“This place is a shxxhole.” These were Dan’s first words when we arrived in Vientiane. We had just spent several hours on a dustbowl trail, which eventually transformed into Grapes of Wrath meets full blown industrialized pollution. Oh, and the scowling faces. Someone forgot to tell these people that the rest of their countrymen actually smile. Vientiane's roads seem to cake pained looks onto the faces of its motorbike drivers who struggled to breathe as they drove without face masks.
Our perspective didn’t change for the next hour as every decent guesthouse turned out to be fully booked. We continued down darkening streets and stumbled into a guesthouse with an eclectic group of characters hanging out in the lobby. We weren't sure if we'd accidentally walked into a brothel or a refugee hotel. We were exhausted, so we ignored the flashing red intuition panel and checked in. The water heater in our bathroom informed us we had to turn it off after 2 minutes or it would explode. Literally.
After nice frosty showers, we walked down to the waterfront and our luck began to change. We were greeted with endless food stands showcasing giant prawns and salt-encrusted, lemongrass stuffed, grilled fish (tilapia). We ate like kings for under $7 together while enjoying an evening along the Mekong River. Vientiane wasn’t looking, or tasting, so bad after all.
The city isn’t overflowing with amazing sites to see. To its credit, though, it’s a place to relax, take in a temple or two and walk around. On the way to the market, Talat Sao, we found blocks of traditional medicine stands on the sidewalk selling bags of tree bark, roots, herbs, amulets and mysterious potions in murky bottles ready to cure what ails. In a city that has a distinct wiff of international aid money (make note of the NGO SUVs), the row of traditional healers offered a small pocket of authenticity squeezed between the shiny buildings housing these foreign organizations and the restaurants catering to their apparently outsized budgets.
Lasting Impressions of Vientiane
We left Vientiane a few days later, having made peace with it. It may not be our favorite capital in the region, but it’s not a shxxhole either.
Video – Dining on the Mekong River in Vientiane, Laos
Vientiane Travel Tips: Transport, Accommodation and Food
- How to get there: We traveled by kayak from Vang Vieng, with a transfer to songthaew (pick up truck with benches in the back) for the last 100 km. Other options – bus on a windy road from Luang Prabang (take your motion sickness medicine) or plane.
- Where to stay: Mali Namphu Guesthouse – an oasis in the middle of Vientiane. Clean, air conditioned rooms for $14-$16/night, including breakfast in a pleasant courtyard. Highly recommended. Address: 114 Pangkham Road
- Where to eat: Outdoor restaurants on the banks of the Mekong. Don’t expect anything fancy – plastic tables on dirt – but expect perfectly grilled prawns and fish. Highly recommended.