Vang Vieng. Despite its reputation as a backpacker party hub, it’s a sleepy, dusty town during our short stay. The kind of place where the heat turns up a notch and time slows to a savory standstill. So it’s only sensible that you order another Beer Lao.
Khamming Douangsamone with Khiri Travel takes us out to the countryside for a lazy paddle along the Nam Song River. We roll up to the shore and unceremoniously launch into the water. No safety talks or waivers signing your life away to ward off the litigious among us, warning that “we will not be held responsible if a water buffalo decides to tenderize your skull.” No, no. Just get out there and drift away on the water as the powers that be intended.
Sticky rice lunch and rice wine
After about an hour, we arrive in the village of Vieng Samai. Khamming explains that the village was created around 30 years ago after the war with a mix of Laotians living alongside Khmu, the indigenous inhabitants of northern Laos. Around 100 families live in the village.
Khamming leads us to the home of Bounta Hinkkhamla where she’s whipping up lunch for us with her daughter, Nang Kham Nang Tamong. We’ve got scrambled eggs, fish soup with tomatoes, a dip made of eggplants, fried radishes and green beans with soy sauce, and cucumbers with an individual helping of sticky rice. Khamming shows us how to grab a handful of sticky rice and use it to scoop from the plates as you would bread.
After lunch, Bounta shows us how they make rice wine. The one she’s working on needs some time to ferment, so Khamming grabs another one and we set off on a hike to a nearby viewpoint. We pause for a quick rest in a wooden hut raised off of the ground and to sip on some of that rice wine.
Who needs water when you have rice wine in the shade?
Hiking Hmong Rice Paddies
We hike over dried rice paddies that are unusable this time of year. We’re able to hike through with permission from the Hmong stewards of this land. The Hmong are an indigenous group with roots in East and Southeast Asia. Khamming says it’s standard to ask permission before continuing to hike. Unfortunately, not everyone is interested in asking for permission.
Khamming explains that a mega-resort project is set to begin construction in the near future. This project will mean the destruction of Hmong land and the natural environment. Understandably, Khamming says they are not happy about it. He doesn’t know when construction will begin.
Travel comes with all sorts of sticky questions. Namely, who has the right and the privilege to come to a place like this? In the end, I think we can all agree that this is no place for some aristocratic resort. But in the end, it seems the resorts are coming for Vang Vieng.
Running to Nam Xay Viewpoint + Blue Lagoons
The next morning, we decide to skip the typical tuk-tuk ride out to the Nam Xay Viewpoint and instead earn our inevitable selfie with a run through the countryside. At the foot of the viewpoint, it’s just a 10,000 kip or $1 entry fee to start the short but steep ascent to the top.
I skip the typical photo on the motorbike, because although I’m sure it would’ve been fine, “falls to death attempting to pose on a motorcycle with the same view as the platform” would definitely win the Darwin Awards.
Now with our sweat worked up, we run over to the Blue Lagoons just around the corner. I know they say to wait 30 minutes before jumping into the pool, but neither of us can wait to get in the water.
Elevating French Cuisine
Back in town, we decide to kill our final hours in Vang Vieng by, you guessed it, eating. Melanie orders up a Laotian crepe and I go for a veggie sandwich. Both are delicious, but the crepe… My lord, easily the best crepe I’ve ever had.
Honestly, between the banh mi in Vietnam and the crepes in Laos, it must suck for the French that they’ve mastered their cuisine and finally elevated it here in Southeast Asia.
With the sun setting, our time in Laos nears its end. We take the high-speed train into the capital, Vientiane, and spend our final morning seeing what sites we can on a short walk before that fiery orb in the sky melts away our will to live.
It’s rare that a place burrows its way into your skin so swiftly and profoundly that it pains you to leave. But that’s what Laos did. No words or climatic montage, for that matter, can encapsulate how special this place is.
So we don’t say goodbye. We simply say, khob chai lai lai, and until next time.