In a nutshell
Tour landmarks such as Patuxai and golden That Luang and a collection of temples dotted across town. Bargain at the morning market for textiles. Enjoy a stuffed baguette. Rejuvenate tired muscles at a traditional herbal sauna and massage. Sip a sunset chilled beer on the Mekong.
The Lao capital of Vientiane sits on the northern bank of the Mekong River facing across to the even sleepier Thai town of Sri Chiang Mai. For many visitors, Vientiane provides the first taste of Lao food, culture and hospitality, and it does not disappoint on any count.
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.
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.
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 it.
Nevertheless, slowly, the Mekong riverfront is transforming from what was once just a simple grass bank into a promenade of sorts -- the embankment between the hospitals and the Lane Xang Hotel now hosts a lovely garden and walkway. Elsewhere, the area is largely unspoilt and offers some stunning scenery. The sunsets here are simply sublime.
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 just a handful of places to stay. Plenty of other choices line the roads leading off it but few really take advantage of the views.
The good news is that Vientiane is probably one of the smallest capital cities in the world, so getting around is quick and easy. No matter where you stay, you're never too far away from anywhere, including the riverfront. The further out of the centre you stay, the quieter it gets, but this is where you can find some of the best guesthouses.
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, don't miss a riverside sunset here.
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Accommodation: Vientiane - near the river
Douang Deuane Hotel | Hotel Beau Rivage Mekong | Intha Hotel | Lao Sakonh Guesthouse | Lao Silk Hotel | Mimi Guesthouse | Mixay Guesthouse | Orchid Guesthouse | RD Guesthouse | Riverine Hotel | Riverside Hotel | Saysouly Guesthouse | Souphaphone Guesthouse | Vieng Thong Guesthouse | Villa Manoly | Youth Inn |
Accommodation: Vientiane - near the river: Upmarket
Best Western Vientiane | Don Chan Palace Hotel | Le Leela Hotel | Phasouk Residence |
Accommodation: Central Vientiane
Chantha Guesthouse | Dragon Lodge | Haysoke 1 Guesthouse | Lani Guesthouse | Lao Orchid Hotel | Lao Plaza | Mali Namphu | Phonepaseuth Guesthouse | Sabaidy Guesthouse | Soukchaleun Guesthouse | Syri 2 Guesthouse | Vayakorn Guesthouse | Youth Inn 2 |
Accommodation: Greater Vientiane
Day Inn Hotel | Khamkoun Hotel | Lovan Guesthouse | Settha Palace Hotel | Syri 1 Guesthouse | Villa Nongduang | Wonderland 2 Guesthouse |
Text and/or map last updated on 5th September, 2010.
Get orientated with a map of Vientiane, Laos
Backchat from the Travelfish community
The smallest capital of the world
This seems to be one of the smallest capitals of the world. I spent three days in a row here to explore all the wats and markets, and enjoy sunsets over the Mekong. I also returned to be a part of the That Luang Festival.
If you are interested in history, don't miss out the COPE Museum. Also, check out the old communist statue right beside a buddhist one, stuff your stomach at the riverside with all kinds of seafood, take a pool bath at the hotel by the Mekong and take some "air photos" from the highest floor from there. Visit some parks and make a few day trips, Vientiane has many things to offer and it's quiet and relaxed - except during the That Luang festival!
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By chaos23 (dabbler)
Written on 13th June, 2009 after a visit to Vientiane in November, 2008
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