With a population of only half a million people, Vientiane is a relatively compact capital, so most districts that are of interest to visitors are fairly close to each other and easily accessible by foot or bicycle. For longer journeys tuk-tuks or taxis are the way to go, or the more intrepid traveler can hire a motorcycle. In terms of orientation, Vientiane is divided into villages, or bans, the names of which can be useful to know when trying to direct a tuk-tuk driver.
Around Talat Sao The two-story, covered
Opposite the western side of
Ban Mixay and Ban Sisaket These two districts lie next to each other west of Talat Sao and contain three of the main arteries of Vientiane--Samsenthai Road, Setthathirat Road and Fa Ngum Road, which run parallel to each other. This area is also where most tourists eat, sleep, drink, and spend money, and it is thus filled with restaurants, guesthouses, shops and Internet cafes.
Samsenthai Road is home to the high end
Connecting Samsenthai and Setthathirat Roads are a number of side streets, the busiest of which is Pangkham Street, lined with tailor shops and terminating at
Fa Ngum Road sits on the bank of the Mekong River. Many small streets that connect with it reward exploration with some great souvenir and handicraft shops, including
Chinatown This small area of roughly half a dozen streets is best seen at night, when it comes alive with a myriad of food stalls lining the pavement. On one street you will find cakes and pastries, on another fresh fruit and on a third a selection of savory treats and fresh soymilk. This is also the place to come for a cheap dim sum lunch or a Japanese feast at Kitchen Tokyo. On a more mundane note, it is also where most of the laundry and dry cleaning services in Vientiane are to be found.
That Luang The northern part of the city is centered around
KM4 The rest of the city consists mainly of residential areas, holding little interest to the visitor, with the exception of KM4. This is, literally, four kilometers from the city center along Tha Deua Road. During the day it is a good place to shop for cane and rattan ware, including furniture. At night there are a number of restaurants and entertainment venues clustered close to each other, including the
All in all, the minuscule size of this capital city makes it very easy to navigate. The curious will be able to explore intricacies of the different neighborhoods with ease. The less adventurous, though, need only to find his or her way to the Mekong by sunset, pull up a seat and watch the sun return to the depths of the river.
Southeast Asia's quiet backwater capital, Vientiane, unfolds over pot-holed roads, emerging through a haze of construction dust and flaming sunsets over the Mekong. To the careful observer, reminders of Vientiane's complicated and colorful history abound. Streets filled with elaborate Buddhist temples, crumbling French colonial villas, modernist Soviet architecture and aid offices form the backdrop for a unique hybrid society of socialist kitsch, Western capitalism and a smattering of Thai pop culture.
Sitting on a quiet bend of the Mekong River, at the center of a vast, fertile, alluvial plain, Vientiane has been inhabited since the 10th century. Having been conquered and ruled repeatedly by the Khmer, Vietnamese, Burmese and Siamese, the meuang, or fiefdom, of Vientiane was drawn into the Lao kingdom of Lane Xang (one million elephants). In 1560 King Setthathirath moved the capital of his kingdom there from Luang Prabang and ordered the That Luang (Great Stupa) to be built in the east of the city at the site of a Khmer temple. Rebuilt on numerous occasions this stupa remains the central icon to Lao Buddhist life in Vientiane and a symbol of Lao sovereignty.
Unfortunately for Vientiane, this golden period of Lao history waned as the kingdom declined. A dramatic raid by the Siamese left Vientiane in ruin. The only monastery left standing in the city after the raid was Wat Sisaket, built in 1818 by King Chao Anou. This peaceful and charming temple is now the oldest monastery in Vientiane and home to a marvelous collection of Buddha images.
When the French arrived in the late 19th century they found Vientiane virtually abandoned. Nonetheless, it was selected over Luang Prabang to be the capital of the new colony, and once more Vientiane was reborn as a city. Much of the city seen today dates from this period. Never as important as the other French Indochinese capitals of Hanoi, Saigon and Phnom Penh, Vientiane lacks the grand buildings of these cities, but the French influence is still apparent in the peaceful Nam Phu Square and the recently restored National Library.
Following the Second World War, various Lao groups struggled for autonomy from the French and independence was finally achieved in 1953. As Laos was slowly drawn into the war in neighboring Vietnam, the 1960s and ‘70s were catastrophic for most of the country and earned Laos the unfortunate distinction of being the most heavily bombed nation per capita in the history of warfare. However, the war had a very different effect on the city of Vientiane.
United States aid money brought Vientiane insulation from the horror and devastation experienced in the rest of the country. The Vientiane economy boomed on the back of this money and income from services provided to US personnel stationed in the capital. Luxury mansions and large government offices sprung up. The city became known for its opium dens and sex shows. Most dramatically, the unforgettable Patuxai “Victory Arch” on Lane Xang Avenue was constructed from United States supplied cement originally destined for a new airport runway.
Boomtown Vientiane ended in 1975 with the fall of Saigon. The Pathet Lao, the Lao communists, took advantage of the opportunity. They took over and declared the establishment of the Lao People's Democratic Republic (Lao PDR). The Lao Revolutionary Museum stands as a reminder of the communists' account of their triumphant revolution against the “American imperialists.” Overnight, life in Vientiane changed. All American and capitalist behavior was outlawed. Bell-bottom trousers and jeans for women were forbidden, and the green workers uniform became a common style around Vientiane. With the end of American aid, the city's economy collapsed.
The revolution by the Pathet Lao also made its mark on the ceremonial life of Laotians. It forced King Sisavang Vatthana to abdicate the thrown and he and his family were exiled to "seminars" in Northern Laos. This marked the end of the royal lineage. All that remains of 600 years of monarchy in Vientiane is a sealed off Presidential Palace, now used for government guests' accommodation and Ho Phrakeo, the former royal Buddhist temple now operating as a museum.
With the royal family overthrown, the government's focus moved toward Buddhism as it tried to curtail religious practices. Attempted restrictions were eventually abandoned in 1977 due to mass dissent from the people. Today the thriving Buddhist culture is clearly evident all over Vientiane. Wat Ong Teu, Wat Hai Sok, Wat Mixay, Wat Inpeng, and the home to the city's guardian spirit, Wat Si Muang still stand as testaments to Vientiane's continuing Buddhist spirit.
With this change in political alignment, the face of Vientiane changed. Soviet and Vietnamese advisor's replaced those from the United States. Soviet jeeps appeared on the streets and Soviet funded and styled buildings were built around the city. With the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, though, the Lao Revolutionary Party was forced to rethink their opinions of capitalism. In search of new support, they began to open Laos to the rest of the world.
In 1994, the Friendship Bridge opened just south of Vientiane, creating the first bridge across the Mekong and an important symbolic link between Laos and the Western world. Since the opening of the bridge, life in Vientiane has continued to change. International aid money and business funds have flowed into Vientiane and along with it international employees. French, Italian and Japanese restaurants have opened to serve the growing cosmopolitan population of the city.
To this day, the revolutionary old guard remains firmly in control, but is heeding the trend toward globalization. International businesses tentatively open offices. The arrival of tourists has brought with it the opportunity for guest-houses, Internet cafes and handicraft stores to fill abandoned shops, waking the city's dormant French squares. Golf courses offer distractions for expatriates, Asian investors and wealthy locals. Still, Vientiane remains a city of simple pleasures and a delightful place to sip a Beerlao and watch the beautiful crimson sunset over the Mekong.
Lao people love eating out. Whether slurping a bowl of hot noodle soup for breakfast, popping out for spring rolls for lunch or settling into a substantial evening meal, eating and drinking is a social occasion. Visitors to Vientiane can enjoy the atmosphere, as well as local and international cuisine, in a wide range of eating spots. Street-side stalls and cafes offer a splendid Mekong River sunset view, while exquisite restaurants impress customers with immaculate decor. Vientiane caters, at reasonable prices, to most tastes in food and drink.
French culinary influence lingers in Lao in the smell of freshly baked crusty baguettes. First thing in the morning, street vendors serve them, Lao-style, with a drizzle of condensed milk, or as part of a cafe breakfast. The Sabaidee Restaurant, in the historic quarter, serves a substantial “Lao/American Breakfast” in a shady courtyard setting. The nearby Healthy & Fresh Bakery offers tempting breakfast choices including waffles, muesli and fruit juice, not forgetting blueberry pancakes.
A good spot to watch Vientiane waking up is along the Mekong waterfront. Cafes serving Lao breakfasts and all day meals line the street. Pick a corner spot at Nok Noy Noodle Shop, and try khao pirsen, chunky rice noodles smothered in a delicious broth, or wake up swiftly with a cup of strong Lao coffee (grown in the southern highlands) sweetened with condensed milk.
Baguettes stuffed with pate and vegetables, sold at stalls near Talat Sao (Morning Market) from early until late, are another legacy of French cuisine, but the addition of chili sauce can shock the palate. Making the best filled baguettes in town, as well as some tasty Vietnamese options, PVO Cafe on Thanon Samsenthai is open all day for takeaway or eat-in meals.
Lunch in central Vientiane is international. Italian sandwiches can be savored at the Gourmet Mediterranean Delicatessan on Thanon Setthathirat. Specials include Parma ham with mustard, and vegetarian grilled aubergine salad with soft cheese, sandwiched inside genuine foccacia or ciabatta bread. Across Nam Phu Square, the Scandinavian Bakery offers cheese and ham platters with a choice of bread and tempting sweet pastries. At Nazim Restaurant along the Mekong waterfront, you can lunch on Indian vegetarian and meat dishes and at Uncle Fred's eat American style fast food. Kitchen Tokyo serves Japanese set meals at bargain prices, and at the Cave des Chateaux in Nam Phu Square you can go French. For seafood buffs, the Hong Kong Restaurant is a great setting for business lunches. Vegetarians can relax at Just For Fun, where local specialties are guaranteed meat-free. To eat with the locals, sit down at the food stalls in the Talat Sao.
By sunset, thoughts turn to dinner. As the sun goes down over the Mekong, you can dine outdoors with a river view in the wooden Lao-style Anousone, featuring a wide range of reasonably priced food. For a quiet drink and snack, the nearby Sala Sunset Bar is an ideal scenic spot.
Traditional Lao style dining is communal—guests share a bamboo basket of sticky rice with fish, meat and vegetable dishes. Needless to say, Lao food is widely available, but a couple of venues stand out. The Khop Chai Deu Food Garden features a relaxed courtyard restaurant bar popular with locals, tourists and expatriates. It serves a tasty laap—minced meat or fish seasoned with aromatic herbs with classic Lao sticky rice (khao niaow). Kualao Restaurant, on Thanon Samsenthai, offers traditional cuisine in an elegant colonial building accompanied by live folk music
Nearby, classically European restaurants surround the Nam Phu Fountain. L'Opera is distinguished, Italian, and perfect for a candlelit dinner. Restaurant-Bar Nam Phou offers a mostly business clientèle imported Australian steaks and Lao specialties. Le Provencal is relaxed and French, with a delicious dessert menu. At all these restaurants you can enjoy good wine, liquors and spirits.
Vientiane is usually quiet by midnight, but if you can be here during festival time, wandering the streets with crowds of people late into the night can be both entertaining and can work up an appetite. When people converge on the city for the Boat Racing Festival(October) or the That Luang Festival(November), the streets are lined with low rattan stalls, each lit by a single candle or oil lamp. Here women sell skewers of barbecued chicken (ping kai) and reed cylinders filled with sticky rice.
What is there to drink? As the advertising slogan says here, "When in Lao, drink Beerlao!" You will notice that locals are happy to drink this local brew (with a Czech recipe) from breakfast onwards. If this seems a bit early, there is always a stall or cafe serving Pepsi or Mirinda, perhaps to take away in a bag poured over refreshing crushed ice. Stalls everywhere sell Lao Coffee (hot or iced), soy and coconut milk, as well as bottled water. Wine is readily available (that French influence again), but expensive when drunk by the glass; an impressive collection is offered by Vinotheque La Cave.
In general, before the dark of night takes this sleepy town into full unconsciousness, all tastes can be satisfied. Lao specialties abound, while a lot of the rest of Asia is represented and the selection of Western options is impressive. While all beverage preferences are also catered for, one drink seems to be the general choice to accompany any entrée or none at all, good old Beerlao.
While entertainment options in Vientiane can be somewhat limited, if you like drinking, dancing, karaoke or live music, you are in for a good time. The bad news is that there is a government-imposed curfew of 11.30pm; the good news is that many places either ignore it or have an understanding with the local police, which allows them to stay open until around 1am, and even later in some cases. A word of advice--transportation is difficult to find after about 10pm, especially in areas outside the city center such as KM4, so if you are planning a late night, paying a tuk-tuk driver to wait for you is well worth the money.
If your preference is for more highbrow cultural pursuits than drinking and dancing, they are a little harder to find, but it can be done with a bit of persistence. The best way to find out what is happening on the cultural front is to check the English language newspaper, The Vientiane Times, for listings. Also check the window of Phimphone Market as one-off events such as concerts, drama performances and film showings are often advertised there.
Nightlife There is a good variety of clubs, discos and watering holes to choose from, ranging from those catering mostly to foreign visitors to those with much more local flavor. The Samlo and Rose & Crown pubs are on the foreign end of the scale, with a British feel to them. Similarly, Khop Chai Deu Food Garden is a popular drinking hangout for both expatriates and backpackers.
For something a bit more energetic and with more local color, Image Bar and Chess Cafe are a couple of discos that attract a fair percentage of foreigners as well as numerous locals. Image Bar is strictly a place for cheap drinks and loud dance music, while Chess Cafe has a live band playing Thai and Lao pop. As well, most of the major hotels, including the Lao Plaza, Lane Xang, Novotel and Mekong also have nightclubs or discos attached to them.
If you are not so keen on dancing but like good live music, try Win West or Watcharaphorn, which boasts the best band in Laos. For a more relaxed evening drink and maybe something to eat, the Restaurant-Bar Nam Phou or the many salas, or beer shops, along the banks of the Mekong River are the places to head for. These are simple wooden open-air platforms with cheap tables and chairs, but the beer is plentiful, the food cheap and tasty, and the night air warm enough to sit outside until late.
Karaoke Karaoke is extremely popular in Laos, and there are a number of bars devoted exclusively to it. So if you have ever had the urge to belt out "Hotel California" in front of a bunch of strangers, Vientiane provides the perfect opportunity. Try Snooker Karaoke for a full public performance or, if you prefer to make a fool of yourself only in front of a select few friends, book one of the many private VIP lounges found at the Lao Plaza and Mekong hotels as well as other places. The often irrelevant accompanying videos and full-on echo effects on the microphones only add to what can be a surprisingly great night out--especially if you make good use of the available bar service.
Sports While ten pin bowling may not be the first thing that springs to mind as great entertainment, bowling, Lao style, is a whole different kettle of fish. Lao Bowling Centre has two alleys—one in the center of town and one at KM4. Both stay open until 3am, making them very popular haunts with the local crowd. Snooker and billiards are also popular here, and there are a number of snooker halls around. The easiest to find is the Ekalath Metropole Snooker Club.
There is nothing in the way of spectator sports, but if you like to participate there are various possibilities. Swimmers can find a number of pools, mostly at major hotels such as the Lao Plaza, Novotel and Lane Xang. The latter two also have tennis courts for hire, and there are a number of public courts as well, most centrally at the National Stadium. There is also a thriving Hash House Harriers chapter, which organizes runs every week. Check the Vientiane Times for times and also for details of informal weekly sessions of rugby, softball and ultimate Frisbee.
Local Culture Traditional music and dance performances are part of the dining experience at some of the finer local restaurants such as Kualao and Tamnak Lao. There are occasional performances of varying sorts at the Lao National Culture Hall, but these are irregular so it is a matter of checking the newspaper once you are in town.
Another way to enjoy Lao culture is to arrange to be in Vientiane during one of the local festivals. Pimai, the Lao New Year, combines solemn holiday and citywide water fight. The That Luang Festival , perhaps the biggest festival in the city, sees a mass pilgrimage to That Luang, where live music, dance and a market go well into the night.
Massage For the ultimate in relaxation after a hard night out, it is difficult to beat a massage and sauna. For the local version try Wat Sokpaluang or Amphone Sauna and Massage, or for a more European-style massage or facial, Mixay Massage is the place to go.
Vientiane is yet to make its claims to be part of the upper echelon in exciting cities. If, though, you are able to enjoy the simple pleasures Vientiane has to offer, the city can be a very enjoyable place. A drink by the river, a song sung with friends, a massage, or a game of bowling can definitely please if combined with a friendly Lao smile (or perhaps some Beerlao).