“Like many French colonial cities, Vientiane is characterised by broad, often leafy boulevards, a riverside promenade, creaking colonial mansions painted in sun-bleached tropical hues and mod 1960’s era villas with large gardens dripping in bougainvillea. The city is dotted with rustic wats and traditional homes, coconut palms and tamarind trees, beer shacks and French cafes. Mix that with a sedentary pace of life and the allure of the place is understood.”(travelfish.org)
“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 (ວຽງຈັນ) beguiles with glittering temples, lunging naga (river serpent) statues, wandering Buddhist monks, and boulevards lined with frangipani and tamarind. Meanwhile, with most of its old French villas now stylishly reincarnated into restaurants and small hotels, Vientiane is achieving an unprecedented level of panache.” (Lonely Planet)
Sounds lovely and romantic, chic and oh so French. The reality is different. Very different. It’s chaotic and grungy – like any third world city – and the pavements are for cars to park on, not for foot traffic. Makes walking a bit precarious as cars vie for space on the roads, coming perilously close to each other and to any humans who are walking by. The Laos, no doubt are adept at negotiating the traffic and the pathway, for the visitor it’s a bit more unnerving. It’s also less picturesque than the above description suggests. The broad leafy boulevards are just wide roads with a hundred and one tiny shopfronts with rubbish piling around them. They’re not shops in the Western sense (though there are an increasing number of ’boutiques’), some merely a space whose aluminium roller door is open; many look like garages. But to be fair, you can find some wonderful little eateries – places that sell one or two food items – duck wonton noodle soup or baguette sandwiches – as well as many cafes selling a range of Lao and the entire gamut of international food: French (naturally), Italian, Vietnamese, Chinese, Mexican, Spanish and even Russian. And then there are a surprising number of wine shops, full of wonderful (and very expensive) French wines. In Vientiane the biggest decision of the day is what to eat. Spoilt for choice, we try everything – or at least make a good attempt.
There are no supermarkets or department stores. There is now one mall/shopping centre but it only has the usual market tat. The big brands have yet to come here. Interestingly though there are ATMs and travel agencies everywhere, almost as though everyone wants to get the hell out of the place.
Strangely it has a very Chinese feel to it; I suspect that many of the hotels are Chinese owned, hence the Chinese aesthetic – tacky. Service is not their strong point, though most of the Laos do smile and greet you and despite often not understanding what you’re saying, they do try and get you what you need.
It’s a funny place, with really not a lot to see or do. I’m over Wats and palaces and the National Museum is a travesty (mainly due to a lack of funds and a lack of conservation skills). The upside is that with little to do or see (there are only three main streets) there is time to just kick back and relax, to read a book and enjoy a glass of French Chablis or indulge in massages which are so plentiful and cheap.