Without doubt, Vientiane is one of Southeast Asia’s quietest capital cities. Hugging a wide bend of the Mekong River, it looks more like a rambling collection of villages, dotted with a few grandiose monuments, than the engine room of a nation. However, in the mere two decades since Laos reopened its doors to foreign visitors, the city has changed with dizzying rapidity. At the beginning of the Nineties, Vientiane wallowed in an economic stupor brought about by a fifteen-year near-ban on free enterprise and a heavy reliance on Soviet aid. But with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, economic restrictions were relaxed; soon afterwards, Vientiane’s collection of billboards proclaiming the glories of socialism were outnumbered by advertisements for Pepsi, and the hammer and sickle that had been erected atop the abandoned French cultural centre was removed. Shophouses that had long been padlocked and disused were opened up and transformed into minimarts and pizza parlours. Now, the city has a shopping mall, a thriving tourist economy, and some excellent places to stay. That said, Vientiane remains quaint and easy-going, and the people have managed to retain their hospitality and sense of humour.
High on the list of any visitor to Vientiane should be Wat Sisaket, the city’s oldest temple, and Wat Simuang, which is the most popular temple with worshippers. Another top attraction is That Luang, Laos’s most important religious building, best viewed at sundown when its golden surface glows like a lamp. Aside from temples and stupas, the museum of Lao art, housed in the former royal temple of Haw Pha Kaew, and the socialist-era Lao National Museum are also worth a visit.
Two days is enough to see Vientiane’s sights, and if the small-town atmosphere of the capital gets too claustrophobic, there’s plenty to see nearby. The most popular day-trip is to Xieng Khuan or the “Buddha Park”, a concrete-cluttered meadow that’s home to more than 200 Buddhist and Hindu statues, including a 40m-long reclining Buddha. North of Vientiane, the Ang Nam Ngum Reservoir attracts locals and foreign visitors alike for relaxing weekend retreats, offering hiking and camping and boat trips to small, half-sunk islands. Off the beaten track and a bit more of an effort to reach is the resort of Ban Pako, on the banks of the Nam Ngum River, which offers a rural Lao experience within relatively easy distance of the capital.
Slightly further afield but still within day-tripping range of Vientiane is Vang Vieng, the home of tubing and Laos’s most notorious backpacker hotspot. Set amid spectacular scenery on Route 13, Vang Vieng is a natural wonderland providing the perfect environment for hiking, kayaking, climbing and caving, and is also a convenient stopover en route from Vientiane to Luang Prabang, Laos’s second city. An alternative route to Luang Prabang involves road and river travel through Sayaboury, a remote left-bank province that’s famed for its wild elephants.
Vientiane’s history has been turbulent, as its meagre collection of old buildings suggests. An old settlement, possibly dating back to the eighth century, Vientiane was occupied and subsequently abandoned by the Mon and then the Khmer long before the Lao king Setthathilat moved his capital here from Luang Prabang in 1560. Vientiane is actually pronounced “Wiang Jan” (the modern Romanized spelling is a French transliteration), wiang being Lao for a “settlement with a stockade”, while jan means “sandalwood”. The wooden ramparts of the “City of Sandalwood” were evidently no match for invaders, for Vientiane was overrun or occupied several times by the Burmese, Chinese and, most spectacularly, by the Siamese. During one punitive raid in 1828, the Siamese levelled the entire city. For the next four decades, Vientiane was almost completely abandoned. When French explorers arrived in 1867, they found the city all but reclaimed by the jungle.
Within a few decades, the French controlled most of what is now Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. When Vientiane was chosen by the French to be the capital of an administrative division of French Indochina, they rebuilt the city and laid out its system of roads. It is from this period, roughly 1899 to 1945, that the city’s crumbling collection of French colonial mansions dates.
The end of the First Indochina War between France and Vietnam in 1954 saw a flood of Vietnamese refugees enter Vientiane from Ho Chi Minh’s newly independent Democratic Republic of Vietnam. As North Vietnamese troops began to infiltrate into South Vietnam while simultaneously occupying large areas of northeastern Laos, the United States started pouring massive amounts of unregulated aid into Vientiane, causing widespread corruption among government and military officials. In August 1960, a disgruntled army captain who resented the vast difference in lifestyles between his high-living superiors and his hard-bitten troops staged a successful coup d’état. Four months later during the Battle of Vientiane two Lao factions (one supplied by the US and the other by the USSR) managed to level whole blocks of the city with mortars and artillery.
As the war in Vietnam steadily escalated with growing US involvement, Laos was pulled deeper into the conflict, but for most of the war, Vientiane was like an island of calm surrounded by violent seas. A steady influx of refugees arrived from the outer provinces, the population of the capital swelled, and rows of squatters’ shanties appeared along the tree-lined avenues, contrasting sharply with the Mercedes-Benz automobiles of wartime profiteers.
After the fall of Saigon in 1975, the Lao communists suddenly gained power and, with coaching from the Vietnamese, set out to create the Lao People’s Democratic Republic. Thieves, prostitutes and other undesirables were rounded up and held captive on two small islands in the nearby Ang Nam Ngum Reservoir and, although revolutionary fervour never reached the extremes seen in China or Cambodia, a large percentage of the population of Vientiane found it necessary to escape across the Mekong. These were replaced by immigrants from the former “liberated zone” in northeastern Laos, further changing Vientiane’s ethnic make-up.
The 1980s were a time of quiet stagnation. Soviet aid eased the transition to socialism, but the majority of Lao with any education were in some form of exile, either attending “re-education camps” or squatting in Thai refugee camps, awaiting resettlement in a third country. Grand plans for progress were announced by the communist government and then promptly forgotten. Not until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the suspension of Soviet aid was the government forced to rethink its opinions of capitalism. A number of economic reforms were implemented, leading to an explosion of new ventures and businesses.
In 1994, the first bridge to span the Mekong River between Laos and Thailand was completed. Dubbed the “Friendship Bridge”, it marked a new era of cooperation between the former enemies. Thai entrepreneurs were soon arriving in Vientiane to search for economic potential. French colonial mansions were restored for use as offices, and scores of venerable old trees were cut down in road-widening projects to accommodate the ever-multiplying number of cars and motorbikes.
Officials know trade with Thailand is working – and vital for the country – but they’re determined to preserve Lao culture. This means you’ll occasionally see police snaring motorbike-racing youths, or cracking down on bars and nightclubs that flout the midnight curfew.
However, the Lao inability to sustain enthusiasm for anything baw muan (“no fun”) ensures any closures are short-lived.
In 2009 Vientiane hosted the 25th Southeast Asian Games, attracting more foreign investment and renewing debate about the city’s rampant development.