Vientiane


The capital of Laos, Vientiane, is a bustling city set on the swirling waters of the Mekong River. For many years Vientiane was a sleepy backwater capital of an equally backwater state, but as Laos has slowly opened up to foreign investment and tourism, Vientiane has gone through vast changes and continues to expand.

Vientiane

Vientiane City

But while the Lao capital is now home to a vibrant wealth of hotels, bars and restaurants, it still retains tree-lined dirt roads complete with peaceful temples and relaxed inhabitants. The pace of life, as in all of Laos, is best described as slow — bordering on glacial. This is still likely to be among the smallest capital cities you ever visit (Vientiane).

Actually pronounced Wiang Jan and translated as City of Sandalwood, the modern name of Vientiane comes courtesy of a bastardised French transliteration. Wiang actually means “fort” (City of Sandalwood sounds better than Fort… ) but by all accounts it mustn’t have been much of a stronghold, as the original city was overrun on a number of occasions by the Burmese and Chinese, and absolutely flattened by the Siamese (Thais) in 1828, after which the city was abandoned and left to the jungle (Vientiane).

This is one reason why many of the wats in the city are of a relatively young age, and if the road layout strikes you as an inspired affair, thank the French for it — they laid the whole place out when they oversaw the rebuilding of the city from the turn of the 19th to 20th centuries (Vientiane).

Like many French colonial cities, Vientiane is characterised by broad, often leafy boulevards and rundown, creaking colonial mansions. Dotted with rustic wats surrounded by coconut palms and a generally sedentary pace of life as well and the allure of the place can be well understood.

Indeed it’s only since the early 1990s that the city has really started to develop. While it’s a shame that the first waves of (largely Thai) investors that hit landlocked Laos brought with them the concrete egg-carton style architecture that litters so much of Thailand, at least the riverfront, with its sleepy wats and broken pavements, didn’t bear the brunt of i (Vientiane).

Vientiane

Luang Prabang

So while Vientiane may lack the overwhelming charm of Luang Prabang, it still has enough sights and attractions to hold a traveller’s interest for a few days, and with an international airport and an easy overland route into Thailand, this remains one of the primary gateways into Laos. Many choose to rush through, spending little more than a night in town while awaiting a visa or onward connection, but as with most Lao destinations, a longer stay can be rewarding (Vientiane).

Read how we’d spend two days in Vientiane.

For a capital, Vientiane isn’t exactly overloaded with museums and sights, but in a way that’s part of the attraction. Slow down to Lao speed — hire a bicycle; see one or two things a day; spend a lot of time snacking and quenching your thirst by the river. You’ll grow to appreciate the attraction of the place.

While you’d expect the flow of the Mekong to attract guesthouses and hotels by the truckload, the road along here, Fa Ngum, has fewer places to stay than you might expect. Plenty of other choices line the roads leading off it but few really take advantage of the views.

Vientiane also boasts a great selection of Lao and Western restaurants and cafes, and an eclectic mix of sights and attractions which can be combined well for a comfortable two- to three-day stay. Whatever you do, before you move on, don’t miss a riverside sunset in Vientiane.

North of Vientiane lies the backpacker and independent traveller magnet of Vang Vieng  a village that became a tourist town in way too short a period of time. The state of the place became such a debacle that other regions in Laos used Vang Vieng as a model of exactly how they didn’t want their own locales to develop. But all that changed in August 2012 when the central government cracked down on illegal bars lining the river and shut the lot down, effectively curbing the outrageous behaviour that went along with them (Vientiane).

Now that the party in Vang Vieng is over, all that is left is the scenery, picturesque rivers, jagged cliffs and mysterious caves — there is a wealth of natural beauty here just waiting to be explored. The town itself is still a little soulless, but no hotel or guesthouse is more than a five-minute walk from wonderful rice fields and spectacular scenery.

Vientiane

Vang Vieng

There is more to Vientiane’s surrounds though than just Vang Vieng: Nam Ngum dam, Lao Pako and the sculpture garden to name but three. Look around a bit and chances are you’ll find something interesting.

Travellers in Laos often spend little time in Vientiane, sometimes bypassing the capital city completely. True, Vientiane lacks the tourist-centric charms of Luang Prabang–but in a way, this is the city’s draw. The city is for living and to fully appreciate it, free-spirited exploration is required—if you do, you’ll be rewarded with incredible surprises. Here’s why you should spend some time in Vientiane. An insider’s guide: six things to do in Vientiane.

Vientiane by Bicycle in Vientiane

Although vehicle traffic has increased over the last few years, Vientiane is still a bicycle friendly city. Cycle the quiet side streets, down grand boulevards, through monasteries, past temples and schools. Stop by COPE to learn about the country’s UXO problem. Get out of the center and see how the city retains the feel of an overgrown village. Vientiane is remarkably open to cyclists for discovery.

Bowling in Vientiane

They LOVE bowling in Laos. Bowling alleys are one of the few places you can go in Laos for late night fun. Perfect your bowling skills at one of Vientiane’s numerous alleys and chase it with karaoke. The challenge? Try getting a strike after four bottles of Beerlao, then try singing all the right notes.

People Watching in Vientiane

If you want to meet and chat with locals in Laos, this is the place. Head to the pedestrian boulevard beside the river at sunset to see families out for a stroll, gaggles of kids, teens practicing tricks on skateboards, young couples sneaking a moment and crowds just hanging out watching all the action. Join a football game, chat and make new friends.

When night falls, kick back at popular local joints overlooking the river, where Beerlao flows, the BBQ sizzles and Lao/Thai pop pumps. Borpenyang rooftop bar attracts a healthy mix of locals, backpackers and ladyboys. Samyek Pakpasack Khemkong’s second floor terrace is packed with chatty locals every single night. Head west from the tourist center on the Mekong road; 5 min. walk, beside Mekong Sunshine Hotel.

Drinking in Vientiane

I’ve already waxed poetic about how good the tipple is in this city (see my previous post on wine bars in Vientiane). But also check out the incredible coffee shops. There are simply too many to list here. The cafes offer excellent, fresh brewed java, delicious baked goods, sandwiches, and the all-important free wifi and comfy chairs.

Vientiane

Vientiane Food

Makphet in Vientiane

Makphet is a training restaurant offering marginalized youth hands-on learning experience and vocational training in the culinary and hospitality industry. Not only are you dining for a good cause, the menu offers an unapologetic, bold introduction to Lao cuisine with a few modern twists. Check out their shop which sells their fabulous Lao cuisine cookbook “From Honeybees to Pepperwood” and funky handmade up-cycled goods.

Vientiane

Makphet

Dining in Vientiane

Dear Backpackers: One cannot live on banana-pancakes alone. Vientiane is outstanding for international cuisine. Forget the boring sandwiches and fruit shakes for a moment and indulge a little: from sushi to Korean BBQ, wood-fire pizza to chicken-tikka-masala, from Belgian moules-frites to Vietnamese pho and everything in between. Dine on good food and like your mama said, try to eat some vegetables.

Vientiane

Vientiane Travel

Vientiane Lao Travel

Lao Travel Guide