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.
East of Nam Phou, on Setthathilat Road, Wat Sisaket is the oldest wat in Vientiane. Constructed by King Anouvong (Chao Anou) in 1818, the monastery was the site of a ceremony in which Lao lords and nobles swore an oath of loyalty to the king. During the 1828 sack of Vientiane by the Siamese, this was the only monastery not put to the torch and, once the smoke had cleared, the Siamese brought the surviving Lao nobility here and made them swear another oath of loyalty, this time to their new overlords. Later, in 1893, the whole ceremony was repeated again at this very same wat before new masters – the French.
Surrounded by a tile-roofed cloister, the sim contains some charming murals similar in style to those found at Bangkok’s Wat Phra Kaew. The murals, together with the niches in the upper walls containing small Buddha images, and the ornate ceiling, are best taken in while kneeling on the floor (taking care not to point your feet towards the altar for more on etiquette). The Buddha images on the altar are not particularly notable, but a splendidly ornate hao thian, or candle holder, of carved wood situated before the altar is an example of nineteenth-century Lao woodcarving at its best.
Outside, the interior walls of the cloister echo those of the sim, with countless niches from which peer diminutive Buddhas in twos and threes. Lining the galleries are larger images that survived the destruction of 1828 and, in a locker at the western wall, a heap of Buddhas that did not. The shaded galleries are a cool and pleasant place to linger and soak up the atmosphere. Breaching the wall that runs along Lane Xang Avenue, the structure with the multi-tiered roof is the monastery’s former library (closed to the public), where its palm-leaf manuscripts were once kept.
Just north of Nam Phou, on Samsenthai Road, the Lao National Museum is housed in the former mansion of the French résident supérieur and set in overgrown grounds with a hideous fountain and plumeria (frangipani) trees, the delicate blossoms of which are the national flower of Laos. Previously known as the Lao Revolutionary Museum, the institution deals primarily with the events, both ancient and recent, that led to the “inevitable victory” of the proletariat in 1975. Inside, Laos’s ancient past is crudely depicted on canvas, with scenes such as crimson-clad Lao patriots of yore liberating the motherland from Thai and Burmese “feudalists”. Upstairs there are more crude oils: “French colonialists” are depicted as hair-faced ogres bullwhipping tightly trussed Lao villagers or tossing Lao tots down a well. Black-and-white photographs take over to tell the story of the struggle against “the Japanese fascists” and “American imperialists”. Most of the best artefacts on display, including a wonderfully detailed Khmer sculpture of Ganesh and a bronze frog-drum, possibly used in ancient rain-making rituals, didn’t fit neatly into the official socialist story line, and were, until recently, very neglected. Some of the exhibits are currently only labelled in Lao, but a project is underway to ensure English translations are made available.
One and a half kilometres east of Patouxai stands the Buddhist stupa, That Luang, Laos’s most important religious building and its national symbol. The present building dates from the 1930s and is a reconstruction; the original That Luang is thought to have been built by King Setthathilat in the mid-sixteenth century, and it is his statue that is perched jauntily on a pedestal in front of the stupa.
Archeological evidence suggests that, like most central and southern Lao Buddhist structures of significance, That Luang was built on top of an ancient Khmer site. What the original Buddhist stupa looked like is a mystery, but a Dutch trader, Gerritt van Wuysthoff, who visited Vientiane in 1641, left an awestruck account of the gold-covered “pyramid” he saw there. Between then and the early nineteenth century, the stupa was embellished and restored periodically, but this ceased after the 1828 Siamese raid which left the capital deserted. When French explorers Francis Garnier and Louis Delaporte stumbled upon That Luang in 1867, it was overgrown by jungle, but still largely intact. A few years later, Chinese-led bandits plundered the stupa looking for gold, and left it a pile of rubble. A photo on display in the National Museum, taken in the late 1800s to commemorate the visit of a group of Frenchmen, gives some indication of the extent of the devastation.
A French attempt at restoration was made in 1900, after which the stupa was disparagingly referred to as the “Morin Spike”, a snipe at the architect, whose idea of a Buddhist stupa resembled a railroad spike turned on its head. Dissatisfaction with the design eventually led to another attempt in the 1930s. Using sketches done by Delaporte as a model, a re-restoration in brick and stucco was carried out over four years, and what you see today are the results of this effort.
The tapering golden spire of the main stupa is 45m tall and rests on a plinth of stylized lotus petals, which crowns a mound reminiscent of the first-century BC Buddhist stupa at Sanchi, India. The main stupa is surrounded on all sides by a total of thirty short, spiky stupas, which can be reached via any of four gates in the crenellated walls that support the monument. The whole is in turn surrounded by a cloistered wall, vaguely Chinese in style. Within the cloisters is a collection of very worn Buddha images, some of which may have been enshrined in the original Khmer temple that once occupied the site. Until just a few years ago, only the stupas’ spires were “gilded”, but with the passing years, more and more gold paint has been applied, so that now even the inner walls and their crenellations are gold. The effect is best seen just before sunset or during the evenings leading up to the That Luang Festival, when the stupa is festooned with strings of lights, and moths the size of sparrows circle and cling to its glowing surface.
A quick trip you can make out of the capital is to Ban Pako www.banpako.com, 50km northeast of Vientiane, which has a rustic resort on a bend in the Nam Ngum River, reached by road and a short river journey. Once there you could easily spend a couple of days soaking up the laidback atmosphere at this woodsy getaway, affording ample opportunity for swimming, tubing, birdwatching and day hikes to nearby villages. You can also follow self-guided nature trails, along one of which is a herbal steam bath, modelled on the wood-fired saunas at Wat Sok Pa Luang, and near a refreshingly cool spring.
Although Vientiane and Luang Prabang are both on the banks of the Mekong River, the land between them is extremely mountainous, while the opposite left bank of the Mekong, composed of huge ranges separating Laos and Thailand, forms its own remote province of Sayaboury. As almost everyone’s itinerary in Laos includes the journey between Vientiane and Luang Prabang, you’re highly likely to cross this stunning terrain at some point, and there are three main options to choose from for travel between the two cities.
The quickest option is to follow Route 13 north from Vientiane through the karst mountains of Vang Vieng and up the old Royal Road through the mountains north of Kasi. Route 13 was first completed by the French in 1943, and although it was improved in the 1960s with American aid, there was very little maintenance on the road until the mid-1990s, when it was properly sealed. Until that time, this rough track of a road took at best a full 24 hours to traverse, and often as long as three days. The highway was finally completed in 1996 after years of toil by Vietnamese road workers, twenty of whom were killed by guerrillas in the process. The breathtaking mountain scenery from Kasi to Luang Prabang makes this one of the most scenic routes in all Southeast Asia.
If you don’t fancy making the ten-hour bus journey from Vientiane to Luang Prabang in one go, Vang Vieng makes an ideal stopover and is well worth an extended visit in its own right. Aside from tubing, which has earned the town notoriety in recent years, there are beautiful caves, ethnic minority villages and a host of outdoor activities to keep you busy. Phou Phanang NBCA runs close to Route 13 for 75km, but although two tracks lead into the reserve off Route 13, the NBCA is still fairly inaccessible to tourists. However, if you’re prepared to rent a four-wheel-drive vehicle or dirt bike from Vientiane, you could try a dirt track running the entire western boundary of the reserve and linking several villages.
The second route, a detour through Sayaboury, the sparsely populated region of rugged valleys and wild elephants on the western side of the Mekong, is more complicated, and takes you along a path well off the banana-pancake backpacker circuit. Unless you have your own four-wheel-drive vehicle, the Sayaboury route is tough, and you’ll need to travel at least part of the way by boat along the Mekong – the lack of decent roads west of the capital makes Sayaboury much more remote than it appears on maps. The third route is to travel the whole way by boat, an attractive option but requiring at least three days of travel time by slow boat, although speedboats can make the trip in a day.
Change comes slowly to Laos, but VANG VIENG, the once-sleepy town that reclines on the east bank of the Nam Song River between towering limestone karsts, is something of a rare exception. Just half a decade ago, the main street was a potholed track, crowds were rare, and accommodation was limited to a handful of guesthouses. Then as thousands of party-hungry backpackers descended on the self-styled “tubing capital of the world”, the Lao government found itself struggling to control an inland version of Thailand’s Ko Pha Ngan. Today “happy shakes” appear on restaurant menus more often than authentic Lao dishes, and countless bars, internet cafés and market stalls all compete for the backpacker buck.
Despite the tourist droves, Vang Vieng is still jaw-droppingly beautiful, and you could easily spend a week here cycling, cave exploring, tubing, rafting and hiking, or simply relaxing and enjoying the idyllic landscape. There’s also no disputing one fact: the place is a lot of fun.
Love or hate what it’s done to the place, tubing is Vang Vieng’s premier attraction. In fact, for some people, it’s the very reason they ended up in Laos. What started as an inventive way to spend a lazy afternoon floating down the Nam Song has rapidly evolved into an all-you-can-drink party on the river, and it‘s fairly common for people to turn up without tubes and just swim between the first few riverside bars before jumping in a tuk-tuk for the ride back into town. Most of these watering holes lure punters in with free shots of lào-láo and, as if to test your mettle, have built giant rope-swings and slides over the river. Naturally it’s a lot of fun, but be careful – people have died here.
If you decide to go for the authentic tubing experience, tubes are available from shops near the post office for around $14 per day (including a $7 deposit, refundable if you return the tube before 6pm). This includes a tuk-tuk ride upriver to the main launching point, 3km north of town near the Organic Mulberry Farm. A float back into town should take two hours from here, but you could easily spend the whole day dancing, drinking and playing mud volleyball at the bars along the way. It’s important to leave enough time to get back before dark however, as it gets cold and it becomes almost impossible to see where you’re going in the fast-flowing water. If you’re a weak swimmer, wear a life jacket while tubing – the shops supplying the inner tubes should provide them. A good sunblock is also essential if you don’t want to come out looking like a lobster; the tropical sun is powerful, even on overcast days.
The countryside surrounding Vang Vieng is full of enough day-trip options to easily fill up a week. Scores of caves in limestone karst outcrops, tranquil lowland Lao and minority villages, and Kaeng Yui Waterfall, all make worthy destinations for a rewarding day’s hike (if walking isn’t your thing, you can hire bicycles or motorbikes from various outlets around town), while the Nam Song River makes for a fun afternoon of tubing, kayaking or rafting – tubes can be rented from shops near the post office. Aside from a number of organized tours around Vang Vieng itself, there are also one- to three-day excursions to Ang Nam Ngum Reservoir that can be booked through most guesthouses.
Organized day tours, many of which combine both caving and tubing with lunch in between, are a fast and convenient way for the uninitiated to get into the Vang Vieng groove: once you’ve done the tour you can go back for more on your own. It’s not hard to find a guided tour – just look for signs posted in restaurants and guesthouses. If you do opt to join a tour, be sure to check how many people will be in the group. Some agents have few qualms about stuffing twenty people into a single sawngthaew, which not only spoils a good walk but can seriously hasten the onset of claustrophobia if tramping about several hundred metres underground.
If you decide to visit the caves on your own, it’s worth getting hold of one of the hand-drawn maps of the Vang Vieng area which show all the caves and trails; they’re available from several of the restaurants and guesthouses in town. Otherwise just ask around; everyone in Vang Vieng has their favourite cave, swimming hole or countryside getaway. The local people are more than happy to point you in the right direction, and other travellers will also enthusiastically recommend the best places. If you’re looking to explore areas north or south of town, there’s enough local transport in the form of buses and sawngthaews plying Route 13 to get you up and down the highway cheaply. Or, if you prefer something quick and easy, just hire a tuk-tuk (the stand is at the market), which will gladly wait for you for the right price.
Most of Vang Vieng’s attractions lie on the west bank of the Nam Song. There’s now a permanent toll bridge crossing the river (4000K for pedestrians, 6000K for bikes and 10,000K for motorcycles) or, in the dry season, you can cross using the rickety bamboo bridge towards the north of town. The pirogues down by Thavonsouk Resort will still ferry people across for 5000K. On the other side, Chinese-made tractors trundle along the bumpy paths to nearby villages, acting as makeshift shared taxis that aren’t entirely comfortable but are at least faster than walking. You can simply flag them down as you would a bus or tuk-tuk – expect to pay 5000K for journeys of up to 1km, then 2000K for each extra kilometre.
There are several kayaking and rafting companies operating in Vang Vieng. For more strenuous outdoor activities, Green Discovery (t023/511230, wwww.greendiscoverylaos.com) has a number of options, including day-trip packages as well as overnight hiking and kayaking excursions. The same company was also behind Laos’s first fully operational rock-climbing site, featuring fifty different bolted routes – graded from 5b (tricky) to 8c (very difficult) on the internationally recognized French grading system – in the Vang Vieng area. A day’s climbing costs $47 with equipment, a guide and lunch.
The varied terrain surrounding Vang Vieng can turn treacherous in a hurry, particularly during the rainy season. Exercise caution while wandering through caves and scrambling about on the steep slopes of the karst formations, as serious injuries incurred by foolhardy travellers while tramping about in the area are common. Slippery trails demand that proper shoes be worn – Teva-style sandals with good traction are the best for conquering Vang Vieng’s alternately rocky and muddy trails. Bermuda-type shorts are also a good sartorial choice as you may end up knee-deep in water at some point if you intend to enjoy the countryside to the fullest. A re-sealable plastic bag for valuables such as money and your passport is an excellent idea. Do not leave your valuables with local kids or teenagers, who may offer to “look after them for you” while you explore a cave, and make sure you get back to town before dark – robberies have been reported.
Finally, while it may be tempting to wander around in your swimming gear (and it’s very common to see travellers walking around town half-naked), always remember that in Laos gratuitous displays of flesh are considered a form of rudeness and disrespect.
While the vast majority of visitors use Route 13 between Luang Prabang and the capital, it is possible to swing through Laos’s northwestern frontier provided you’re willing to allow three to four days for the journey. You can make the entire journey by slow boat, but if you opt for the road-and-river journey, Paklai and Sayaboury are the best places to make stopovers. As there are still only rugged tracks between Vientiane and the south of Sayaboury province, river travel is the best way to do that section of the trip – if you can find a boat to take you. Route 2, running the length of SAYABOURY PROVINCE between Luang Prabang and Kenthao, is especially beautiful, particularly in the rice-growing season (June–Nov), with the electric-green paddies set against a sea of bluish mountains – some as high as 2000m – receding in waves towards Thailand.
Something of a Lao Wild West, this remote, densely forested and mountainous province is home to elephants, tigers and the Sumatran rhino. Recognizing it as the perfect place to disappear, CIA operatives active in the Second Indochina War saw Sayaboury as the escape route for Vang Pao and his band of Hmong irregulars should their “secret war” go wrong. They figured the Hmong would be at home in this province peopled by numerous hill tribes, among them Mien, Khamu and Akha, who migrate freely across the western border with Thailand. The untamed nature of the province is perhaps best illustrated by the traditional lifestyle of the Mabri, a tribe of nomadic hunter-gatherers numbering only a few hundred, who are known to the Lao as kha tawng leuang or “slaves of yellow banana leaves” – the name is derived from the tribal custom of moving on as soon as the leaves of their huts turn yellow.
Some of the villages are so remote that they hardly feel part of Laos, finding it far more convenient to trade with Thai towns across the border, or to simply exist in relatively isolated self-sufficiency. Seizing upon the Lao government’s seeming neglect of its far-flung villages, the Thais claimed three Lao villages near the border as their own in a land grab during the 1980s – an incident that sparked two skirmishes between the historic rivals during the course of four years and highlighted the vagueness of the border.
These days the line separating Laos from its larger neighbour has been sketched somewhat more permanently on the map, and it’s business as usual for traders on either side, with the bustling border town of Kenthao functioning as a gateway for goods flowing across the Nam Huang River. A fair number of smuggled cars, sparkling new and without plates, also pass through here and continue on to Vientiane, where they change hands for a fraction of their tax-heavy cost. Amphetamine production is another thorny cross-border issue, with Thai police accusing clandestine factories on the Lao side of producing ya ba, or methamphetamine, which ends up on the streets of the Thai capital Bangkok.
A 150km-long section of the border with Thailand consists of the massive Nam Phoun NBCA, Laos’s westernmost bio-conservation area. The chain of mountains forming the park’s spine includes peaks as high as 1790m. Two significant streams, the Pouy and the Phoun, flow down from heights above and cross the width of Sayaboury province before flowing into the Mekong. Although the town of Nakong on Route 2 sits right on the edge of the park, the NBCA has yet to be developed for trekking.
As you might expect, getting to Sayaboury’s remotest corners isn’t easy. Secluded caves and waterfalls are out there, but none lie on the tourist route. The region will probably be one of the last places to benefit from the country’s improved tourist infrastructure, which is inspiration enough to try this route.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.