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.