little else. Sadly the problems have multiplied and Vang Vieng today is hauntingly beautiful but tragically blighted. There is little that is Lao about Vang Vieng town. Many are here simply to party on a circuit that stretches from Sydney to Koh Phan Gan in Thailand to Goa in India. It is rather like the worst kind of spring break on Daytona Beach, except that the theme is tie-dye laced with narcotics. It is often true that budget tourists have a relatively low environmental footprint. Their cultural footprint, however, can be devastating.