Vientiane

Sure it’s not the most exciting city we’ve visited, but we felt that Vientiane was rather excessively hated on by other travelers we met. We’re not advising anyone with limited time to spend a large chunk of their trip in Vientiane, but it’s a perfectly pleasant place to pass a day or so. That said, we didn’t do all that much here. Vientiane is just across the Mekong River from Thailand, but the view is less than inspiring. And there’s not really any one thing that you could label as the main attraction or reason to visit, but like much of Laos there are a handful of beautiful wats, good French eats, and lovely people.  As the capital and largest city by far, Vientiane also houses the Lao National Museum.

We checked out a few temples (it’s Southeast Asia, after all), and we discovered Wat Ong Teu: the wat for monks on mushrooms. Seriously, look at the psychedelic lights in there.

We also arrived at Wat Haysoke just in time to catch the monks sitting down for their final meal of the day (they shall not eat after noon).

Of course, we sought out some good eats of our own. We were pleased with the fruit shakes and Greek salad at Noy’s Fruit Heaven. Benoni Café offered a tasty brie sandwich and solid coffees. Still loving that French influence and the great baguettes. While the service was atrocious, the sushi at Tokyo Sushi Bar (at Mix) was good, and the live music was lovely. You can order from a handful of restaurants surrounding the outdoor seating area, including sushi, Indian, Lao and Thai food. Jazzy Brick’s happy hour underwhelmed with the wine selection, but the half-priced cocktails, agreeable soundtrack and mid-century modern furnishings made up for it. We also enjoyed a nice Italian meal at Lao Luna D’oro.

We were weirdly most excited by the grocery stores we popped into. Phon Phet grocery had lots of imported goods, and we even found Ziploc bags! We of course re-upped. Another market near our hotel had first-rate snacks, including Funfetti mix!  But it is remarkably difficult to find lotion or face wash or practically any beauty product that does not “whiten.” It’s a fascinating cultural difference (in most Asian countries, actually) from the West, where tall, dark and handsome rules. You can be sure there are no tanning salons in Laos.

Having now spent two weeks in Laos, we can share some parting thoughts.  It has the horrible distinction of being the most heavily bombed (by the US) country, per capita, in history.  Unexploded ordnance remain a problem, though not really for tourists.  Laos became independent in the mid 1950s, but not long after a lengthy civil war ended the monarchy and the communists took over in 1975.  Efforts began in the 1990s to normalize relations with other nations.  Laos remains a very poor country and is one of five worldwide still considered to be communist.

Despite its troubled past and present-day poverty, we observed a peaceful and seemingly happy population that displays no outward resentment whatsoever towards Americans.  We have not been to Cuba, but those who have tell us the communist ideology is palpable to say the least.  Not so in Laos.  Tourism is on the rise, and we read that Laos expects to join the ASEAN Economic Community by the end of 2014.

If we had more time here, these are a few places or activities that sounded interesting:

  • The Nam Ha National Protected Area
  • The Bolaven Plateau with its coffee plantations
  • Si Phan Don, aka the Four Thousand Islands (said to be a nice place to mellow out, with a chance to see the rare Irrawaddy dolphin)
  • The Gibbon Experience
  • Nong Khiaw and the surrounding mountains

As a final reminder of how awesome the people in Laos are, at the airport Alan forgot to check his Leatherman pocket knife.  Rather than making him throw it out, airport personnel at security, immigration and ticketing all helped us retrieve our checked bags and get the Leatherman on the plane. Everyone was so helpful and friendly. A great send off from this hospitable nation!

Practical Info

Vientiane is the capital of Laos and sits on the Mekong River, directly across from Thailand.  Most tourist wants and needs are found within a compact downtown area.  ATMs are everywhere.  We stumbled upon a couple grocery/multipurpose stores (Phon Phet, and Phimphone on the main drag) with many imported items in case you need something. It is not so easy to find Ziploc bags in developing countries, so…

Transportation: We took a “VIP” bus from Vang Vieng.  It cost 50k Kip each.  You are dropped at the north bus station from where a shared tuk tuk to city center costs 10k Kip each.  This bus was a bit less “VIP” feeling than the one from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng, but it was fine.  The scheduled departure was 10 am with arrival around 2-2:30 pm.  We were picked up at our guesthouse in Vang Vieng by a mini-bus after 10 am, then we made some loops picking up other passengers, and the actual bus didn’t leave until 11 am.  Even with a toilet (1k Kip) and lunch (sandwiches 10-20k Kip) stop, we still arrived at the Vientiane bus station at 2:15 pm.

This bus ride was less hilly, windy and scenic than from Luang Prabang, but we passed more villages.

Note that one may kayak from Vang Vieng to Vientiane, but be sure to inquire about details.  We met someone who did this and it sounded like a few hours of kayaking came with a lot of driving in less comfortable vehicles…like more combined driving hours than the whole bus ride.

Vientiane is the main international air hub for Laos (which isn’t saying much) and we flew from here direct to Singapore on Lao Airlines.  We purchased air tickets from All Lao Travel Service on the main street in Luang Prabang.  Ms. Teep beat everyone else’s price, and was far cheaper than what we found on Kayak.

A taxi from downtown to the diminutive airport at 6:15 am took less than 15 minutes and cost 60k Kip.

Accommodation: We stayed at Ibis, which is an Accor hotel.  At ~$60/night, you can find cheaper, but the room is nice, the WiFi works well and the location is excellent.  Street names are confusing but it seems to be on Rue Setthathilath.  It is close to several well-reviewed bars and restaurants like Joma, Benino, Amphone, Jazz Bricks, etc.

While searching online we also considered Dhavara and Avilla Phasouk.  These are all very near each other, and I would try to stay in this zone.  The downtown is small and easily walkable so a couple blocks this way or that shouldn’t matter too much.

Food and Drinks: We dined at Tokyo Sushi Bar, which I guess is part of Mix at Nam Phou Fountain Square, next door to our hotel.  The food was good but pricy and the service was poor.  The atmosphere was lovely, many tables outdoors with a fountain and live music.  Our brie baguette at Benino Cafe was OK, the coffee was great.  Noy’s Fruit Heaven comes recommended.  A tasty Greek salad cost 40k Kip and you can choose any combo for your 10k Kip fruit shake.  Friendly service.  Dinner at Lao Luna d’Oro was great.  My lasagna was richly delectable and the crust on Jenni’s pizza was superb…thin and doughy yet crispy.  We did not eat there but the owner of Le cafe de Paris in Vang Vieng recommended Chokdee Cafe Belgian Beer Bar.

Our viognier at Wine ’95 was OK but could’ve been chilled more. The service was good, though, and they agreed to happy hour prices before the official 6 pm start. Jazzy Brick’s happy hour cocktails for 20k Kip were solid, and the inside space is cozy and well-decorated with classy and comfy mid-century modern chairs.

Activities: There isn’t so much to do in Vientiane.  There are some temples and museums, we mainly walked around and stopped briefly at Wat Ong Teu and Wat Haysoke.  I believe the night market takes place in or around Chao Anouvong Park by the Mekong, itself something of a sight.  Naturally, there are plentiful massage parlors.  Last but not least, I believe there is a bowling alley, though we did not hear tales of late-night debauchery as in Luang Prabang.

February 10-12, 2014 (Monday-Wednesday)

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