Vientiane, the bustling capital city of Laos, is set on the steady waters of the Mekong River. For many years it was a sleepy backwater capital of an equally backwater state, but as Laos has slowly opened up to foreign investment and tourism, Vientiane has undergone vast changes and continues to expand. It’s a small city with growing ambition.
Vientiane’s name stems from an incorrect French transliteration of “Wiang Jan”, meaning “City of Sandalwood.” It’s home to a vibrant wealth of hotels, bars, restaurants and embassies while maintaining a low-key, laidback feel. The pace of life, as in all of Laos, is best described as slow -- bordering on glacial, especially on the weekends. Get out of the tourist centre and you’ll still find tree-lined dirt roads, peaceful temples and relaxed inhabitants more interested in setting up the sound system and barbecue for the party than anything else. With a population of only 850,000, this is likely to be the smallest capital city you will find in Southeast Asia.
In 1563, King Setthathirat, the last great king of Lane Xang, moved his capital from Luang Prabang (which suffered from constant attacks by the Burmese) to Vientiane, bringing with him the Phra Kaew, the sacred Emerald Buddha, and building Wat Ho Phra Kaew to house it. Unfortunately the move didn’t stop the Burmese from attacking Vientiane and it fell under their control for seven years. This was followed by a golden era of peace until the end of the 17th century, then constant struggle and war with Siam throughout the 18th century: Siam stole the Emerald Buddha in 1778 and the city was razed in 1827-1828, subsequently abandoned and absorbed into their territory. The only temple to survive the attack was Wat Sisaket. The Emerald Buddha is still at the Grand Palace in Bangkok and this remains a sore spot for Laos even today.
If the road layout of grids, wide boulevards and roundabouts strike you as French in style, your instincts are correct. The French Annexation saw the rebuilding of the city from the turn of the 20th century.
Like many French colonial cities, Vientiane is characterised by broad, often leafy boulevards, a riverside promenade, creaking colonial mansions painted in sun-bleached tropical hues and mod 1960’s era villas with large gardens dripping in bougainvillea. The city is dotted with rustic wats and traditional homes, coconut palms and tamarind trees, beer shacks and French cafes. Mix that with a sedentary pace of life and the allure of the place is understood.
But with time comes change. Remnants of the old guard linger (you can still enjoy a heavenly croissant), but Vientiane is looking forward. Citizens grow up on Thai soap operas, Korean pop music and Facebook. They ride buses donated by Japan, manufacture Korean motorbikes, supply Vietnam with (illegal) timber, allow Australians to mine and let German NGOs consult. China’s business interest in this country is enormous, and there are signs of this relationship throughout the city.
In 2015 Vientiane Center, the country’s first modern shopping mall, opened. It has a movie theatre, the only one in Laos. There’s no McDonalds or Burger King yet, but a few Thai chains have appeared. With this development boom comes new wealth, and growing pains. The most obvious sign of this is the exponential growth of vehicles.
Only a decade ago you could close your eyes and cross the road with no fear. As of 2015, there are 661,612 vehicles registered -- and remember, the city has a population of 850,000. Traffic jams occur at all hours. With no dedicated parking lots, every spot has become a parking lot including wats and footpaths. Traditions and religion still thrive, women still wear traditional skirts, but an emerging upper class is also interested in owning nice cars, taking selfies, dining at the latest hip restaurant and getting their children into the best schools.
Vientiane lacks the overwhelming charm of Luang Prabang and if you had to decide between the two, we recommend spending more time in the latter.
But travellers shouldn’t bypass the capital completely. It has enough sights and attractions to please a traveller for a few days. With an international airport and an easy overland route into Thailand, this remains one of the primary gateways into Laos and jumping-off point for journeys to the country’s remote pockets. It’s a good place to stock up or refuel on creature comforts. Vientiane has some superb Lao food, international restaurants and fun bars of all budgets and tastes. There’s even a North Korean restaurant.
Cycle around and explore the sights and quaint back alleys; stop for a delicious bowl of pho along the way. Tackle a multisport daytrip in Phou Khao Khouay National Park. Do a cooking class or visit the morning local market before heading to the Mekong to quench your thirst. Watch fisherman wade in a river that’s glowing gold from the setting sun and find your heart melting in appreciation for Vientiane’s quiet beauty.
North of the city in Vientiane province lies the backpacker magnet of Vang Vieng, a village-turned-tourist-town set against a dramatic backdrop of karst. Once famed (and infamous) for drug-and-drink fuelled debauchery on the Nam Song River, all that changed in 2012 when the government finally cracked down on the illegal bars, zip-lines and slides lining the river and drugs openly for sale.
The party is over, so Vang Vieng is open for all visitors to enjoy its stunning natural beauty and non-tubing outdoor pursuits: blue lagoons, rice paddies, jagged cliffs and mysterious caves. The town itself is still a little soulless and tacky, yet no hotel or guesthouse is more than a five-minute bike ride from rural countryside.
Just 60 kilometres north of Vang Vieng, on the well-travelled road to Luang Prabang, Kasi has mountain landscapes and Lao villages unspoilt by tourist crowds.
It’s important to remember that Laos is still one of the most impoverished countries in Southeast Asia. For the rest of the country, Vientiane is a world away, but it represents the world that Laos is hurtling towards.
By Cindy Fan . Last updated on 6th February, 2016.