Look at photos of Vientiane’s Mekong riverside from only a few decades ago and you may be surprised to see that it was a wildly leafy tree-lined dirt road, home to little more than rustic shacks, outdoor patios and simple eateries. The river was higher back then, as the Chinese had yet to start their many damming projects upstream, and during wet season the businesses along Fa Ngum would flood.
Fast forward to 2012, when the city completed a massive redevelopment project along the riverside, literally paving the way for the future. Today, all of the vegetation has been cleared, the patios and restaurants lining the embankment are gone and the dirt road has been expanded into a two-way paved road. East along the river, construction of Vientiane New World shopping complex is underway, joining other over-the-top structures Landmark Mekong Riverside Hotel and the 50 villas built to house political leaders in the 2012 ASEM summit.
Expats lament this development and reminisce about the olden days. However, locals maintain a far more enthusiastic attitude toward the redevelopment of the riverfront; it still remains an important gathering place at the end of the workday, and a stroll along here at sunset is a must for all travellers.
At sunset the pavement is taken over by joggers, cyclists and boys trying to one-up each other with tricks on their skateboards, BMX bikes and fixies. Families with children stroll hand in hand. Young couples sneak in some alone time together, sitting on the edge of the embankment and sharing a snack, while men still dressed in their office wear stop to unwind, leaning on their motorbike as they gaze at fishermen casting their nets or a remote control airplane making loops in the sky. In dry season, an enormous sandbar forms in the river and while walking across to Thailand would be frowned upon, you can head down and join locals in making sand sculptures, playing football, having picnics and barbecues.
The park on the eastern side has some trees, a few lovely spots of shade and exercise equipment popular with both children and adults looking for a serious workout. Jump into the fun and lively public aerobics class held here around 17:00 every day; it’s just 5,000 kip to join.
At 16:00 there is a sudden rush to set up the Vientiane night market, which is spread across the road from popular rooftop bar Borpenyang and Wat Chan — the halls of the temple will be ringing with evening prayers. Most stalls cater to locals, though a few sell tourist trinkets that pale in comparison to what’s available at the Luang Prabang night market. Still, it’s great to stroll through and see what are the latest local fashions and trends.
No doubt all that walking has made you thirsty so it’s time to head to our picks for Vientiane’s best spots for sunset: An obvious choice is one of the many bars on the Mekong where the BeerLao is cold and the view of the Mekong is magnificent. 3 Yaek Pakpasak, an elevated bar on the western edge of the downtown centre, is always packed with locals ending the workday with friends, beer, spicy snacks and live music to sing along to. Get here early to secure a table with an unobstructed view.
If you’re looking for a more elegant spot and something other than BeerLao, 300 metres west of 3 Yaek Pakpasak is The Spirit House, one of the city’s most pleasant watering holes. The breezy, traditional wooden house has big open windows and an outdoor patio out front. The excellent cocktail menu has classics, as well as inventive concoctions such as a sake martini with pickled ginger. Their daily happy hour means 25% off from 17:00 till 20:00. The delicious menu of Western and Lao eats also makes a case for indulging in some nibbles or a meal.
Only five years ago, the road west of The Spirit House abruptly ended. Now it has been extended for several kilometres, edging along the Mekong the whole way. Here local beer bars with unparallelled views of the river take over the sidewalk nightly. The road is dirt, the Mekong is so close it is almost underfoot and the relaxed traffic-free atmosphere is a reminder that you are still in laidback Laos. These bars are casual affairs, with meat sizzling on barbecues and beers served with buckets of ice. The challenge will be choosing which one to park yourself in – there are dozens and it goes on for more than a kilometre.
Along this stretch is The Highland Bar, an outdoor bar on wooden stilts that is the best place to catch a game in Vientiane. Surrounded by greenery and serving delicious Western fare, it emanates a cosy pub feel while offering fresh air, views and flatscreen TVs to cheer on your favourite team.
By Cindy Fan
Last updated on 26th July, 2015.