A four-hour car ride (or six-hour bus ride) north from Vientiane, this town is a center for karstic geologic formations. Nearly vertical limestone cliffs and spires jut up from the floor of a bucolic river valley that lies about 100 mi/160 km north of the capital. The setting is stunning, but despite its natural beauty, visitors will either love or hate Vang Vieng. For the backpacking fraternity it is simply heaven; for the cultural traveler it is an example of how damaging tourism can be to local culture. The once-sleepy riverside town, perfectly located to break up the journey between Vientiane and Luang Prabang, is overrun with cheap guesthouses, bars and restaurants serving Western food. All the Western comforts and support mechanisms are there—so much for adventure travel. As a result, backpackers settle in Vang Vieng for weeks at a time doing very little but lying around watching TV, getting stoned or tubing down the river. Their presence has also encouraged locals to start dealing drugs, and the town has a reputation for the easy availability of opium and amphetamines.
Tubing trips along the Nam Song river are popular, but be aware that the current is very fast in places—inexperienced swimmers have drowned on these trips. Check river conditions locally before signing up for any trip. Several spectacular caverns (some developed, some not) are within a few hours' walk from town.
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