We Helped a Drunk Backpacker Who Almost Drowned in Vang Vieng, Laos

Tubing in Vang Vieng is every bit as wonderful as it sounds. You drift along at a lazy pace, past lush forests, herds of cattle and young boys spearfishing near the banks. You’re simply floating down the river with the sun shining and beautiful mountains passing you by.

The Nam Song River meanders slowly, giving you plenty of time to gaze up at the rugged mountain cliffs and watch hot air balloons float through the sky. The river water is cool and refreshing and you drift into a relaxed state, free of deadlines or any sense of urgency.

danger of tubing in laos

As I floated down the river while tubing in Vang Vieng I could not understand how this simple and relaxing activity could have resulted in so many deaths. In 2012 there were 27 backpacker deaths on the Nam Song in Vang Vieng. One death is a tragedy, 22 is a sure sign something is very very wrong.

Was I being naïve to think floating down a shallow river at low speed was pretty harmless. Is tubing in Laos dangerous after all?

Tubing in Vang Veing
Going nowhere fast – Tubing in Vang Veing

We had been told there has been huge changes since last year. There are now only 2 bars on the river. The dangerous rope swings have been taken down and the atmosphere is said to be a little more sober and relaxing.

Truth be told I was really enjoying myself. We found ourselves in a mixed group of Americans and a Swedish girl and we had a great time getting to know them during long conversations heading through very un-rapid rapids.

snake meat weird foods
Yum Yum Snake meat

We stopped at the first bar and ordered a couple of beers and were even offered snake meat, which just tastes like a tough chicken. We played a few games of table football and headed back out before all the tubes disappeared. This seems to be a huge problem because instead of renting tubes people just turn up at the bars and take them down the river, leaving you tubeless, deposit-less and stranded.

It was only as we approached the second bar around 3pm that I began to realise how a relaxing tubing day could turn into such tragedy. It’s really not the tubing at all, it’s the booze. The bar served very strong buckets and we could see a few people were a little worse for wear.

We played volleyball and except for a few louder groups it was still all very relaxed and mellow. It was not the annoying obnoxious backpacker hellhole that I feared, although I have the feeling that 12 months ago this was a very different story.

After another few beers we were back on the river, a little tipsy but by no means impaired. We floated along with our group for a while but as the tubes needed to be back for 6pm we got a little deposit-anxious and went ahead.

What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

This is where our relaxing day turned a little serious. In a remote spot on the river we passed a lone tuber. As we peered over we soon realized she was not conscious. Not only was she passed out but she had slumped into the tube with one of her arms underwater and her face against the tube in a very fragile position.

I paddled over quickly, Kelly was not far behind. I tried to wake her and got nothing more than a few mumbles in what turned out to be Danish. Kelly realized that she had seen her at the second bar, stumbling around and falling over.

We lifted her into a safer position and Kelly held onto mine and her tube so I could paddle us faster downstream as a group. She was hammered; she could not keep her head from slumping and could not stay awake for more than a few seconds at a time.  Kelly kept trying to talk to her but she was incoherent and did not seem to be aware of her surroundings.

“Here it is,” I said to Kelly, “the reason people die”.

tubing in Vang Vieng safe
Kelly helping the girl while Tubing in Vang Vieng

Around 30 minutes later we passed what turned out to be her friends, we told them everything but they still did not seem to care. This was the thing that shocked me most during the entire incident. They said they would get her back safely.

We kept an eye on them and she did indeed get back to dry land. Her friends were pretty drunk too and left her to stumble on her own to return the tube and claim her deposit.

So Is Tubing in Vang Vieng Dangerous?

While Kelly and I shared a post tube beer we talked a lot about the incident and whether tubing in Vang Vieng is dangerous. We came to the conclusion that it is not dangerous at all when done sensibly. The danger is leaving all common sense at the hotel before going tubing in Vang Vieng.

Tubing is an activity; you wouldn’t get stupid-drunk before going rock climbing, go karting, diving or kayaking. I like a drink and have had more than my fair share of over indulgences but there is a huge difference between having one too many at a party and falling asleep on a small inflatable tube on a river.

The girl had drunk so much she could barely keep her eyes open; she had no place on a river or anywhere for that matter, especially on her own. The signs are there, everybody knows 22 people died last year, everybody knows buckets contain a ridiculous amount of alcohol. The only danger is thinking you are invincible.

It would be pure speculation to suggest what might of happened to her had we not floated along. She could have been found by others, she could have drowned or she could have woken up the next morning in Vientiane. All I know is she and her friends let her get into a situation that left her in serious danger and it was completely avoidable.

tubing in vang vieng
Keep an eye on your tube!

Would I recommended tubing in Vang Vieng?

Wholeheartedly YES! It’s a little tacky and purely there for us tourists but it is undeniably fun. It is beautiful, you can have a nice drink, play table tennis or volleyball and it’s a brilliant way to spend an afternoon.

Just please please please keep the slightest bit of common sense with you and don’t get wasted on the river. Have a little bit of respect for yourself and the locals who live there. Have a drink, sure, but don’t cross that line.

After the positive changes that the locals made after last year the responsibility is purely on us as travellers to make a change in our behavior to prevent more tragedy.

Lee Carter

Born and raised in Accrington, UK, Lee has ventured far beyond his hometown, traveling throughout Europe, Southeast Asia, North America and New Zealand. He is the co-founder of Global Goose and as well as writing the occasional rant he can be found tweaking the code and taking photos of amazing things around the world. Lee and Kelly have no plans to stop their "Gap Decade" anytime soon.

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  1. We just returned from a trip to Mexico and Belize and this same phenomenon shocked my husband and I. We happened on one girl in a state similar to what you described. She needed medical assistance – so much for a fun tubing trip! Really great post about being smart while having a great trip.

    1. Its amazing isn’t it? The position people will put themselves in. I wonder if its dizzy people travelling or people being more dizzy because they are on holiday.

  2. Wow. I can’t believe her friends would leave her like that! It’s amazing how some people believe nothing bad will ever happen to them or their friends… until it does.

    Well done you for saving her!

    1. Thank you Kit. Her friends just didn’t seem to care. I know it’s hassle when you have to look after a drunk person but if you are out on a river its pretty important that you do.

  3. I have been here myself in February 2012, I could not understand why so many people would get so wrecked on a River. Saying that, I did have a couple of buckets and had some great fun on the rope swings, but enjoyed it enough not to use it as a waterbased nightclub. It seems as though the locals have made same great changes, when I went there were bars every 100m down the whole river. And also very enjoyable going back to Friends and Family guy everywhere! Try the banana, peanut butter and nutella ice cream milkshake!

    1. The changes seem to have turned it around a lot. Some people still don’t seem to have got the memo but most people seem to realise that things have changed. As for the milkshakes, I may have indulged a little.

  4. We’ve just been to Laos and we purposely avoided Van Vieng and the all tubing ‘fun’.
    As you said the responsibility is all on the travelers to make sure the activity won’t cause any death or injurers, that is the main problem unfortunately.
    Many people do not care much and just want to have fun by getting drunk, not everybody of course.
    The experience you had is a good example, that girl has been very lucky to have met you guys helping her.

    1. I can see why you avoided it. Many people choose to do the same.

      I am really glad we did go, we only spent 3 days there but had a really fun and relaxing time in a beautiful setting. We got a little work done and met some great people. There are aspects of it that still could do with improving but I feel when the remaining disrespectful backpackers catch on to the changes it could be seen a lot better.

  5. It’s instances such as that that makes you realize you need to choose your friends wisely and know that no matter what they’ll look out for your best interests. In Mexico on a girls vacations, my friend got really drunk playing tequila volleyball, and even worse for wear when we went to CoCo Bongos that night. She disappeared on me and ended up in an ambulance having a panic attack. Thankfully we reunited but she was in pretty rough condition. I was ready at that point to kick off my heels and throw her over my shoulder if I had to to get her home safe. Thankfully a member of the hotel staff (who was out partying with his own friends) spotted us and helped us negotiate for a taxi to take us home. What it comes down to, its friends help friends. Friends don’t let friends get hurt.

  6. Just a correction. Tubing takes place on the Nam Song river not the Mekong. I was in Vang Vieng in October 2013 and there are now 3 bars open on the river, and looked like there may be a 4th in the works. I completely agree with you that its not the river thats dangerous, its people getting out of hand. The number of people who tried to get into the river when way to drunk is insane. I talked to some of the locals and heard the stories of some deaths and it sounds like many happened after being told not to do something (like swim down the river in the dark…) The river the way it is now is so much fun, and the sleepy town of Vang Vieng has a lot going for it. The number of times I tried to leave this town only to be sucked in again by the live music at Irish Bar, or by the shotguns at Fat Monkeys and Viva. Vang Vieng holds a special place in my heart, and even if tubing were to completely be shut down, it is still worth it to visit!

  7. “or she could have woken up the next morning in Vientiane”
    Probably not, as there are 2 waterfalls to porterage around below Vang Vieng. Great story and the place is still worth visiting but tube with care.

  8. Honestly I do understand that some people do take too many risks. Especially when drunk. No one should judge. Mixing water and alcohool is not a good thing but locals should care about that way more. It’s not only tourist’s fault but it is global. No parents should learn their kid have died i’ those circumstances. No parents…

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