First port of call for many visitors, the capital of Laos, Vientiane, is a bustling riverside city set on the northern bank of the muddy Mekong River. For many years Vientiane was a sleepy backwater capital of an equally backwater state, but, as the country has slowly opened up to foreign investment and tourism, the city has gone through vast changes.
While the Lao capital is now home to a long list of hotels, bars and restaurants, Vientiane still retains its sleepy tree-lined dirt roads and somnolent temples. The pace of life, as with all of Laos, is best described as slow—bordering on glacial.
Although Vientiane lacks the overwhelming charm of Luang Prabang, it still has enough attractions to garner interest for a day or two, and with an international airport, this remains one of the primary gateways into Laos. Many choose to brush through, spending little more than a night in town, but as with most Lao destinations, a longer stay can be rewarding.
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 was such a debacle for so long that other regions in Laos used Vang Vieng as a model of exactly how they don't want their locales to develop.
If you can deal with the hordes of backpackers, the scenery around Vang Vieng is beautiful—drop by, see the caves, float down the river, then pack your bags and head somewhere more interesting, like the scenic village of Kasi some 60 kilometres further north. In recent years the authorities have put their feet down, limiting the late-night parties and drug use that once defined Vang Vieng, so perhaps there is hope for it yet.
There's more to the region though than Vientiane and Vang Vieng—Nam Ngum dam, Lao Pako and the Buddha Park sculpture garden to name but a few.