An iconic Vientiane experience
Published/Last edited or updated: 31st August, 2016
The Mekong riverfront is important gathering place at the end of the workday, and a stroll along here at sunset is a must for all travellers -- have a drink and some snacks as well!
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 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.
While expats lament this development and reminisce about the olden days, locals maintain a far more enthusiastic attitude toward the redevelopment of the riverfront; at the end of the workday you'll find cyclists, joggers, aerobics classes and Laotians just hanging out along the boulevard.
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 wander through and see the latest local fashions and trends.
When the walking makes you thirsty, it’s time to head for a sundowner. 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. 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. The excellent cocktail menu has classics, as well as inventive concoctions such as a sake martini with pickled ginger. 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.
Cindy Fan is a Canadian writer/photographer and author of So Many Miles, a website that chronicles the love of adventure, food and culture. After falling in love with sticky rice and Mekong sunsets, in 2011 she uprooted her life in Toronto to live la vida Laos. She’s travelled to over 40 countries and harbours a deep affection for Africa and Southeast Asia. In between jaunts around the world, she calls Laos and Vietnam home where you'll find her traipsing through rice paddies, standing beside broken-down buses and in villages laughing with the locals.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
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