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The main concentration of banks is on Lane Xang Avenue leading up from the Mekong River. Most will change cash and travellers cheques. ATMs that display the Visa and MasterCard signs are usually reserved for Lao-issued cards. The BCEL does have an international ATM on Pangkham Rd where you can use your ATM card from home or Visa or MasterCard credit cards for cash advances. Keep in mind that with BCEL, the maximum withdrawal is 700,000 kip per transaction plus a 20,000 kip fee for using the ATM. A better option is Joint Development Bank on Samsenthai Rd (close to Lao Plaza Hotel), where you can withdraw up to 1,000,000 kip with no fees, except those imposed by your own bank, of course. An attached exchange booth makes for easy conversion.

Just as handy and usually a lot quicker are the exchange booths around town. The BCEL operates one on the corner of Pangkham and Fa Ngum Rds and there's another on Hengboun Rd next to the Lao Hotel. The BCEL is open Mon-Fri from 8:30 to19:00 and weekends from 08:30 to 15:30.

Though other destinations in Laos are becoming less reliant on the miserable US dollar, it still seems the preferred form of currency in Vientiane and those attempting to pay in kip are penalised at some establishments. To further confuse the situation, ATMs only distribute kip -- which most banks at home will charge a service fee for the conversion to -- and then you're nicked again when you change your kip to dollars. Even with all the extra fees, the conversion is often still a better bet than paying in kip.

Post office
The central post office is opposite the south side of the day market on Khou Viang Rd. Office hours are Monday to Friday 08:00 to 17:00, Saturday 08:00 to 16:00 and Sunday 08:00 to 12:00.

Immigration office
Visa on arrival is issued for 30 days for most nationalities at the Friendship Bridge crossing and at Wattay International Airport. Tourist visas can also be organised beforehand through Lao diplomatic offices. Should you wish to extend a tourist visa you can do so at the immigration office in Vientiane on Hatsady Rd, just off Lane Xang Avenue, for US$2 per day. Leaving Laos with an expired visa will cost you $10 a day and you can only extend visas here. Agents can be hired to carry out the task from other provinces, but prices go up to about $3 or $4 per day for the service. If you want to extend a visa that you have already overstayed on, you are still required to pay the $10 per day fine to cover the days you have already overstayed. Office hours are Mon-Fri 08:00-12:00 and 13:00-16:00. T: (021) 212 520.

For minor ailments stop at one of the many pharmacies, which are open daily and well stocked with medicine, though be sure to check the expiry date. For serious problems, consider the Mahosot Hospital, T: (021) 214 023-4, or the International Clinic, T: (021) 214 022. Both are by Mahosot Rd and are open 24 hours. If you're concerned about a serious condition or your insurance doesn't cover health care in Laos, head to either AEK Hospital (http://www.aekudon.com) in Udon Thani, T: (+66 42) 342 555, F:(+66 42) 341 033 or Bangkok.

In an emergency the police can be contacted on 191. There is also a tourist police office next to the Tourist Information Centre on Lane Xang Avenue, T: (021) 251 128.

Vehicle rental
Handpainted signs for motor bike rental call to pedestrians all along the city's footpaths. A dozen local shops lease older model bikes for about 60,000 kip per day and newer models for about 80,000 kip per day. For a more stylish ride, try Jule's Classic Rental at Phimphone Market. You'll pay more ($20 per day) but have your pick of sleek rides with a showroom shine and the peace of mind that comes with the included third party insurance. Even if you don't decide to rent, the market is worth a look as they stock many hard-to-find items and a delicious variety of cheeses -- it's a perfect spot to pick up fixings for a picnic.

When it comes to car rental, many guesthouses and travel agencies can make arrangements for you. For the most choices however, head to the well established Asia Vehicle Rental. AVR boasts the largest fleet of rental vehicles in town, which allows them to accommodate almost any request, from short and long term car and truck rental to airport limousine service and guided international excursions.

Jule's Classic Rental: Phimphone Market, Setthathirath Rd, Vientiane. T: (020) 760 0813.
Asia Vehicle Rental: 354-356 Samsenthai Rd, Vientiane. T: (021) 217 493, (021) 223 867. http://www.avr@laopdr.com

Vientiane is getting a lot better than in terms of English-language books on offer, but choices of titles are still quite limited. Kosila have two shops, one at the bottom of Nokeo Koummane and another just before the That Dam stupa. Both have a reasonable collection of secondhand titles but nothing too inspired. Monument Books on Nokeo Koummane (next to the Vayakorn Guesthouse) has a good selection of Lao titles covering culture, history and cooking (all in English). They are also a good source for maps of Laos and neighbouring countries. A lot of magazines are also available but not too many English novels. Vientiane Book Centre on Pangkham Road (just up from the BCEL exchange booth) has a reasonable collection of secondhand titles as well as cards and postcards. A final shop is Book – Café which buys and sells titles and will trade two-for-one. They have a great selection of books in many languages. Some guesthouses also offer book loans and the exchange service at the Full Moon Cafe on Francois Nginn Road is the best in town.

Book - Cafe: 053/2 Heng Boun Rd, Vientiane. T: (020) 6893 741. Open daily: 09:00-19:00.
Kosila: Nokeo Koummane and That Dam stupa circle, Vientiane. T: (020) 2240 964 Open: Mon-Sat 09:00-19:00.
Monument Books: Nokeo Koummane, Vientiane. T: (021) 243 708. Open: Mon-Fri 09:00-20:00, Sat & Sun 09:00-18:00.
Vientiane Book Centre: 54/1 Pangkham Rd, Vientiane. T: (021) 212 031. Open: Mon-Fri 08:30-17:30, Sat 09:00-16:00, closed Sun.

Internet and telecommunications
Internet cafes are all over the city and some of the guesthouses are also getting in on the act, offering one or two terminals in their reception areas. Speed and reliability are usually excellent and prices are between 100 and 200 kip per minute. If you're travelling with a laptop, WiFi services are available at Joma cafe on Setthatilath Rd for 25,000 kip per hour, or for free with purchase at Vista Wi-Fi Cafe on Francois Nginn Rd.

Tourist information
Aside from Travelfish, the best way to get the most out of Vientiane is to pick up a good map. The Lao National Tourism Administration seem to be getting their act together at last and now have a fairly reasonable display in their offices on Lane Xang Ave after the day market. They can provide a free guide to Laos (in English and French), which isn't as bad as you might expect (in fact it's very amusing in places). It actually contains some reasonable maps, some excellent background information on Laos, its culture, ethnic minorities and various festivals, as well as lists of accommodation, restaurants, bars, embassies and things to see in Vientiane. They will also sell you a 3D map, but it's a bit heavy on the advertising and there are better choices in the bookshops.

There is a daily English-language newspaper, the Vientiane Times, as well as a weekly French publication, Le Renovateur. These are sold in almost every cafe and hotel as well as some of the better guesthouses. The Vientiane Times also publishes timetables for government buses travelling from Vientiane to other destinations in Laos.

Keep an eye out too for the noticeboards that can be found in many guesthouses and especially in some of the cafes. Everything from job vacancies to language courses are posted.

Lao National Tourism Information Centre: Lane Xang Ave, Vientiane. T: (021) 250 681; F: (021) 212 769. Open daily 08:30 to 12:00 and 13:00 to 16:30. http://www.tourismlaos.gov.la

When to go
Set at the centre of the country, Vientiane gets a very predictable wet and dry monsoon climate. The dry season commences between late October and early November and runs through till the rains break the heat some time in May. Both April and May can be excruciatingly hot, with the rain that finally comes a welcome relief. In the wet season, August and September see the most rain, but it is rarely an all-day torrential affair; instead you can expect short, heavy downpours spread throughout the day.

The best time to visit Vientiane is between November and February. This is after the end of the wet season, but before things begin to really heat up in March. Vientiane is at its busiest in December and January, but outside of Pimai Lao (Lao New Year), you should always be able to find a room.

Pimai Lao (Lao New Year)
This three-day festival (in some places it can run for five) celebrates Lao New Year and is characterised by water and powder throwing, baci ceremonies and Lao hospitality at its best. It's a fun festival, particularly in Luang Prabang, but rooms fill up fast -- a reservation is a very good idea. Celebrated across the country April 14-16.

Rocket festival
While not a scratch on the mayhem you'll see in Thailand, this rain-making festival in May or June (the date varies each year) is known for its large non-NASA-certified home-made rockets which are, usually and hopefully, shot skywards. A must for any budding rocket engineer.

Ok Phansa
Held on the full moon at the end of Buddhist Lent (October). Look for candle-lit processions, boat races and much revelry. Celebrated across the country.

That Luang Festival
While this week-long November festival is celebrated across Laos, the epicentre is That Luang in Vientiane. People in their thousands pay homage at wats, make merit and give alms. Boat races, fireworks and general revelry continue the fun.

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