Without doubt, Vientiane is one of Southeast Asia’s quietest capital cities with a recorded history that stretches back to around 1,000 AD. Hugging a wide bend of the Mekong River, it looks more like a rambling collection of villages, dotted with a few grandiose monuments, than the engine room of a nation. The capital city delivers a relaxing riverside break where one of the best things you can do is grab a drink and enjoy the sun’s spectacular show as it sets over the Mekong. Despite being the largest city in Laos and the hub of commerce and administration, Vientiane is still refreshingly laid back.
From its sleepy tuk-tuk drivers to its cafe society and affordable spas, this former French trading post is languid to say the least. Eminently walkable, the historic old quarter of Vientiane beguiles with tree-lined boulevards crowded with frangipani and tamarind, glittering temples, wandering Buddhist monks and lunging naga (dragon) statues.
For the well-heeled traveller and backpacker the city acquits itself equally well, be it low cost digs and street markets, or upscale, jaw-droppingly pretty boutique hotels and French restaurants with reputable Parisian chefs. There are even more cafes and bakeries here than Luang Prabang and such a global spectrum of cuisine, it may add another notch to your belt!
In tune with the ruling elite's new self-consciousness and desire to impress, the riverfront has recently been revamped, with jogging a popular pastime, and Chinese residents who use the alfresco exercise park by the river (as well as for dawn Mao-style exercise classes). Indeed, look around and you'll see many shop signs in mandarin, for China, Laos' big brother, has really established itself over the last two years. That's progress, and just another chapter in this remarkably tolerant city where malls may be springing up like glass Lego sets and traffic thickening, but where genuine friendliness is still the norm.
Meanwhile with most of its old French villas now stylishly reincarnated into restaurants and small hotels, Vientiane is achieving an unprecedented level of panache with a distinctly Gallic flavor. Whether it's lounging over a novel in an old fashioned bakery, shopping in silk shops or swigging Beer Lao and drinking up the fiery sunset over the Mekong, you’ll miss this place more than you initially realize.