Tubing in Vang Vieng, Laos with kids

click to enlarge
I was a little nervous about tubing the Nam Song River with the kids while in Vang Vieng, Laos.  I'd read that there had already been a dozen people killed on the river this year, and it was only January.  After looking into it though, I realized that these were all deaths and injuries that could have been avoided.  Drunkenness, stupidity, and irrational choices seemed to be the cause of a majority of the accidents.  I figured we could avoid most of the danger by simply being responsible and we weren't going to miss out on a good time.

I decided to leave my youngest at home as he is not a strong swimmer yet.  My 12-year-old son is a better swimmer than I, and they had life jackets available at the rental office for my 8-year-old, free of charge. So I insisted on that for him. We decided to go at 10am, before the hardcore drinkers were even awake. This turned out to be a really good decision!

It was a beautiful sunny day the morning we embarked on our tubing adventure.  After a 20-minute tuk-tuk ride, we were dropped off alongside the river but in the middle of nowhere.  The other 5 people and us sort of looked around, looked at each other, and waited for the driver to unhook and throw down the tubes.   That seemed to be where his involvement ended, so we followed a path to the river and crossed a makeshift bridge that seemed like the right direction.  The boys looked at me at one point and asked "is this the right way?" We all sort of laughed because in a country where you can't read or speak the language you just never can be sure you are where you are supposed to be.
Some of the view along the way
After crossing the bridge and receiving a bracelet for no apparent purpose, in we jumped.  The water was not warm but with the sun blazing above we started to enjoy the cooling effect on our bottom half.  There are a number of ways to sit in the tube but we chose to sit with our butts in, arms and legs hanging over the top.  Any other way seemed quite a bit more dangerous as the water level was quite shallow in some areas.  In the rainy season I image it would not only be quicker moving but also safer for your lower half.  I hit my tailbone on some rocks a few times and it hurt more than I cared to admit at the time.

The flying fox that reportedly led to quite a few deaths
After acclimating to the water temperature we quickly made eye contact with the numerous infamous bars that line the river.   Right away the kids oohed and ahhed at the men swinging from the flying fox.  And they might have even giggled slightly from the profanity laden signs.  We chose to skip over that area and continue enjoying the slow pull of the river.  But after having a big plastic bottle with a tow rope hurled at our heads several times we finally gave in a bit farther down the way and let the enthusiastic men pull us towards their establishment.  They did, after all, offer a huge slide, small slide, zipline, and rope swing.  What self-respecting mom would let her boys pass that up?  Not this one. Look at the fun they might have missed...

I left the choice up to them as to what rides they thought were safe and which ones weren't.  I was pleased that they chose wisely and didn't get themselves hurt or killed.  My oldest did suffer from some pretty sore arms after about 15 times on the rope swing but he made it through.  The bars were pretty dead as it was early by party standards.  The men running the rides were really nice and had fun jumping in the water with the boys.  I am a bit too timid myself to partake but I cheered them on from a safe, picture-taking distance and may or may not have had a beer Laos in my hand!
Clowning around at one of the bars
Some people we were with from the beginning lost their sunglasses pretty quickly and these men actually went diving in the river for over 15 minutes trying to find them.  They never did find the glasses but they came up with about 15-20 other pairs.  My boys were ecstatic, they both came home with a pair of waterlogged, slimy, yet free-of-charge shades, all thanks to the nice men at the bar!

After about an hour there chatting and swimming, we decided it was time to get back in and mosey down the river.  We spotted several more smaller bars but declined the bottle toss and instead focused on the views and our own conversations.  Surprisingly calm and quiet we hooked ourselves together and just enjoyed each others company and scenes of locals and wildlife.

The river during the dry season slows quite a bit so if it is thrill seeking you are searching for, the river itself won't get you there (although the bar activities may).  There are short bursts when the water speeds up, but aside from hitting your butt on the rocks, there wasn't too much excitement.   Although, admittedly, hearing the water sounds increase did give this old lady a little worrisome rush!  The boys thoroughly enjoyed seeing mom get slightly ruffled!

I am guessing it was around 1pm that we decided we were all pretty hungry. We searched the banks for more bars or restaurants but there was nothing, absolutely nothing to fill our bellies.  The views, small boys spear fishing in their undies, water buffalo cooling off, and women busy with chores was enough to keep our minds off the hunger pangs though.

Of course had we realized, as you all will now, we could have eaten from quite a good selection earlier in the day at the bars.  This really was our only complaint from an otherwise amazing day!

All in all the whole day took about 5 hours although if we had skipped the bars I suspect it would have been closer to 3 hours.  If you are in the area with or without kids I would definitely recommend this activity.   It can be a peaceful day and at the same time qualifies for a  family adventure travel outing!

What to bring
Camera (invest in one of the many waterproof pouches for sale in town to keep it dry.  I was skeptical but they actually work great with their 3 zip lock,  fold over, MacGyver-esque mechanisms)

The tube rentals were 30,000 kip (roughly $4.50 US) each.  We also had to leave an additional 30,000 kip per tube as a deposit which they returned to us when we brought the tubes back at the end of the day.  The tuk-tuk ride up to the starting point was also included in that price.  At the end of the line we were right back where we started so easily walked up the bank from the river and returned the tubes and got our deposit money back.

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