Vientiane: The Capital City People Love to Hate

 

Vientiane is the largest city in Laos but quite possibly the least hectic capital city in South East Asia. Its population is well under one million, its wide avenues aren’t bursting with bottleneck traffic and there aren’t any mega malls. Vientiane isn’t blessed with a multitude of must-see sites, it rarely makes the list as one of the most beautiful cities in the world and it doesn’t have the most animated night life (if that’s what you’re looking for). I hadn’t heard anything good about Vientiane from those who had already been. I think it truly is the city people love to hate.

Like many travelers (some of which do a visa run from Thailand), Vientiane was a short stopover on our way further south. The bus from Vang Vieng conveniently dropped us off in the center of the city where there was a wide range of accommodation to choose from. As usual, we hadn’t booked a room but after several attempts at trying to find one within our budget, our search was futile. Accommodation in Vientiane was really expensive (and filled up quickly) – it was difficult to find anything under $30USD (which in my opinion is still quite expensive in SEA)! We finally found a hotel with some vacancy but the price certainly didn’t reflect the quality. We settled on a downstairs room with no windows at the highest rate we paid anywhere in Laos (about $50USD which for us was about $65CDN – ouch!). At least it was near the boardwalk along the Mekong River – where most of the action in Vientiane took place.

 

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Vientiane is a very laid back city that can easily be visited on foot and that’s exactly what we did. We only had one day so we didn’t feel like going to any wats or landmarks (though there were few) so we headed to the Talat Sao Morning Market. The market is divided into two sections: one is the unattractive air-conditioned mall (meh) – the only one in Vientiane complete with cheap souvenir trinkets (double meh) and the other is the more lively outdoor area (yay!) surrounding the market.

 

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Not far from the Talat Sao Morning Market is the Patuxai Victory Monument, the most iconic landmark in Vientiane. It was erected as a dedication to commemorate and honor the Laotians who were killed in the fight against France to gain independence. The war monument was built using funds and cement supplied by the Americans that were intended for a new airport (priorities!). The presence of French Colonialism can be seen in the architecture of some of the buildings in Vientiane. Patuxai Victory Monument is situated at the far end of the grand avenue Thanon Lane Xang in the government and diplomatic district. The presidential palace is at the other end of this wide avenue.

Ironically, Patuxai Victory Monument does bare some resemblance to the Arc de Triomphe in Paris but it has no political attachment or architectural reference to it. Rather, it’s a proud, patriotic symbol of Laos’ traditions. Its exterior, embellished with Buddhist religious symbols and sculptures, is also a symbol of Laos’ highly-preserved culture.

 

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Walking back to our hotel, we came across this ancient stupa called That Dam (Black Stupa). Legend has it that it was covered in gold until the Siamese army removed it and brought it back to Siam (present-day Thailand). Once believed to be inhabited by a seven-headed dragon, locals still continue to refer to it as the city’s guardian. Weather-worn and crumbling, it stands neglected and untouched on a quaint roundabout.

 

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Laos is known for its beautiful handmade traditional textiles and I saw some of the most coveted in Vientiane. Being a textile addict, I would’ve gladly spent hours rummaging through piles and piles of textiles but I was heartbroken to find that everything (higher quality) was very expensive! Laos is in no way a rich country and so the prices didn’t reflect its economical status (or its peoples’ wages). Sadly, I left each shop empty-handed with only this photo as a souvenir.

 

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Vientiane is very safe (but always be on alert any time you travel). I walked around alone at night without any qualms nor did I feel unsafe at any time. Many restaurants and coffee shops can be found on the few blocks along the riverside and further up. Also, a popular street food night market on Fa Ngum road facing the river was always very busy. Lots of people both foreign and local roamed the streets; I was rarely alone. There were a few lady boys hanging out at corners attempting to flag down old foreign men to spend a night with. It was the first time I had seen any prostitution in this still conservative and somewhat tightly-controlled country.

 

 

There was a huge outdoor night market along the Mekong River. I usually adore browsing through markets but this one didn’t strike me as very interesting. It was mostly the latest low-quality fashion trends (well, in Laos that is) probably imported from neighboring countries with the occasional “I  Laos” t-shirt (cringe). I had already seen many of the same souvenirs in Thailand making me think they were also imported. There were lots of glittering hair accessories, sparkling footwear and let’s not forget a wide variety of cell phone covers but I just wasn’t feeling it. I continued further along the boardwalk passed all the red tent stalls where the only thing there was to see was the moon shining on the mighty Mekong and a few locals doing their evening jog.

Now this I enjoyed!

 

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Despite what everybody said about Vientiane not being an interesting city, I actually liked it. I liked that the locals weren’t overwhelmed or bothered by tourism (probably because it hasn’t developed as a mega-city….yet). I enjoyed wandering its streets without being harassed by touts trying to sell me something. I liked its creativity just starting to bloom. I liked its quiet demeanor and its subtle charm. It wasn’t trying to be anything else but itself: simple and unpretentious. Kind of like me (do I sound pretentious?).

Vientiane may be the city people love to hate but if ever you make it there, try showing it a little love; it might love you right back!

 

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While in Vientiane, check out the Buddha Park!

 

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Enjoyed this article? Please pin it!

 

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Have you been to Vientiane? Love it or hate it? 

 

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  • stephaniestraveldiary

    I was in Vientiane last summer and liked the vibe there.
    Did you see the COPE visitor centre? Was very impressive.
    x

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      No I didn’t go to the COPE visitor center. We were only there for a day and a half so we just wanted to take in the city.

  • While I like markets, I think I would have wanted to see a bit more of the historic or religious sites than the markets there. I really haven’t heard much about this city, so you’re right, definitely NOT up there on lists to see though Laos isn’t hugely popular yet either really.. at least not like its neighbors. I’ve liked following your travels through the country though. Looks great.

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      I also enjoy historical sites but there really aren’t many in Vientiane except for a few wats which I had seen plenty of in Luang Prabang. So glad you enjoyed reading about my travels in Laos! 🙂

  • Seems like quite an offbeat destination – possibly a true representation of Siam. The little trivia about the Black Stupa reminds of how many monuments in India too have been stripped bare of their ornamentation and have been subject to some destruction. And the local markets seem like an interesting place to understand this town. Thanks for sharing this.

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      Hi Ami! Sadly, many significant sites have been vandalized throughout history including present day with what’s going on in Syria. Luckily, there are still many to enjoy (especially in India)!

  • Stephanie Frias

    I love the idea of a walking city, honestly that is so much easier with kids than to hail a taxi at every venue change. How disappointing about the textiles though, I wonder if they were being sold in a tourist trap. Maybe there is a hidden local places with much better prices!

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      Yes, I think Vientiane could be easily visited with kids without taking public transportation. I searched everywhere in Laos for reasonably priced textiles but to no avail. I even went to a rundown out-of-the-way village and the women there were asking 2,000,000 kip (around $300 CDN!!!) for one of their own (dirty) textiles. I was shocked….lol! Though I wouldn’t pay that much, I was also being cautious with my money because we were traveling for 4 months. If I only went to Laos, I would’ve possibly splurged on a nice piece of textile.

  • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

    Hi Davide! Actually, we didn’t cross from Thailand. We came from Vang Vieng which is in Laos. We also found some cheap hostels but being a couple we prefer to have a private room and bathroom. I also enjoyed the French-inspired architecture!

  • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

    In that case, you would probably enjoy Vientiane!

  • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

    It was interesting to see the French influence throughout the country – from baguettes to public service signs written in French. But most Laotians don’t speak or understand French save for a very few of the much older generation. I think you would still find it interesting though given your studies in France.

  • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

    haha…..I’m not a fan of Slayer so no way of knowing!

  • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

    I agree! The lack of over-development geared towards tourists allows visitors to enjoy the city for what it is.

  • I like visiting the local markets also when I travel. It’s so strange to hear that everything is so expensive when the economy of the country is not that great. Reminds me of Cuba, where the government has created 2 different currencies, one for the locals and one for the tourists. Crazy! I would like to visit Vientiane though as it doesn’t look very touristy, it’s great to know that it’s also a very safe city and walkable too.

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      It was surprising how expensive Laos was compared to other SEA countries. I’m not sure how they decide to price everything given the economic status of the country. Cuba is one of my favorite countries ever! 🙂

  • Mohit Agarwal

    good to see a less explored city which deserves at least a visit…and is certainly not a place people should hate

  • We are looking at visiting Laos at the end of the year so this is quite helpful. I like to see photos of where we are looking to travel to. I can’t say whether we would like Vientiane but we will definitely be visiting because we have a bit of a thing for cities.

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      Glad I could be of some help – enjoy Laos!

  • I spent quite some time in Vientiane and I love the vibe of the place – especially the pubs, eateries, massage parlors – so laid back and yes like you said, far less crowded than other major cities in SEA. Quite a refreshing change,eh?

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      I’m so glad to know someone else enjoyed Vientiane! I would’ve gladly stayed longer but accommodation was way too expensive….lol! I actually enjoy big cities but the laidback feel of Vientiane was a nice surprise. 🙂

  • JONA| BACKPACKINGWITHABOOK.COM

    We did not make it to Vientiane but to Luang Prabang. Enjoyed the night market and street food a lot. Had some terrible encounter with the police though. As for the accommodation, thought this place is backpacker-friendly?

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      I absolutely loved Luang Prabang! There are a few hostels which we still found a little expensive but as a couple we prefer to have a private room and bath. We’re not very picky but it was hard to find something decent within our budget. :

  • Cori Carl

    I have a soft spot for cities other travelers overlook…which is perhaps why I’ve been to Zagreb so many times. I’m eager to go back to SEA, but those 3am conference calls when I was in Thailand have me hesitating. The time difference is just too difficult with my current remote work situation.

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      I haven’t been to Zagreb but from what I’ve been reading it seems to be featured – guess I should visit before it becomes overrun by hoards of tourists! I can see why you wouldn’t want to wake up at 3am for work…..ouch!

  • Monika Mizinska

    Shame on me, I never heard of that city but it seems to be cool!

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      It seems you’re not the only one who hasn’t heard of Vientiane! 😉

  • Vientiane looks so enticing! And the idea of a less hectic capital sounds very appealing. That Dam looks quite impressive, and it looks very nice in my head when I picture it covered in gold.

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      So true – That Dam covered in gold must’ve been quite a sight!

  • I do love cities that are very walkable. It really is the best way to explore!

    Too bad accommodation is so expensive. Thanks for sharing 🙂

  • Elaine J Masters

    Lovely evocative pictures and story. Those wires! I’ve seen similar in Mexico. Wish the night market had been more authentic but still a great experience.

  • Laos is quickly moving its way up my bucket list! I’m like you – I could spend hours looking through those beautiful textiles!

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      Laos has lots of textiles – get ready! 😉

  • What a beautiful colourful city. I’ve been to Thailand a few times but have never ventured into Laos. Ah, I miss the vibrancy of Asia and your photos display it perfectly! Polly

  • Aneesha Rai

    I was wondering why the accommodation was so expensive!? Was there a short supply of hotels?

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      Actually there’s a good selection of accommodation in Vientiane so we couldn’t understand why it was so expensive. :

  • Chrysoula Manika

    Never heard of this city before but I would love to vist. I like that it is more quieter and less touristry than the other cities. Iam very interested in the local markets too. Thanks for sharing

  • I’m curious… were those carts for locals to use or for hire? Looks like an interesting place to visit. That photo of the corner with all of those wires and motorcycles is a dead giveaway that it’s not something I’d find in my back yard in Iowa. Great post and thanks for sharing.

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      Those are for hire – they’re local ‘taxis’. Vientiane isn’t very big so we didn’t use them in the city.

  • carlingdoodling

    Planning for Laos in a few months. This post makes me excited for my trip! Thanks!

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      Great – enjoy Laos!

  • We’re planning to visit Laos later this year. How much time do you recommend for a visit to this city.

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      I would say 2 days is enough for Vientiane including a half-day to visit the Buddha Park just outside the city.

  • Coleman Concierge

    This is the 1st I have heard of Vientiane, so thank you for putting it on my radar. You definitely cannot go wrong with a night market, that was one of my favourite things about my visit to Thailand.

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      I also love the night markets in Asia – I miss them every day!

  • Wonderful post- I always love reading about places I’ve never been to before as it’s yet another place to add to the ever growing list! The architecture looks absolutely fantastic and so pretty. Plus, the weather looked like it was great (currently sat in my room in the rainy UK aha)!

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      This was in February and the weather was quite nice (not too hot and humid) – and I’m sitting here with snow falling outside my window! 😉

  • Samantha Lorenz

    I keep hearing so much about Laos lately we might have to add it to our SEA plans. The market and the buddha park look awesome! We find ourselves usually enjoying places that others might not so this sounds like a city we might enjoy wandering!

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      I think you should definitely add Laos to your itinerary! 🙂

  • You’re definitely right, I read a lot about travel and had never heard of this place! To be honest, I agree with what you said, it seems like a city that I would like. Sometimes I want a bigger metropolis that doesn’t have the crazy traffic!

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      Then you might be one of the people who loves Vientiane! 🙂

  • Teach A Man

    Great post! Haven’t heard of Vientiane but we’re heading that way soon. We will definitely have to check it out especially after your post. Sometimes someone’s trash is another’s treasure and that’s definitely true when it comes to locations as well. I also love how you described how the lack of tourism brings a certain charm to the city. Those qualities appeal to me as a traveler as well.

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      I’m so glad you found this post useful! I’d be curious to know if you’ll consider Vientiane trash or treasure. 😉

  • Julianne

    This is the first post I’ve read about either Vientiane or Laos, so it’s been a great and refreshing read! I love the vibrant colors of the textiles at the textile market. I’m also glad to hear that it’s a safer city that’s not so much overrun by tourists yet. Thanks for your comprehensive guide!

  • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

    Agreed! I’ve been to a few places people didn’t like but I enjoyed and the contrary is also true: I’ve been to places where people raved about but I didn’t like. We all travel differently and have different tastes/expectations so we all have different experiences. We shouldn’t always rely on what others say. 🙂

  • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

    Although Laos tends to be a little more expensive than its neighboring countries, accommodation in Vientiane was much more expensive than anywhere in Laos! Those crazy electrical wires are a staple of SEA – I’ve also seen this in Vietnam and Thailand. 🙂

  • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

    There were quite a few tourists but for some reason I didn’t feel like it was too touristy – if that makes any sense! 🙂

  • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

    Hi Pete! That rat’s nest is actually electrical! About 5 minutes after we stepped off the bus, I was standing at that corner (when I took the pic) and heard a loud boom. It was an electrical explosion causing the wires and posts to fall on that street injuring a tourist. Those wires are definitely hazardous!

    • Pete

      Holy Maloney! That’s a worry! The locals should revolt.

      • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

        I think they’re just used to it!

  • I haven’t heard of Vientiane before! I suppose a lot of visitors to Laps must skip it altogether if the general consensus is there’s not much to offer. It’s a shame that everything’s so expensive compared to the rest of the country, but I’m glad you enjoyed yourself and found a lot to do there! I would love the textiles markets!

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      Just to clarify, although you can find a few machine-made textiles at the market there is no ‘textile market’ per se – these handmade textiles were in a shop in the city center. But everything was so expensive! 🙁

  • Nice post. My wife is from Thailand but her first language (the language spoken in her village in Issan, northeastern Thailand) is Lao. I’ve always wanted to visit Laos when in Thailand but have never got round to it (visa runs for me have always been to Cambodia). I didn’t realise the accommodation in Laos would be expensive as that though, with it being a poor country. Your picture with people jogging next to the Mekong looks nice – I like people watching too. And no, I don’t think you sound pretentious either – you come across as ‘real’ in your posts. Thanks for sharing!

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      Hi Raymond! Interesting about your Thai wife speaking Lao. I was told both languages are quite similar and many Laotians understand/speak Thai because most of the television shows are from Thailand. We were really surprised about the high accommodation rates in Vientiane but Laos was strange like that….lol! Thanks for letting me know I sound ‘real’ in my posts – it’s hard to figure out how we come across when we write. 🙂

  • I have been to Laos but didn’t have time to visit to Vientiane. It looks like an interesting city. I found Laos to be expensive , especially given that the average wage is about $1 US/day.

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      Exactly – it didn’t make any sense!

  • Danik Bates

    The city looks colourful to me. If I go there, I let you know if I hate it or not 😛 Great post

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      Haha….please do! 😁