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.Read More
Beer with a view
Beer with a view
Vientiane’s location along an east–west stretch of the Mekong makes for spectacular sunsets, with the fiery orb lighting up the water before slowly descending into Thailand. Taking advantage of this backdrop, makeshift stalls selling bottles of Beer Lao and fruit shakes set up along the pavement on Fa Ngum Road opposite Wat Chanthabouli from afternoon till early evening. If you’re looking for something even closer to the water and away from the bustle of the city centre, continue west along Fa Ngum Road, where for the next 2km you’ll find a long row of over twenty beer gardens with wooden terraces overhanging the riverbank. These laidback, open-air venues offering cheap pitchers of golden “Fresh Beer” (bia sót) under a thatch roof define the quintessential Vientiane pub experience. The largest and fanciest of these are all in the vicinity of the Riverview Hotel.
Vientiane has a wide range of tourist accommodation, from cheap backpacker dives to five-star behemoths like the Don Chan Palace. Most of the city’s hotels and guesthouses are located near Nam Phou in the centre of town but others, especially mid-range hotels, continue to open up beyond this area – particularly in the vicinity of Patouxai and on Luang Prabang Avenue, a quick tuk-tuk ride into the centre.
Budget hotels in the central area are generally housed in renovated older buildings. Rooms at the best budget places, like the MOIC or Saybaidee, tend to fill up very quickly, even in low season. It’s not uncommon to see late arrivals desperately pounding the pavements looking for a reasonably priced room, as what’s left by that time tends to be towards the top end of the budget range without meriting the price. It’s therefore a good idea to check in by noon, when people start checking out. Guesthouses and budget hotels rarely take advance bookings unless they know you already. As a general rule, better deals can be found in the mid-range establishments.
The culinary scene in Vientiane caters to virtually every taste, from sausage and sauerkraut to Korean BBQ. Vientiane also has a large concentration of French and Italian restaurants, the best of which compare favourably to those in Bangkok. If you plan to head out to the remote provinces for a while, take the opportunity to indulge in the capital’s Western culinary offerings before hitting the trail.
For cheap eats, the zone around Heng Boun and Khoun Boulom roads is home to a good night market, mi pét (duck noodle) restaurants, fruit stands and French bread vendors, and don’t miss the ice cream and pastry shops of Chao Anou Road, between Setthathilat and Heng Boun roads.
Food stalls and markets
For cheap, home-style cooking, seek out the outdoor food stalls found near any of the city’s markets. Riverside food stalls can be found along the Mekong on Fa Ngum Road approximately opposite Wat Chanthabouli, with most offering Lao staples like tam màk hung (spicy papaya salad), pîng kai (grilled chicken) and refreshing fruit shakes from morning until nearly midnight. These stalls also provide an excellent spot to enjoy sunset over the Mekong.
A night market offering similar fare, and with tables on the street, sets up on Khoun Boulom Road and along Heng Boun Road in the early evening and stays open till about 10pm for cheap Chinese, Lao and Vietnamese food with several fõe (noodle soup) stalls. A more extensive night market for good Lao food is at Dong Palane Market on Dong Palane Road near Wat Ban Fai – you’ll find all the Lao standards on offer. For daytime food, try the market stalls on Mahosot Road near the bus station: here you’ll find good Lao-style khào pûn (noodles with sauce), tam màk hung and excellent shakes.
Crusty baguettes (khào ji) are a speciality of Vientiane, and vendors selling these French-inspired loaves, plain or filled with Lao-style pâté, can be found around downtown.
Minimarkets and wine shops
For many travellers, especially Europeans, one of the great pleasures of returning to Vientiane after a long journey upcountry is the availability of cheeses, wine and other imported goods to accompany those crusty baguettes which are a speciality of the capital. There are several minimarkets where you can stock up. Maningom Supermarket (corner of Khoun Boulom and Heng Boun), Riverside Minimarket (Fa Ngum Rd, near the Orchid Guesthouse) and Phimphone Minimarket (with outlets on Samsenthai Rd and Setthathilat Rd) all have a selection of cheeses, wine, imported beer and chocolate, as well as imported body-care products you won’t be able to find elsewhere in Laos. The best selections of wine in Laos can be found at Vinothèque La Cave and VanSom, both on Samsenthai Road, opposite the Asia Pavilion Hotel. At either shop it’s possible to find a perfectly drinkable bottle of red or white for around $10.
Bakeries and cafés
The legacy of the French is most deliciously apparent in the range of cafés and bakeries that crop up all over town. The coffee served at these places varies, with some offering Lao coffee and some using imported beans. Cafés and bakeries tend to open early and close by 7pm. At a good café on Setthathilat Road you’ll pay $3 for a breakfast special such as coffee and a couple of croissants. Brunch buffets are on offer at the big international-style hotels like Novotel and Lao Hotel Plaza for roughly $10.
All the places below appear on the “Central Vientiane” map.
Most of Vientiane’s restaurants open for lunch and then again for dinner, but no-frills places usually stay open throughout the day, closing around 9pm. In most Western restaurants you’ll pay on average $4 for each course, and even in more upmarket restaurants you’ll rarely spend more than $15 unless you get into the wine.
The restaurants reviewed below are subdivided for convenience into “Asian” and “Western” places, but Laos isn’t a place for culinary purism, and thus many supposedly Asian places do offer Western snacks and light meals, while even the fancier, supposedly Western, restaurants often have a Lao noodle dish or two lurking in the menu.
All the restaurants below are on the “Central Vientiane” map, unless otherwise specified.
Drinking, nightlife and entertainment
Drinking, nightlife and entertainment
Many of the nightclubs are Japanese-style, with costumed pop singers, dim lighting, hostesses and deep couches, though they’re fairly innocuous. The city’s larger hotels often have nightspots like this; the one in the Novotel is a decent choice. As you might expect, many of these clubs also feature karaoke lounges.
Of more interest to Western visitors, a number of clubs playing Thai pop and international dance mixes, and catering to well-heeled teenagers, have cropped up along Luang Prabang Avenue, just beyond the Novotel. Smaller clubs are sometimes able to bend the rules more and go until the wee hours depending on the political climate. There’s usually no cover charge, but if there is it will include a bottle of Beer Lao. Vientiane’s live music scene is largely derivative, with popular taste being overwhelmed by a flood of Made-in-Thailand pop churned out by the massive music industry across the river.
Four hundred and fifty years after superseding Luang Prabang as the centre of political power, Vientiane still lacks the natural cultural life of the old royal capital, but a few venues offer a taste of Laos’s heritage, even if just for the entertainment of foreigners. The Lao National Theatre on Manthatoulat Road near Wat Xieng Nyeun has performances featuring lowland Lao music, dance and even a mock wedding ceremony. Also colourful are lowland renditions of the music and dance of the hill-tribe peoples. While the costumes and numbers aren’t always strictly traditional, the enthusiasm of the performers compensates. Shows are nightly at 8.30pm, except the third Sunday of every month, and cost $7 for adults and $4 for children under 12. Further north, on Khoun Boulom Road, the Lao National Opera Theatre (t021/260300) presents Lao boxing dances (a kind of combat-free dance based around the martial art), masked plays and scenes from the Ramayana between 7 and 8.30pm on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.
Vientiane’s grassroots cultural life only really reawakens during festivals. The best time to get a taste of Lao music is in November during the That Luang Festival, when the nation’s best singers and musicians are featured in a string of performances during the two weeks leading up to the festival.
Vientiane’s Morning Market (Talat Sao) is the best place to begin a shopping tour of the capital. Outside, there are still covered shop stalls selling Chinese electronics and cheap consumer goods, but most of these have been swallowed up by the ugly new Talat Sao Mall, which houses a variety of shops, restaurants and cafés. The “real” market round the back of the mall is a good place to start when it comes to homespun cotton clothing and handicrafts. Most of the other textile, souvenir and antique shops are found on Samsenthai and Setthathilat roads and along the lanes running between them.
Vientiane’s other markets are either “wet” markets selling produce, “dry” markets selling manufactured goods, or, more commonly, a mixture of both. Other significant markets close to the centre include Talat Khouadin, Talat Dong Palane, Talat Nongduang and Talat Thong Khan Kham.