Best guide for Vientiane

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Introduction

Vientiane is the capital of Laos.  Compared to the hectic, bustling capitals in other Southeast Asian countries, Vientiane’s deliciously relaxing atmosphere makes it feel like the small town it is. After you’ve done the round of temples, the best thing to do here has always been to wander down to the riverside, relax with a cold Beerlao – the national beer – and watch the sun set over the Mekong.

Of course, the booming tourism industry is changing this by slowly but surely bringing the excesses of Thailand and China to this formerly sleepy city. It has also become famous for bedbugs. Just like any other Southeast Asian capital/major city, Vientiane is experiencing a building boom. Even its Presidential Palace is having a major makeover-addition and a new convention centre has opened recently.

History

Settled since at least 1000 CE, Vientiane became an important administrative city of the Kingdom of Lan Xang (“million elephants”) in 1545. Ransacked in 1828 by the Siamese, Vientiane experienced a resurgence when it became the capital of the French protectorate, a position it kept after independence 1953, and was unchanged after the communist revolution in 1975. Today Vientiane is the largest city in Laos, with an estimated population of 210,000 in the city itself and some 700,000 in Vientiane Prefecture.

Orientation

Vientiane is stretched out on the north-eastern bank of a bend in the Mekong River. From the river bank inland, the main roads running parallel to the river are Thanon Fa Ngum, Thanon Setthathirat and Thanon Samsenthai. The central district, Chanthabuli, contains most of Vientiane’s government offices, hotels and restaurants. Vientiane’s widest boulevard, Thanon Lane Xang, runs from the Presidential Palace (now used for government offices and for state receptions) to the northeast around Patuxai, the Victory Gate, towards Pha That Luang, the That Luang Stupa, the most important religious monument in Laos.

How to get there

By plane

Vientiane’s Wattay Airport (IATA: VTE, ICAO: VLVT) is 4 km west of the city. International services are quite limited, but this is slowly changing.

International flights

There are direct flights to/from:

Bangkok Suvarnabhumi: Thai Airways, two flights daily (code share with Lao Airlines) and Lao Airlines, one. Bangkok Aurways also operates one flight daily

Hanoi (Viet Nam): Lao Airlines, three times weekly and Vietnam Airlines daily.

Ho Chi Minh City (Viet Nam): Vietnam Airlines daily via Phnom Penh; Lao Airlines three times/week via Pakse

Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia): AirAsia daily.

Phnom Penh (Cambodia): Vietnam Airlines daily.

Siem Reap (Cambodia): Lao Airlines three flights weekly via Pakse.

Chiang Mai (Thailand): Lao Airlines six times weekly via Luang Prabang.

Kunming (Yunnan, West China): China Eastern Airlines operate four and Lao Airlines three flights weekly. Lao Airlines and the Lao Consulate both have offices in the Camellia Hotel, Kunming.

Singapore: Lao Airlines flies four times a week on Monday, Wednesday, Friday & Sunday.

Domestic flights

Lao Airlines flies to five domestic destinations (three to five flights daily to Luang Prabang; once or twice daily to Pakse, four times per week to Huay Xai and Oudomxay, and six times per week to Xieng Khuang (Phonsavan).

Lao Air, the second Lao airline, operates two flights weekly each between Vientiane and Phongsali, Samneua and Sayaboury (Sainyabuli) (aircraft: Cessna).

Lao Central Airlines has daily flights between Vientiane and Luang Prabang (aircrafts: B737 and Sukhoil Superjet 100).

By train

The railway link across the Mekong finally opened in March 2009, and there are now four shuttle services daily from Nong Khai to Tha Naleng, some 13 km away from Vientiane and reachable by shuttle bus from the Morning Market. The shuttle trains are timed to connect with overnight trains to and from Bangkok, with around 90 minutes buffer time at the Thai side of the border for buying tickets and Immigration.

The other option is to get off the train at Nong Khai and cross the border by bus via the Friendship Bridge. The Nong Khai station is just 1.5 km from the bridge, so if you take a tuk-tuk it should cost no more than 30-40 baht for all, after bargaining of course. Outside the station there’s an information board listing the official prices to the nearby destinations. Most tuk-tuk drivers will stop at a travel agent just outside the station and try to coerce you to buy both a Lao visa and shuttle bus to Vientiane. Don’t listen to them: you can get a visa and shuttle easily at the Lao border.

By road

From Thailand

The Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge (Saphan Mittaphap) from Nong Khai, Thailand is the most common means of entry. The bridge cannot be crossed on foot or by bicycle (theoretically; however people have been seen strolling the bridge), but there are frequent 20 baht shuttle buses just past Thai immigration. The price changes depending on the time of day and day of week. You will get a receipt. Bicycles can be carried on buses in the cargo compartment.

Direct bus services to Talat Sao bus terminal from Nong Khai (55 baht), Khon Kaen (185 baht from Khon Kaen Aircon Bus Terminal (Prab-argat) at 07:45 (usually delayed till 08:00) and arrives Vientiane Talat Sao Bus Station around noon. Second bus departs at 15:15), Udon Thani (80 baht).

If you dont already have a Laos visa in your passport, bus will not wait for you at the Laos immigration point (you will have to take the local green bus 14 near immigration gates or tuk tuk

From Vietnam

A direct bus from Hanoi takes at least 20 hours (despite what the travel agents might say, avg 24 hrs) and should cost about US$15-20. There is a twice a week VIP bus (better seats) and a local bus that departs every day. For the local bus: apparently you’re not always certain of a seat and Vietnamese people tend to sit and never get up again until you’ve arrived.

The journey from Hue is 14-18 hrs and should cost US$20-30. The bus arrives at Southern Terminal where you have to bargain hard with tuk-tuk drivers. The ride to town after midnight is 30,000 kip. There are local buses heading towards town from here that usually stop at the central market priced at about 10,000 kip.

If you arrive before 8 pm, ignore the Tuk-Tuk drivers, walk out the gate, to the right you’ll see a row of ATMs, right next to it a “bus shed” with seats. The Tuk-tuks will tell you the bus is cancelled, just left, etc. be patient and wait for the local bus to arrive. A bus to city centre is 3000 kip (March 2013).

From Cambodia

The bus trip from Phnom Penh to Vientiane costs about US$50 if you go ‘VIP’: this involves a bed for the night portion of your trip; however unless you have a partner you will share the rather small bed with a random passenger of the same sex. The bed is comfortable, though there have been reports of leaking windows and wet mattresses.

At the Lao-Cambodian border, essentially the same form has to be filled out numerous times (to ensure each official gets his ‘fee’). If you can’t carry your luggage 500 m from the Cambodian border post to the Lao, you’re out of luck: the bus staff will have disappeared by now. The border process is hot, slow and enervating.

Regardless of what the travel agent or busline tells you, the Phnom Penh-Vientiane (or vice-versa) trip usually involves four separate buses, not two. The Phnom Penh-Lao border and Pakse-Vientiane legs are comfortable enough. However in between the border and Pakse in Southern Laos you will be crammed into a minibus or open van, sit on other people’s laps, etc, as the vehicle does the rounds of every guesthouse in the region. You will eventually be transferred into another van, and the process repeated. It can take 4-6 hours, and it is seldom clear where you are, where you are going, or who is in charge..

If the busline talks you into putting your luggage on a second bus (because of space problems), it is liable to vanish along the road.

The bus trip from Phnom Penh to Vientiane, or vice-versa, averages 27 hours.

From elsewhere in Laos

Buses to and from destinations in Vientiane Prefecture depart from the Talat Sao bus terminal, just east of the Morning Market. There is an informative schedule and schematic diagram of the bus piers painted on the central building, which is where you can also buy tickets.

The Southern Bus Terminal, used by all buses coming from the south (including VIP), is on Thanon Kaisone Phomvihane, which is the first stretch of the “Route 13 South”. IT is also called the Dongdok Bus Station. It is 10 km and, perversely, north east of the centre. If you are lucky, the cost of a tuk-tuk is 15,000 kip. Public bus number 23 or 29 stops by the entrance of the southern bus station and connects it with the Talat Sao bus terminal (Morning Market) at 5,000 kip, from where it is a ten minutes walk into the tourist centre.

The Northern Bus Terminal, recently moved out of city centre – about 20-30 minutes ride – is where all buses to the north arrive and depart.

Note that if you buy a bus ticket, with quite a margin, in town, it should include the transfer to the respective terminal.

What to see

Vientiane is best viewed as a comfortable transit point for other places in Laos, or as a recuperative stop on the way out. It’s a pleasant enough place, but generally, there is little reason to spend more than a couple of days here.

Lao National Museum (Revolutionary Museum ພິພິຕະພັນແຫ່ງຊາດ), Thanon Samsenthai (next to Lao Plaza Hotel). 08:00-12:00, then 13:00-16:00. Formerly the Lao Revolutionary Museum by name, the historical exhibits on the first floor are modest though very interesting in depicting some of the early history. They include one of the original Jars from the Plain of Jars and various stone and bronze age implements. The second floor provides us with a great insight into the 18th Century Laotian Kingdom and the customs of the day. It would appear that the Loatians didn’t treat their guests quite as well in those days, often keeping them from leaving the country for several months. The floor builds up to a fervently revolutionary pitch as it documents the heroic struggle of the Lao against the Siamese (Thai), French and American imperialists. Exhibits include items such as socks worn by Politburo members when they escaped from prison and Kaysone Phomvihane’s chest expander. The final rooms, on post-revolutionary Laos, are mostly a photo gallery of pressing topics such as the comrades of the 7th Plenary Session of the Laos People’s Congress inspecting fertilizer production processes. The final rooms provide an insight into some of the modern advancements, though these are fairly dowdy and uninspiring. A guestbook regularly features amusing arguments between young western visitors on the subject of communism. Most exhibits are labelled in English, though some French labelling remains, occasionally to the exclusion of English. Foreigner: 10000 kip, Laotian: 2000.

A local rendition of Paris’ Arc de Triomphe. Besides the elaborate Buddhist embellishment, it differs from the original in having four gates instead of two and being just a bit higher (to trump the French). Reasonably impressive from afar, a surprisingly frank English sign inside the monument labels it a “monster of concrete” when seen up close – and the concrete in question was donated by the US, although it was supposed to go towards a new airport instead: hence the nickname “the Vertical Runway”. The monument itself aside, the palm tree-lined park around it complete with fountains is quite pleasant though lacking of shade during the day time. You can climb up to the 7th story for a nice view of central Vientiane and three levels of souvenir shops with less than enthusiastic sales people sitting about. Features a musical fountain nearby that attracts visitors from around Laos and Asia, as well as a World Peace gong presented by Indonesia. Roving cameramen will be happy to charge you for photos near these attractions. 3000 kip (to climb).

COPE Visitor Centre, Khou Vieng Road (1km from Talat Sao (Morning Market) Opposite Green Park Hotel). 09:00-18:00. The Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise, or COPE, is a local not for profit organisation that provides orthotic, prosthetic, rehabilitation and advocacy services for survivors of UXO accidents and other people with disabilities in Laos. During the Vietnam War (1964-1973), conflict spilled over into Laos in a secret war where more than 500,000 bombing missions dropped over two million tons of ordnance on the country. The COPE Visitor Centre provides visitors with the opportunity to understand the impact of UXO on Lao PDR, issues related to disability in developing countries and the work of the COPE project through a free permanent exhibition. The Visitor Centre is open from 9am to 6pm daily. Visitors are invited to watch documentaries on UXO, read survivor stories and interact with rehabilitative devices. The Visitor Centre also hosts a gift shop selling wares from local Lao organisations and the Karma Café where delicious homemade ice cream and Lao coffee are available. Exhibits are appropriate for all ages. Free parking. Free entry.

The Art of Silk, Manthatourath Road, Lao Women’s Union, ☎ 7719798 or 2202547. Mon-Fri 9am-4pm. A local magazine says “Phone before visiting as there is no permanent staff.” free(?).

Kaysone Phomvihane Museum, km6 Dongdok Road, ☎ 911215. Tue-Sun 09:00-16:00. Museum about Kaysone Phomvihane. Foreigner: 5,00 kip, Laotian: 2,000 kip.

Lao People’s Army History Museum, Kaysone Phomvihane Road, Ban Nongsangthong, ☎ 900662. Tue-Sun 08:30-16:30. Museum about the army. Foreigner: 5000, Laotian: 2000.

Memorial of president Souphanouvong, Kaysone Phomvihane Road, Ban Phonsa-art. Tue-Sun 08:30-16:00. Foreigner: 5000, Laotian: free.

Temples and Stupas

Some temples (indicated below) charge an entry fee of 2,000/5,000 kip for Lao nationals and foreigners and are open 08:00-16:00, with a noon-13:00 lunch break. The monks of those that don’t charge a fee will be grateful for a small donation in the box.
Wat Si Saket, the oldest standing temple in Vientiane

Wat Si Saket now signposted as Sisaket Museum. Entrance fee 5,000 kip. Corner of Thanon Lane Xang and Thanon Setthathirat. With very contemplative ambience, probably the oldest standing temple in Vientiane and among the most atmospheric. Built in 1818 by Chao Anou in the Bangkok style and hence left unsacked when much of Vientiane was razed in a Siamese raid in 1828. Within the cloister walls are hundreds of niches housing Buddha images large and small, made of wood, stone, silver and bronze. In the centre of the courtyard is a five-tier-roofed sim (ordination hall) housing yet more Buddha niches and beautiful but fading murals of the Buddha’s past lives.

Hophakaew Museum. Entrance fee 5,000 kip. Thanon Setthathirat (opposite Wat Si Saket). An elegant, and majestic structure, King Setthathirat’s former royal temple, which housed the magical Emerald Buddha (pha kaew) after it was taken from Lanna (Chiang Mai). The Siamese took it back in 1779 – the image is now housed in Bangkok’s Wat Phra Kaew – and came back in 1828 to raze the temple for good measure. The present structure is a 1942 reconstruction of dubious provenance. The temple no longer operates and the interior has been turned into a small jumbled museum housing Buddha images; look out for the beautiful tall, lithe, long-armed Buddha in the hands-down “calling for rain” pose.

Black Stupa (That Dam). Thanon Bartholomie (off Thanon Samsenthai near the US embassy). The mythical abode of a seven-headed dragon that protects Vientiane. It was renovated in 1995 but still has an attractive patina of age, and is slowly being overgrown again by lush grass vegetation. Warning: there have been dog attacks here at night.

Pha That Luang. 5,000 kip Entrance fee (2,000 kip for Laotians). Thanon That Luang (2 km east from Patuxai). The national symbol and most important religious monument of the country, That Luang is a three-layered gilded stupa. The current version dates from 1566, although it has been ransacked and renovated numerous times since then. All days 08:00-12:00, 13:00-16:00. Accessing the inner courtyard gives you a slightly closer view of the stupa, and lots of Buddha statues. Vientiane’s most important festival, Bun That Luang, is held here in November on the night of the full moon.

There are two temples beside That Luang: Wat That Luang Neua to the north(ish) and Wat That Luang Tai to the south(ish), both presently being renovated.

Wat Si Muang. Between Thanons Setthatirat and Samsenthai, about 1km east of the centre. Free. Disney-esque and gaudy in set-up, one would not think that it’s a religious compound. Despite its small size, the temple is very active. Followers believe that lifting the small uddha statue 3 times from its cushion means that your prayers or questions will be answered. The city pillar is being housed in a pagoda-like structure now being constructed separately on another block northwest across the street.

Wats Onteu, Inpeng, Mixay and Haisok are along Thanon Setthatirat right in the town centre, and therefore the most likely temples to be visited by tourists.

There are many more temples all over the town, but it must be said that if you are out to admire temples Luang Prabang is the place to go, not Vientiane.

Nearby

Buddha Park (Xieng Khuan) is a bizarre outdoor collection of huge concrete sculptures of Buddhist & Hindu deities, and real & imaginary beasts. The reclining Buddha is especially impressive. Built in 1958 by mystic Luang Pu Bunleua Sulilat, who left the country after the communist take-over, and in 1978 he established a similar but more impressive park (Sala Keoku or Sala Kaew Ku) across the river in Nong Khai, Thailand. Located 24 km from the city, it’s about 6 km to the east of the Friendship Bridge – hence it’s well worth visiting on the way into or out of Laos if you’re crossing the Friendship Bridge, as this will save a 48 km round trip if you visit from and return to Vientiane. You can hire a tuk-tuk for the entire Vientiane – Buddha Park – Friendship bridge (or vice versa) trip, but taking the public bus #14 is much cheaper. The bus #14 leaves Talat Sao station to Xieng Khuan at 15 to 20 min intervals. The timetable is painted on the wall near the ticket office. Fare is 6,000 kip one-way, and it is no problem to flag down a bus on the way back or to the Friendship Bridge. The buses can be dilapidated minibuses without air-conditioning or new air-conditioned coaches sponsored by a foreign country. You may be required to change buses at the Friendship Bridge to another bus (also #14), in which case the fare will be 4,000 kip to the bridge and 2,000 kip for the remaining distance. The conductor will advise accordingly.

On the main road (Thanon Thadeua), just before the access road to the Bridge branches off, is the National Ethnic Cultural Park where typical houses of various ethnic groups are on display, although only from the outside unless a custodian unlocks some of them. There also are some statues of dinosaurs and a rather dismal small “zoo”. Generally the only activity are kiosks selling drinks and snacks, but there are said to be occasional cultural shows. Tour operators often take their guests here before or after a visit to the Buddha Park. Well, but it is not a place to go out of your way to visit.

The project for the preservation of the old Vientiane Wall, Ban Nonghai (traffic light the way to go to Thadeua), ☎ 330-164 or 560-7620. 08:00-17:00. ” free.

What to do

Monk Chat. Once a month, local monks gather at the Sangha College (Wat Onteu) for chats with tourists.

Green Discovery Laos, on Setthathirat Road (next to Khop Chai Deu). Agency organising adventure tours and eco-tourism. They have a 100% safety record. The trips are environmentally friendly and socially responsible. Green Discovery is committed to ensure that local people not only benefit financially from tourism but also are their true business partners by helping to develop our programs and activities. City tour Vientiane: See the landmarks and highlights of Tad Luang with its Buddha relics, of the Kaisone Phomvihane and Hor Pra Kheo museums, of Wat Sisakhet and Wat Simuang, or Patuxai, the ‘vertical landing strip’, all of which have to tell their own stories. Embark on day tours to Nam Ngum reservoir or the whimsical Buddha Park. In the outskirts of Vientiane, take a thrill with zip-line adventures inside the Nam Lik forest, watch wild elephants at Ban Na, or discover the beautiful world of orchids of Phou Khao Khouay. Start from here cross-country motorbike or cycling tours, enjoy kayaking trips to Vang Vieng or do cave expeditions.

Zip-Lining Adventure. Beginning of January 2010 Green Discovery opend up the first Zip-Lining park in Nam Lik just 2h away from Vientiane. Zip-lining gets you the feel of freedom while whooshing from tree to tree along steel wires in up to 37 meters height and 180 meters in length! Scaling the dizzying heights on ropes, giant nets, sling or U-bridges and getting back to earth through ‘abseiling’ adds to the extra-ordinary excitement.

Trekking through nature parks. The National Protected Area of Phou Khao Khouay is the nearest National Park to Vientiane, the nearest point just over an hour away. Besides some great scenery and beautiful waterfalls, the NPA offers trails through dry evergreen and mixed deciduous forests, numerous waterfalls and rivers. Wildlife is abundant but elusive. Tours can be booked with Green Discovery Laos info@greendiscoverylaos.com.

Picnicking on the Shores of Nam Ngum Lake, 90 km from Vientiane. A local favourite. There are floating restaurants along the lake shore; their specialty is fish fresh from the lake. Cruises among the lake’s islands can be booked here, which makes for a relaxing couple of hours. Just inquire at your guest house/hotel or at any travel agency (where they will then try to sell their tours).

Lao Massage, ☎ 02028582332. Your masseur or masseuse will be grateful for a tip. The staff will be happy if you have the decency to take a shower before you go. They won’t say anything to your face, but smelly foreigners make their job less than pleasant. The one next to The Drop Zone on Chao Anou Road is particularly delightful. The massage parlour does not really have a name, and the most prominent signboard merely says “now open”. US$10-16/hour.

Centre Culturel et de Cooperation L’inguistique (French Cultural Centre), Lane Xang Road. Has a French library and a small theatre that shows plays and films.

Grooming (Holiday Barber), Chou Anou Road (across from the Home Ideal Department Store). The best salon in Vientiane. To get an idea of how reasonable the pricing is, here are some of the services and their prices: 1 hour long massage for 30,000 kip, manicure/pedicure and foot scrape for 30,000 kip, Brazilian blowout 100,000 kip.

Muay Lao (Kickboxing) (Kuanjai Sikhot Boxing Gym), (on the same road as the airport, going out of town; head towards the Sekhai Market. Make a right turn right before the market, then go straight and make the first left turn, go straight another 700 m), ☎ 020 566 32835. A national sport of Lao PDR. Similar to Muay Thai, but not a tourist trap like most gyms in Thailand.

Meditation (Lao Dhamma Center), (on Route 13, to the south, at km38). Peaceful Buddhist meditation centre with a daily schedule dedicated to sincere meditation practice. Foreigners are welcome. It is difficult to find such a place elsewhere in Laos.

Bicycle Touring (Vientiane ByCycle), (tours start at the parking lot of Khong View Restaurant), ☎ +856 205 581 2337. half and full day. Vientiane ByCycle offers awesome guided bicycle tours through and around Vientiane. They take you off the beaten track to places where you usually wouldn’t go. Along villages, temples, school yards, the banks of Mekong River, crematoria, markets, and local businesses. They have excellent quality mountain bikes. Make reservations through their website.

Adina Spa, 170 Phonesaath, Kaysone Road (half a kilometre north of Patuxay Monument.), ☎ +856 21 414138. Daily, 09:00- 22:00. Adina Spa is well-known as the first to have opened its doors to offer full service spa and massage treatments in Vientiane. Started in 2005, this spa has provided excellent service to visiting dignitaries.

Champa Spa, Fa Ngum Road (on the Mekong Riverfront), ☎ +856 21 251926. Daily, 09:00 – 22:00. Champa Spa has pretty much has all the services you would expect from a spa and massage place.

Shopping

Lao Experiences Cooking Course and Food Tours, (Bookings at The Full Moon Cafe), ☎ 020 95553097/02055699429. Daily. Learn about Lao people and their culture. Cook Lao-style in the garden on a quiet stretch of the Mekong River.

Cooking Class Lao Experiences & Food Tours (lao-experiences@hotmail.com), Book at The Full Moon Cafe, ☎ 020566699429. The Lao cooking class is in a secret location 15 minutes from the town centre in a Mekong River Village. You use traditional cooking methods and learn about Lao people as you cook. The Fresh Market Tour & Taste at the biggest market in the city plus a visit to a cute family café in a family compound added to our understanding of this city and it’s people.

Where to eat

There are many restaurants in Vientiane. They offer a wide selection of cuisines, from Chinese to Tex-Mex. More restaurants open all the time, but many are there for just a few months before they go under. A few are successful and stay and may even flourish. It’s a question of offering something special, either in the way of the food served, or the atmosphere, or the friendly and competent service.

Budget

Noodle shops can be found all over the town. They typically serve rice noodle soups (“feu”, a close cousin to Vietnamese phở and Chinese 粉 fan2), often also fried rice and other rice or noodle-based dishes. Prices are very moderate: around 1 USD for a large bowl or plate.

Ban Anou Night Market is only about 1 block long and starts setting up at sundown, but it has some of the best cheap eats in town. There’s a wide range of street snacks available, including pho made with hand-pulled noodles, little lettuce-wrapped snacks with peanut filling (miang), all types of grilled skewered meats, grilled sticky rice, local beverages made from coconut, chai tea, corn grass jelly, and more. Particularly worth trying are the small rice pancakes. Two hemispheres of rice-based batter are fried in a tin, filled with minced pork and bean sprouts and put together. About the size of a flattened tennis ball, and absolutely delicious.

Ray’s Grille, (Rays Grille Laos 17/1 Sihom Road ,Vientiane Laos. Near many backpacker hotels and hostels), ☎ 2058966866. Serves delicious Philly cheesesteaks,Burritos, quesadillas,Large fresh salads & beef smoked hotdgs. Baguettes are freshly-baked each day and sandwiches are given generous amounts of mozzarella and cheddar cheeses. Middle-eastern options, Falafel,Kofta, are accompanied by home-made tahini or tzatziki sauce. The quality of the food is rivalled only by the friendliness of the chef. “Ray” is the owner’s young son.

Stay Hungry Burger, (Setthathirat Road near Nam Phu, in front of State Bookstore), ☎ +8562077516084. Stay Hungry Burger’s claim is true, you really do stay hungry after eating there as the burger are the smallest in town.

Vegetarian / Vegan

Happy Golden Age A reasonably priced (15,000kip for noodle soup) vegan restaurant. Seems to be Vietnamese-centric with assortment of mock meats and dishes. Staff was nice, place was clean, they spoke some English. Its where Rue Saylom curves behind the “Vientiane Plaza”.

Nirvana Simuang Road. (a small road connecting Sethattirat Road to Khou Vieng Road. in Ban Simuang, Muang Sisattanak, close to the famous tourist site Wat Simuang). Delicious Lao traditional vegetarian/vegan food with some Western-style options. Nice change from the mostly Chinese-style offer of other buffets. High diversity and rotation rates. In the evening, ask for the menu (they have two – one basic one with pictures and another, much larger). 20,000 kip buffet at lunch hours. Open M-Sa. Family-managed, very clean. Some English spoken. Tel: +856 21 217 385.

Vegan restaurant @ Talat Khuadin Inside the market opposite the Talat Sao. Pass the big basket shop and you will see a wooden sign pointing you down an alley. Offers a lunch time buffet serving vegan Laotian food. You can also get there from Mahosot Road: go north past the bus station and watch for the alley on the right. Down the alley you’ll see a “vegetarian” sign on the left. The buffet is open from 10:00 to 14:30 for 20,000 kip per person.

Vegan food stall @ Talat Sao food court (at the top level of Talat Sao shopping mall). All plates at 10,000 kip each. Buffet plates, excellent veg spring rolls and noodle soups.

Mid-range

Benoni Cafe, on the first floor of Phimphone Market (entrance next to it), opens from 10:00 to 17:00, and offers a wide range of reasonably priced Asian and European dishes. The owners are Lao, but speak fluent English, French, and German. daily specials and home roasted coffee beans, basis for one of the best coffees in town. Busy at lunch time, discounts after 14:00.

Café des Arts, Heng Boun Road (close to Lao Cultural Hall), ☎ +856 021 212 260. M-F, 10:00-14:00, 17:00-23:00; weekends evenings only. Excellent home-made pasta and pizzas for around US$6-7, as well as a good selection of wines, including by the glass. Accepts kip, Thai baht, Euros, US dollars. Most expensive pizza, 73,000 kip.

Café Indochine, Setthathirat Road. Authentic Vietnamese food. Particularly recommended: the set meals at about US$4-5. When there are more than just a few guests, the kitchen staff may lose sight of their priorities.

Chokdee, Mekong road. Belgian food and Belgian beers. Good food, but the fries were a bit disappointing. Rather sloppy and not the Belgian quality they claim they serve. The restaurant serves a wide selection of Belgian beers as well as Beerlao. Maybe not the place to go for cocktails though.

Splurge

Aria Mixai Italian Culinary Arts 8 Rue Francois Ngin, Ban Mixai , Phone: +856 30 570 0831, or +856 21 222 589 [www.ariaorg.com] . Finest Italian dining in the capital, real Neapolitan pizza with wood fired oven, superb Italian cuisine, excellent selection of homemade pasta’s and gourmet choice of meats and fishes, and a really good ice-cream bar. The most popular buffet in town. Extensive Italian wine list ranked among the top ten in Asia. Price Range from 6$ up

Balkan House, Thongsangnang Village (from Thongkhankham market, second traffic light left, than first street right opposite Nakhomesack Hotel, down the street 300 m on the left side), ☎ 020 7709 729. Tu-Su 08:00-15:00 & 18:00-23:00. Traditional Yugoslav and Mediterranean home-made dishes, prepared by a Montenegrin chef. From US$5-15.

La Belle Epoque in the Settha Palace Hotel. Excellent food in an atmosphere of colonial elegance but the service needs improvement. Main courses starting at US$8.

Nam Phou. The first and arguably the best of the restaurants around the Fountain (Nam Phu), with good food and exceptional service. A favourite of NGO types.

L’Opera: at the Fountain; good Italian food, but not quite comparable to what you get in the owner’s home country. Good pizzas. Don’t go there if you cannot stand opera – it is played continuously in the background though not, fortunately, so loud that it drowns the conversation.

Chinese food

The massive influx in recent years of Chinese investment into Laos may be controversial, but one area in which it has had an undeniably positive impact is the vastly increased quality of Chinese restaurants in Vientiane. No reason anymore to settle for the ghastly Hong Kong Restaurant or uninspired banquet fare in the big hotels. Vientiane has a growing selection of authentic regional Chinese cuisine, particularly from the southwest.

Fu Man Lou 福滿樓 (Tel: 21-262249; mobile: 020-55519185), Luang Prabang Road: this restaurant is so successful it now has two locations. The one on the road to the airport is the best by far. It is the most established of the better Chinese restaurants in the city, and the Chinese diplomats posted to Laos often dine here. Food selection is multi-regional, but the Sichuan dishes are well done.

Dihao Hunan Restaurant 帝豪酒店 (Tel: 21-262799), on T2 Road not far from Patuxai. If you are craving spicy Hunan fare, Dihao serves up some of the best you’ll find this side of Changsha. Hunanese-owned and operated (the Hunan Chamber of Commerce is on the 4th floor), Dihao is likely the finest and most authentic Chinese restaurant in Vientiane at the moment. Staff speak Chinese and Lao, and the menu is same, but every dish has its own photo. Order anything containing chilies, and you can’t go wrong.

Jiu-Jiu Restaurant 久玖酒家 (Tel: 21-213059; mobile: 020-55333419), Luang Prabang Road (almost directly opposite the Marina Nightclub): an unheralded gem, this restaurant offers fantastic southwestern Chinese cuisine. The chef hails from Qujing 曲靖 in Yunnan Province. The food is best described as Yunnan-Sichuan fusion. Helps if you know Chinese, but the staff can speak Lao as well. Menu contains plenty of photographs, so if all else fails, just point.

Where to drink

Vientiane has a few bars/clubs, and there’s no shortage of places for a quiet Beerlao. In particular, the Mekong shoreline has long been the epicentre of low-key night life, although a massive construction project to build a flood management system and a riverside park has seen most of the bamboo-and-thatch beer gardens here disappear.

Bor Pen Nyang, (Fa Ngum Road (the river promenade), ☎ +856 20 787 3965. Breezy fourth-floor (no elevator) bar/restaurant which overlooks the Mekong. Tourists, locals, expats, working girls and ladyboys in seeming harmony. Claims the most extensive fine whisky range in Laos and stocks a wide range of liquors. Special daily cocktail for 20,000 kip. Pool & snooker tables on the 2nd floor. At the back of the bar there is a winner stays/loser pays pool competition every night.

CCC Bar, Supanvong Road, Ban Haai Sok. The second of two gay bars in downtown Vientiane, located next to Silapa Restaurant and catty-corner from Vat Inpeng. Friendly atmosphere and staff with good dance beats. Mixed drinks typical cost around 30,000 kip, with happy hour between 19:00 and 21:00. Second floor has a dance floor.

Deja Vu, (next to L’Opera Restaurant on Nam Phu Square (Fountain)). A classy and cozy bar, owned and run by a Japanese-speaking Lao owner. Closed on Sundays. Approximately 50K kip per cocktail.

Don Chan Palace. closes at 04:00 on weekends. An after-hours club popular with working girls. Closed now for renovation.

GQ Bar, (off Rue Chao Anou (the same street as the Inter City and Lao Orchid Hotel, off Fa Ngum Road along the river)). One of two gay bars in downtown Vientiane. Closes between midnight and 01:00, when some head off to the @Home nightclub. Friendly staff, crazy owner, cheap drinks, and occasional cabaret shows around 24:00.

Jazzy-Brick, (Setthathirat Road nearly opposite Kop Chai Deu). A classy, and expensive, bar. The sign out front states “no shorts, no flip-flops allowed”.

Where to stay

There are numerous places to stay in Vientiane, but there is little budget accommodation. Most options are mid to high-range for Lao standards, and can go up to astronomic prices exceeding the yearly salary of most Laotians, and which can not be paid in local currency. In recent years many new establishments have opened, but mid-2007 the Government announced plans to restrict the number of new permits: they wish to concentrate on quality rather than quantity. The days that anyone could convert their home to a guest house seem to be over.

Budget

Budget accommodation in Vientiane fills quickly and can be difficult to find by late afternoon.

Benacam Guest House, Ban Watchan. checkout: 11:00. Clean, nice rooms, great value. Nice bathrooms with great water pressure, real shower, clean bed linen. Rooms can be small, have fridge and cable TV. Wi-Fi, although signal can be weak in areas.

DreamTime Eco Retreat, ☎ +856 20 77 895 721 (relax@dreamtime-laos.com). If you are looking for peace and quiet, this is the place. Seven bungalows scattered in the jungle with a small stream. Mike, the owner, is really nice and helpful with everything. Located 30 km from the city. Price depends on the type of bungalow, 30,000-90,000 kip.

Mimi Guest House, (Francois Ngin Road), ☎ +856 20 55 666 736. Doubles for 50,000 kip.

Mixay Guesthouse, 54 Nokeo Koummane Road. Simple rooms with fan and shared bathroom. Friendly staff. Clean, but has ventilation issues in some rooms (especially on the top floor where there is a smoking section). Watch your head on the stairs, watch your step, and be patient with the staff. Free Wi-Fi, but only between 09:00 and 23:00. Dorms with/without breakfast 50,000/45,000 kip, single with/without breakfast 70,000/65,000, Double with common bathroom with/without breakfast 90,000/85,000, double with bathroom with/without breakfast 100,000/90,000 kip, double with air-con with/without breakfast 110,000/100,000 kip.

Mid-range

Asian Pavilion Hotel, 379 Samsenthai Road. Good, if not quite their self-proclaimed “fascinating” mid-range choice. Formerly known as the Hotel Constellation as chronicled in John le Carre’s, The Honourable Schoolboy. Rooms from US$26 with air-con, hot water, cable TV, breakfast and airport transfer.

Baan Champa Lao Heritage Hotel, 125 Phnompehn Road (Anou Village), ☎ +856 20 50 23782, 20 55 05840 (toy_siri@yahoo.com). Baan Champa is a clean modest hotel. It’s a family-run, relatively new and is located in a quiet area only 2 blocks from the National Museum and Cultural Centre. Itmis possible to book a bus to Luang Prabang and train tickets to Bangkok at reception. They are extremely kind and helpful. Room rates US$15-25 incl breakfast (toast, fruit, tea, coffee).

Beau Rivage Mekong Hotel, Fa Ngum Road (on the river road but at the shady tree-lined stretch that has not yet been “developed”, a few hundred metres upriver from where the road has been asphalted). New, very nice. All rooms have Wi-Fi, courtesy of the HBRM Spirit House next door. Room prices from US$40-70 depending on season and single or double occupancy.

Splurge

Settha Palace Hotel, 6 Pang Kham Street (right at the end of the street, north from Nam Phu past Lao Plaza and Days Inn Hotels). Built circa 1932, the luxurious Hotel has been restored to its former charm. Re-opened in 1999, the French colonial architecture, its period furniture and its landscaped gardens with a free-form pool, complemented by modern facilities, are some of the features of this historical landmark in the heart of Vientiane. If you see a London taxicab cruising the streets, it’s theirs, used to ferry guests around. They have an excellent restaurant “La Belle Epoque” (see below) and an open air sidewalk café. Room rates from US$105.

Green Park Boutique Hotel and Resort, Thanon Ku Vieng (About 1 km east from the Morning Market). A newer boutique hotel built in Lao style – several buildings in a garden setting. Nice pool. It is somewhat away from the centre, but ideal to “get away from the bustle”. Recent guest complaints about lost or stolen items have been verified by local authorities. Be careful with your belongings at this hotel. (Shuttle bus to the city centre every hour until 22.00). Room rates depend on season and start at 100 to 125 USD (single); 110 to 130 (double).

Don Chan Palace, (far out at the eastern end of the river promenade). This hotel was completed in 2004, almost complying with the municipality’s town planning by-laws which at the time limited buildings in Vientiane to 7 storeys, although Don Chan has 14. Offers panoramic views of the city. It has a swimming pool overlooking the Mekong and a popular open-air beer garden overlooking the Mekong which gets crowded late in the evening. Rooms are showing their age, and often smell of stale cigarettes. Slightly far from the centre but hotel provides shuttle service. From US$68.

Salana Boutique Hotel, Chao Anou Road, 112 Ban Wat Chan, Chanthabouly District (just 2 minutes walk from the Mekong River and Chao Anou Park), ☎ +85621254254. Recently named by Frommer’s Budget Travel Magazine as one of the best boutique hotels in the world, Salana Boutique Hotel was revamped from the old site of Xaysana Hotel, and opened only recently in October 2010. Boasting a total of 41 rooms, Salana Boutique Hotel offers an excellent location in the centre of the city and near to the Mekong River, the recently finished Chao Anou Park, as well and other nearby attractions. The hotel is well known among business travellers and tourists, and have received many positive reviews since opening. price.

Mercure Vientiane, Unit 10 Samsenthai Road, P.O.Box 585, Samsenthai Road, Sikhotabong (150 m west of Fa Ngum Park), ☎ (+856) 21/213570/1 (resvn@mercurevte.com, fax: (+856)21/213572/3). Has absorbed the former Novotel in new premises, where it provides the standard it’s 4-star status demands. Truly friendly staff with surprisingly good English, a peaceful courtyard with spotless pool, fitness centre and steam bath. Very family-friendly. Quality Sunday brunch (11:00-15:00) at 130,000 kip including use of pool and fitness centre. Saturday and Sunday poolside BBQ (15:00-18:00). Despite the price range, Wi-Fi usage costs extra (starting from 20,000 kip per hour). Rooms from 49 USD (all prices +10% service charge +10% taxes).

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