Laos is pretty well off the beaten path. I had been e-mailing with my hotel in Vang Vieng from Cambodia, and in theory, had arranged for a driver to take me from Vientiane Airport to Vang Vieng. There were a few reasons for this. First, my flight landed fairly late at VTE, and I wasn’t sure there were any scheduled buses leaving that late at night for Vang Vieng, and I didn’t want to overnight in Vientiane on the way in, as it was St. Patrick’s Day, and Vang Vieng is a notorious party town. Second, the drive to Vang Vieng is over the Laotian equivalent of a highway, which is to say, not even close to a real highway. The hotel had told me that the quality of the road had recently degraded and I should expect at least 3-4 hours of smashing my way north over uneven, potholed roads. I felt this would be much more manageable and less nausea inducing with a hired car than in a minibus jammed to the hilt with backpackers and Lao people.
I found my driver with relative ease after exiting immigration and we went out to the parking lot and located his minibus. There was some brief confusion as he thought we had to wait for other people. After a quick call to the Villa Nam Song in Vang Vieng, we were sorted out, and on our way. Laos at night is a very dark country, it’s not very developed and there’s not much in the way of roadside lighting.
The roads just outside Vientiane aren’t so bad, and for a while it seemed like it might be a pleasant ride. About an hour into the trip, we passed a restaurant and the driver pulled over and decided he wanted dinner. Much like my driver in India stopping when he felt like he wanted a tea break, I found this very confusing. If I am paying you to drive me from point A to point B, you eat AFTER you drop me off. You eat on your time. I don’t need to be delayed 30 minutes because you forgot to eat dinner. I found this very galling, but apparently it’s the way things work in Laos.
I bought a couple of cans of BeerLao and started drinking in the minibus while the driver ate.
Shortly after our pit stop, the road took a dramatic turn for the worse. Uneven gradients, massive, massive potholes and partially washed away surfacing. The minibus was bouncing up and down for three hours, swerving around the bigger potholes, smashing in and out of gaps in the road. My head was pounding and I cursed Vang Vieng for not having an airport.
Around midnight we pulled into Vang Vieng. It’s an incredibly small place, maybe three streets. I was exhausted, it was close to midnight and my hotel was down a small hill, off the main street and along the river. My first thought was “oh boy, what have I gotten myself into.”
The grounds of the hotel were completely dark. When the minibus stopped, someone was waiting for me with an envelope that contained my key. They showed me to my room and informed me that the office closed at 9pm, so there were no actual staff at the hotel.
This is rural Laos, so I knew not to expect much from the hotel, but at $80USD/night and a self-proclaimed 4-star rating, I was hoping there would at least be someone at the desk 24 hours a day.
I was quickly shown my room which did not contain a fridge, safe, phone or TV. I was told there was no TV or phone so that guests wouldn’t be “distracted” and could totally relax. Given the overall spartan nature of the accommodations I think this was just creative spin on a budget too low for TV’s.
The room itself was two twin beds pushed together to form a Queen sized bed with mosquito nets (Vang Vieng is a borderline malarial zone), a small unstable looking desk near the window and a tiny bathroom with a sink, toilet and shower. As all of the rooms are in the one story low rise buildings around the courtyard, they also have small patios with chairs outside next to the door, I suppose they are meant to resemble adjoining bungalows.
The hotel did not make the best first impression on me, but things are often better in the light of day.
The next morning I went to the office and had a nice chat with the American-Lao woman who had handled my reservation, walked around the pleasant gardens in the hotel and sat in the restaurant bar that peaks out over the Mekong and gives you excellent views of the bucolic Lao country side. I don’t say that with a grain of salt…Vang Vieng is in the middle of nowhere, the surroundings are very rural.
I ended up staying in Vang Vieng longer than I had expected to (as many travelers do) alternating my days between resting in the hotel, walking around town and partaking in the utter madness on the river. For a two day period I was convinced I had malaria, then Dengue fever (dengue is endemic in the area around Vientiane). It turned out I was just tired and a bit hungover. I made some great friends and have been raving to everyone at home about Laos since.
Villa Nam Song Report Card
Pros: The “best” hotel in town, decent restaurant with excellent river views, nice gardens, good air conditioning, rooms are nice for Vang Vieng.
Cons: Wildly overpriced, closer to a 2-star than a 4-star. No hotel staff on site after 8 or 9pm, no TV (a feature some of the $10/night guesthouses have…as well as 24hour staff at reception), located at the end of the strip.
Verdict: I don’t think I would stay at Villa Nam Song next time I go to Laos. The price simply doesn’t stack up to what it delivers. You can get a room just as nice at one of the “lesser” hotels for half as much money (or perhaps less). It looked like development work on a new “nice” hotel was underway in the center of town near the main tubing depot. In the future I would try that place (when open), or just check out one of the small hotels on the main strip.