Vang Vieng is a place of its own kind – it's an easy-going resort town in the middle of nowhere and it offers what so many of us need after hitting the adventure trails ... a little easy living and pleasant diversions.
It is situated in an area of beautiful karst formations, the classic South-East Asian views that dip into lovely greys and mauves as the sun sets behind them and, in front, the Nam Song river turns to black with colours rippling in its reflections.
Before you arrive, you will have read the reports, heard the other travellers, know the reputation, but somehow the town itself seems to elude the descriptions and cliches – or, maybe, it has so much to offer that you tend to find what you look for.
At one time, not so long ago, you saw mostly backpackers and a few better-off adventure travellers. And the talk was all about raves and drugs. Now, in 1997, there are three discos tucked away somewhere and some people lose a lot of their money to the police for smoking the local weed ... but, mostly, the visitors are looking for the kind of fun they can remember when they leave.
You can see the change in the visitors with the good clothes, the families, the young couples wide-eyed, the gap-yearers and parties of girls dressed in ways that would shock the rest of Laos into retreat, the Singaporeans wearing floppy hats, the 55+ looking for adventure, the Thais taking it in their stride.
And you can see it in the way the physical environment is being changed: the cheap accommodation is still there – in fact, Vang Vieng must be one of the cheapest places to stay and live in South East Asia – but the newer guest houses and hotels are going for much higher up the spending scale. Architect-designed buildings, beautifully constructed ... they will not be $10 a night for a double. On the other end of the scale, wooden cabins are going up which offer a double with shower room for $5 a night. Something for everyone.
Everything is changing so fast that guidebooks struggle to keep up. Try what you fancy if you want to pre-book but take only a couple of nights while you have a look round for somewhere better. Or just arrive and find somewhere.
There is a good range of restaurants and bars, too, with pretty much anything you want ... lots of Lao and Thai food of course, probably even more western and bakery offerings, but also good pizza places and Nazim's southern Indian meals.
Vegetarians and vegans do very well, with local people mostly understanding the concept and with good meals to offer ... our two favourites were Sisavang Lao restaurant (being built into a huge guesthouse as we ate) and Nazim's. A vegetarian meal for two cost us around $6 at Sisavang (tofu soup with vegetables and glass noodles, tofu with peanut sauce, braised bamboo shoots with basil, two papaya shakes); and at Nazim's the equivalent even included a big bottle of Beerlao.
Backpacker restaurants know their business, with facilities as well as food and prices ... 18-30s sprawling in comfort while watching old episodes of Friends (yes, it's still Friends) or TV sport and eating huge meals and drinking Beerlao.
With $10 a room – if you feel like lashing out for such luxury – and dinner at $6, breakfast at $4, a midday snack at $3, you and someone else can live in Vang Vieng for ... it isn't worth adding up, is it? It's not that much more that I pay for a couple of coffees and snacks at my local Starbucks.