After twenty-seven days travelling from Cambodia through Vietnam, the prospect of spending two full days on a bus to get from Hanoi, Vietnam to Vientiane in Laos was too dire to contemplate. So, Justin, another couple we were travelling with, and I, decided to skip the bus and fly direct to Vientiane, situated on the Mekong River that borders with Thailand.
Upon touchdown and arrival at the airport, I was overly excited, until I realised that my spare passport photos required for the visa (application on arrival for most tourists) was in my main backpack under the plane. All the paperwork we’d read prior to arriving stated that you MUST have a passport size photo ready to present. I was so worried that I would get rejected from Laos and sent back to Hanoi, but the wonderful Laos clerks simply charged me an extra $1USD and took a picture for me. We were in!
From there our spirits were lifted higher as we took in the smiling faces and light-hearted nature of the locals which were a stark contrast to those in Hanoi. As our taxi took us to the centre of town we passed so many restaurants that begged to be eaten at. We knew then that Vientiane would exceed our expectations.
We arrived at Inter City Boutique Hotel that we had booked the night before due to it’s proximity to the centre of town, the river front and it’s budget price-tag. We were pleasantly surprised by its unique decor – distinctly eastern, and despite being a budget hotel, the amenities were fantastic.
Beginning our exploration of the town in the afternoon we exited the hotel to be greeted by the outdoor markets selling everything from trinkets to clothes and street food that set up along the river at 4pm each day.
Vientiane has a wealth of restaurants ready to cater to all of your needs. From French patisseries and Swedish bakeries to Italian and Thai, you are sure to find something that suits your tastes. Personally we road-tested a few: the Pad Thai street vendor outside the mini-mart was fantastic, an Indian place along Chao Anou Road was visited twice and there was a Tapas place along the strip of restaurants on Rue Francois Ngin. If you don’t find the Tapas restaurant, fear not, you will not be disappointed with anything along that strip.The city has a great evening life. What I mean by that is there are great bars, such as LeSen Wine & Cocktail bar, and the Bor Pen Nyang Restaurant and Bar, a fourth-floor al-fresco restaurant overlooking the river, which caters to those that enjoy top 40-style beats, pool tables and cheap cocktails – BUT It closes at midnight. So, a great evening city.
Nam Phou fountain is another great area for dinner with a relaxed atmosphere. You may like to try sushi, or perhaps French cuisine is more your taste. Or you may just like to order a few beers on a rooftop. There aren’t any limits to this wonderful city.
My favourite “I can’t believe we are here,” moment happened when the four of us ventured to the old ten-pin bowling centre called “Laos Bowling” on Rue Le Ky Huong. Here you can get tall beers for about a dollar and roll slightly-battered balls down a lane that may or may not swipe your pins away by accident due to technical difficulties.Vientiane was colonised by the French in the 1800′s. Evidence of their presence can be seen throughout the city’s architecture, food, colonial buildings, the names of the roads “Rue” (French for road) and even the name of the city. Vientiane was a name adopted by the French, but is known to many locals as “Viangchan”, which translates to “the city of sandalwood”.This is a city rich in history, culture and relaxed hospitality. I wouldn’t vouch for their shopping centres, and if you are after beach-side resorts you will be in the wrong place. But if what you crave is relaxation, positive vibes and fantastic food, you will love it.If some deeper cultural and historical ventures are on your to-do list, Vientiane has that covered too, although their history is not for the faint hearted. An hour at the COPE (Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise) visitor centre will have you somber and grateful. During the Second Indochina war / Vietnam war, from 1964 to 1973, five-hundred and eighty-thousand bombing missions were flown over Laos (more than World War II). Since then, UXO’s – Unexploded Ordanance – have been killing and disabling hundreds of Laotians every year. The COPE centre aims to educate the public and to fundraise for the prosthetics and therapy for victims. To learn more, donate, or to visit, check out their website: http://www.copelaos.org/index.php
Vientiane, or Viangchan, is a wonderful city, one we will not forget, and we hope to see again.