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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
While in Vientiane, check out the Buddha Park!
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Have you been to Vientiane? Love it or hate it?