Vientiane

Vientiane is hardly one of the great capitals of the world. At just over 300,000 people with no major industries, it isn't an economic powerhouse. However, it’s a comfortable, relaxing place large enough to be of interest but remaining intimate. This, combined with the Laotians’ easygoing attitude, makes Vientiane one of the most problem-free cities in the world.

The city sits on a bend of the Mekong River, which forms Laos’ border with Thailand. It is a pleasant and relaxed place to spend a few days.

Simply wandering around Vientiane's leafy promenades with a mix of Laotian temples and French colonial buildings, most of them crumbling into decay, pausing at the thatched beer gardens on the riverbank and the morning market of Talaat Sao, is a joy. Nobody takes much interest in you unless you want attention, and nobody seems interested in ripping you off. The local markets are a pleasant experience and a good place to buy local handicrafts.

Food in Laos is similar to Thai cuisine: Vietnamese and Chinese dishes are also common. Laotian coffee is very good. There are several good hotels and a range of international and Laotian restaurants. As is the case in Vietnam, apart from the buildings, there is little left from the colonial period, but one of the French legacies is an appreciation of good food, and a ubiquitous supply of croissants.

Although it lacks the heritage sites that are a feature of most Asian capitals (most were destroyed by the Thais in 1827), it has enough to keep you occupied for at least a couple of days: the relaxing atmosphere often lures people to stay longer.

Vientiane can easily be explored on foot or by bicycle to visit its Wats, museums, colonial architecture and ‘Buddha Park’. Pha That Luang, 4km from the city centre, is Laos’ most sacred shrine. Built in the 16th century, sacked by the Thais in 1827 and restored (badly) by the French in 1900 (they did a better job in a further restoration completed in 1935), it’s interesting rather than spectacular. The base of the stupa has walkways and stairs connecting the different levels, designed for the faithful to climb. Each level has different architectural features pertaining to Buddhist doctrine.

Other imposing civic buildings are the unfinished Patuxai monument, reminiscent of the Arc de Triomphe, and a new Chinese-financed cultural centre.

The national Lao Revolutionary Museum has a well-presented pre-history section, but it’s main asset is a rare collection of a communist propaganda with slogans such as ‘barbaric slavery under the imperial yoke of France’, ‘capitalist running dogs’ and ‘imperialist puppets’.

The Xiang Khouan (Buddha Park) is an eclectic assemblage of Buddhist and Hindu statues scattered around a riverside meadow, dominated by a gigantic reclining Buddha. Hundreds of concrete structures combine Buddhist and Hindu philosophies representing a variety of deities. Fashioned by a self-titled ‘holy man’, the park was created to promulgate his beliefs and to reveal his ideas about the universe.


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