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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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Text and/or map last updated on 19th February, 2014.
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