Greg and Owen Haywood are 27-year old twins from Durham, England. After a couple of years promoting and organising outdoor events in Ibiza, the pair set their sights further afield and set off to Asia, teaching and DJ-ing in both Bangkok and Busan, Korea as they went about their travels. Making a more permanent transition to Laos, the pair founded their own business venture in December 2010 – a bar, rooftop restaurant and entertainment space filled with quirky features such as junk art mosaics and abstract Thai paintings. It’s called Fluid, and it’s on the Nam Song River in Vang Vieng…
Tell us about Fluid. What was your vision when you decided to set it up?
For us, Fluid isn’t just a bar or a restaurant, it’s an alternative space on the river full of fun and creativity for like-minded people to hang out together. We wanted good music, good food and drink, great sound quality and a funky environment. We have a rooftop restaurant with great views, a riverside decking where you can watch the world go by (usually in their tubes, or being blobbed into the air by Owen); we’ve also got a beach area in front with hammocks and loungers to chill in. All in all, it’s an ambient, safe and friendly place to sunbathe, swim, smoke shisha, indulge in some cocktails, mocktails, home-made ice-cream and our mix of Thai, Lao, and pan Asian dishes.
Sorry, I need to stop you right there. What the hell does being blobbed into the air by Owen mean?
Ha! Well, blobbing is a word we use for playing on the ‘big blob’ which is a 5m by 2m inflatable pillow. This involves someone jumping from the platform onto the blob, sitting on the end and then the next person jumping from the higher platform on the front end consequently catapulting the ‘blobber’ high into the air and into the river.
“Blobbing” – what could possibly go wrong??
Sounds pretty innovative! When did you come up with all of this?
Well, we were in a bit of a free state when we first came to Laos, having left England to travel two years before. At the end of the trip we already had our hearts and minds set on starting Fluid in Laos: one problem – no wonga! So it was either back to England to work and save some cash or Thailand to teach. We both ended up getting jobs teaching maths at a private Catholic school on the edge of Bangkok. It turned out to be a good decision. We had plenty of holidays and earned about a grand a month. On a good month, we were saving about 70% of it.
How long did Fluid take to start up and get off the ground?
The first step was finding a business partner, because without having a native as part-owner, it’s impossible to set up a business enterprise. Luckily, by this point, we already had a good friend, Sone, whom we’d met for the first time in Vientiane while he was working at a restaurant. Then it was finding a good location! Land prices were too expensive closer to town, but finally we found the perfect spot on the Nam Song river; the land price was good, and back then, we all had the foresight of an increasing tourist population in Vang Vieng. After that, it was about writing the business plan, getting visas, work permits and I.D cards via lawyers, ministries and a whole lot of different offices, which took about 14 months. The construction started in January 2010 and everything was finished and ready to roll by December 2011. All in all, it took about 20 months.
What about red tape? Was it difficult buying the land?
I think this was the most difficult part of the project. It’s so hard to get good information about setting up the business unless a) you speak Lao fluently or b) you pay for the information via lawyers; the former, none of us were at the time, the latter; too expensive! Speaking to various different offices, the whole document process was a bit of a nightmare, never really knowing how long it would take or exactly what we were doing. Buying the land wasn’t as difficult – of course, it had to be in our Lao friend Sone’s name – but the process was quicker.
Do you speak any Lao now?
Both of us are pretty fluent now. I had a lot of free time when I was teaching in Thailand, and my Thai girlfriend was a great help. Thai and Lao are very similar, so if you’ve mastered Thai to some degree, then it’s just a matter of learning how to read the Lao alphabet and practicing as much as you can at every opportunity: friends, tuk-tuk drivers, people hanging out at the market (although you have to beware all the propositions to marry daughters, cousins and friends of the stall owners!) I’d say it took about a year to be able to read and have good conversations with fluency.
Fluid’s got a bit of a different vibe going on than the rest of the bars in Vang Vieng: ‘delectably chill’, according to one online reviewer, and with ‘awesome funk music’ (to quote another). This definitely isn’t the kind of thing on offer anywhere elsewhere in town. What made you decide this was the way to go?
Both of us wanted a mix of music – chilled beats, reggae, dub and funk earlier in the day, then deep house or tech house later on. My favourite stuff of the moment includes Ten Madison in the morning, then later on a bit of bouncy Vallee De Larmes – the Pleasurekraft ‘Sideshow’ Remix. I also love Husky by Skeewiff. I think most travellers want to expand their ears (the drunken tourist maybe not) but I think there’s definitely a space in Vang Vieng for people who appreciate good music. A few other good tips for Vang Vieng are Bob Marley Bar, Gary’s Irish Bar, Falcony, the Living Room and Milan Pizza. Like us, they play music that’s easy on the ears and creates a good vibe – not stuff you have to drink five buckets to dance to!
Come on! This is Vang Vieng. I bet you’re not averse to the odd bucket…
Well I can’t deal with work if I’m constantly wasted! But the odd occasion is always good fun. Last Boxing Day, some ex-Ibiza comrades came over for a ‘superhero special’. Robin, Spiderman, Banana Man and Radioactive Man descended on the river armed with tubes, tricks and a bucketful of super-smooth hero moves!
That’s a coincidence. The journalist Matt Bennett referred to someone on the river recently dressed as Spiderman in his (pretty damning) interview on Vang Vieng for CNN Go. Did you read it? What are your thoughts?
I think Vang Vieng’s reputation has changed quite a lot in the last few years. Back then it was more of an alternative traveller hangout and a lot more chilled. Everyone would finish the river and have a few drinks – maybe get a little wasted, but not to today’s extent. In some ways it’s a shame it’s turned out this way because it puts some travellers off, but I think everyone can still enjoy what Vang Vieng has to offer. If you want to see wicked scenery, visit deep caves, go kayaking, climbing, fishing, tubing, trekking, or even volunteering, then you can; if you want to get drunk all the time you can, and if you want to chill your beans then you can do that too! Many people don’t know that there are about five or six great saunas in town, more like steam rooms, a great way to sweat out those toxins and feel revitalized.
Vang Vieng – whatever you want it to be!
According to that report, the river claimed the lives of 22 travellers last year, the most recent being two Australians who died on Australia Day whilst tubing on the river. What are your thoughts on this?
I think the alcohol factor is the major issue. In 2008 when I first came, there were no buckets and in turn everyone would finish the river with no major problems. The slides and swings are generally safe if you’re not legless; of course, things can go wrong when you’re sober but it’s less likely. The Tiger whisky is a major factor, it’s so cheap and mixed so sweet that it goes down like a soft drink – then BAM! Four buckets or plus later and you’re smashed.
How would you advise travellers to be safe without compromising their fun?
Well, I don’t want to sound like your grandma, but the first one is get a solid breakfast before you go to the river and have plenty of water in between. Secondly, leave the Tiger in the jungle, and stick to the beers or more quality liquor. Another obvious one is if you can’t swim – take a life jacket! This is a must for rainy season when the water’s fast and the undercurrents are strong. And if you’re not a gymnast or aren’t confident, make sure you let go of the zipline before the stopper.
Are there any other things you might want to tell people to watch out for?
Don’t bother with the cheap 10,000 kip plastic ‘waterproof’ bags, they’re a waste of money – get a decent one which rolls up. Be careful at dusk and leave your passport, credit card, expensive cameras, iPhone and kitchen sink at home… Unfortunately there are a few kids that scour the area looking for easy money.
Vang Vieng used to be a tranquil rice-farming village. What do the locals think of the huge changes that have taken place over the last few years?
I’ve talked to a few people about this. As most travellers know, Lao people are pretty chilled! They’re glad of the changes that have arisen from a boost in tourism and have accepted the bi-product of this. Before the tourist boom, people spent all day working on farms, they had small one-story house, few clothes, less money, poor roads, bad sanitation and poor hospitals. Now, it’s far more modern with improved sanitation and better roads; people have bigger houses, more money to send their children to university, more money to enjoy themselves and go on holiday, plus more jobs available due to the influx of tourism and development.
In Vang Vieng, there is little in the way of industry and production, so without the tourist industry, there would be way more unemployed. There are obviously drawbacks; some people argue a loss of culture and heritage is at stake, but I disagree, as most Lao people still adhere strongly to their customs, worship and way of life.
According to Hat, the owner of the Phongsavan Resort guesthouse, Vang Vieng is now a better place, although he did add that he’d like to see a few more clothes worn in town and more Lao people working in the bars. What’s your view?
All the staff at Fluid are Laotian apart from Owen and me. With such a high rate of unemployment for young Lao people, without a doubt, jobs should be available for them. By investing in a business, you’re supporting the government, supplying jobs, paying taxes and helping to develop Laos in general. The builders we work with are also from the local village and the materials used were mostly sourced locally, too.
Both Owen and I are really passionate about supporting the local economy. Other work we do includes putting out the free Fluid map, which provides more tourist info than in the guide books, and is a way of getting people to see and support all walks of life in Vang Vieng so they don’t just blow all their money tubing and going to three bars. We also work with the SAE Laos Project which is a volunteer group near to Pu Kham cave. It has an organic farm, community centre, restaurant, biogas plant and weaving area. We’re also doing free English lessons at the bar for kids, with extra activities like crafts and breakdancing for the lads.
How different is it running a business in Laos? Do you have advice for any would-be entrepreneurs thinking of setting something up in South East Asia?
The key is resilience! Without it, you may as well stop as soon as the idea pops into your head. Like any business, there are a lot more hidden costs that occur after set-up, but in Laos there are some really strange laws and extra papers that have to be made aside from the business licenses. I think a huge advantage of running a business in Laos is the experience it gives you. You have to learn to be resourceful and versatile like the Lao people are, because you can’t always turn to a conventional method like you might back home.
What’s it like working with each other? Do you get on?
Greg: I pretty much do all the work while Owen sits on his ass.
Owen: That’s not true, I run the whole goddamn show!
Both: Actually, as our friends will tell you, we get on well together and work as a great tag team duo. We have the occasional tiff but it’s usually quashed pretty soon after – for a start, there’s too much to do! Fluid is a constant working project, we’re always inventing new creations. At the moment, our friend LuLu is making a new sound system for us, we’re also building some rooms on the back of the plot, and after rainy season this year we’ll have to redesign the whole decking. There are even plans for October to make a nine-hole crazy golf course!
The Haywood twins, Greg and Owen
Is it true, then, that in rainy season, the river completely floods and the bars have to be rebuilt?
Yes, in rainy season the river rises taking some of the bars and their platforms down with it. Last year, I saw one guy surfing his whole platform down the river! In July, the river completely burst its banks and other people’s bars floated into ours, we didn’t lose much, but a few tables and chairs went down the Nam Song.
You did a fair bit of DJing in Korea and Thailand. How does the underground music scene there compare with Laos? And who like to party hardest?
I like the fact that in Korea, it’s a 24-hour place and you don’t have to worry about the police shutting down your party early hour. You can play until 4am or 6am no worries and can really work the crowd. The Koreans have a better knowledge of electronic music and like to party but the Thais are more approachable and great fun! The Lao are more chilled, but when it comes to a wedding or festival they really know how to have a good time and make you feel extremely welcome.
Did you ever mistake a boy for a lady?
I’ve mistaken a boy for a lady, and a lady for a boy, and the less said about any of that, the better.
FLUID is on the Namsong River, 4km north of Vang Vieng and 1km from the start of the tubing. Open between 11am and 8pm every day.
Watch out for the FLUID FESTIVAL – three days of international DJs, live bands and artists towards the end of January 2013
Interview by Karen Farini – Deputy Editor of S.E.A Backpacker Magazine