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Vang Viang is a guilty pleasure. A dusty backpacker town by a pretty river and some karst hills, it offers inner-tubing, kayaking, caving, rock climbing. The karst hills look like those in Halong Bay, Vietnam, and we are geographically near there. Karst hills always remind me of jagged rocks from a driveway, half-submerged in the earth, on a mammoth scale. They look nothing like the American landscape

We, of course, tried the tubing on our first day. You drift lazily down the river, to the strains of Eminem. Sorry, no stoopid tube shots of us — we were worried about the camera that day.

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"Beerlao! Beerlao!" call the touts from the shore. Most of your fellow tubers are toting one of the forty ouncers. At the various "jumping points," Lao men "fish" for tourist customers by casting a twenty foot stick at the tubes, hoping someone will grab on to be reeled in.

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Once ashore, you can sit and eat stuff-on-rice, and watch collegiates zoom down zip lines and flop into the river.

Happily, some of the tourists are Lao. Otherwise, we would have felt even more guilty when passing some local ladies who were knee-deep in the river, harvesting a water vegetable, which they then pounded against the rocks. It was as though we’d changed centuries on rounding the bend.

There was also a little raft selling beer, where a Lao man was singing "No Woman, No Cry" with a guitar.

Yesterday, we tried a kayaking/trekking/caving trip. And it about killed us. Apparently lugging a pack around does not constitute exercise. No matter, we eventually learned the mechanics of kayaking. When you go through the caves, you’re going through the karst hill; there’s a massive amount of rock above you. And one of the caves was quite a spectacular limestone one that a thousand locals hid in during the American bombing. We walked through with only candles, which added to the wonder.

Our lodging here is quite nice — some traditionally built (except for their cement stilts and supports) thatched roof huts on the river. A rat has been eating my snacks though.

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Some of the more embarrassing phenomena in town are the TV bars — bars with beds so people can drink and watch "Friends" all evening! — and banana pancakes available on every street. Westerners create demand for these businesses, but you wonder why they left home at all.

Here’s the local version of the tuk-tuk, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos’ answer to the taxi.

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