Why You Should Go to Vientiane Now
Riverfront eats, expat enclaves, a budding film scene. RACHNA SACHASINH explores the capital’s neighborhoods, finding a city in transition, and worth a second look.
Published on Feb 17, 2016
"GET LOST," KEOTA THAMNUVONG tells me. "Allow the city to reveal itself." The proprietor of Salana Boutique Hotel pours tea for me in the posh lobby before ushering me out the door. It is spring in Vientiane. I stroll the stately Lane Xang between the Presidential Palace and Patuxai, marvel at the 500-year-old temple erected by King Setthathirat atop Hindu and Khmer ruins and admire the city's beaux arts façade inherited from the French. One of Southeast Asia's smallest capitals, Vientiane has strugged with its reputation as a backwater, a sleepy hamlet lost in time. In 1975, when the communist Pathet Lao took over the country, Vientiane slipped into hibernation. Now, the city is showing new signs of life. On street corners, men grill salted river fish next to modern storefronts peddling world-class wines. Eclectic cafés and gastropubs bring together myriad culinary influences. On welltrodden streets, I pause and take in the scene, then follow unnamed paths and winding lanes just to see where they take me. Before long, I've done it: I am thoroughly lost, and, along my aimless wanderings, Vientiane reveals her hidden charms.
Historic views at Salana Boutique Hotel. Courtesy of Salana Boutique Hotel.
Rue Chao Anou to Rue François Ngin
The action along the river winds through the streets, with plenty of sidewalk cafés, restaurants and bars. The patina of old colonial villas and rustic shophouses glimmers with newfound liveliness and energy. Young locals, tourists and the city's expats congregate in a multicultural esprit de corps. Previously a haven for backpackers, the recent addition of boutique lodgings and gourmand-level eateries lend a cosmopolitan air.
Yet as the riverfront neighborhood changes, many of its draws still hark back centuries, and I awake in darkness to take part in one such iconic scene. Stars still stubbornly hang to the sky as I prepare for an alms-giving ceremony. With my basket of sticky rice and fruit, I kneel in front of Wat Ong Teu and place provisions in the monks' bowls as they walk by silently. I join a small group of local women, and the ritual proceeds serenely, then I head to the Mekong promenade. Early risers practice slow tai chi movements next to an energetic Jazzercise class shimmying to an international pop soundtrack. On Rue Chao Anou, I come upon the Common Grounds, a coffeehouse where nostalgic 1950s-era photographs share wall space with local art. I regroup with a café Americano and a warm croissant and cross the street to Saoban, an indigenous craft collective. The handwoven cotton scarves dyed with indigo and mak gua (a local fruit with a pearl gray pigment) are so gorgeous I buy half a dozen.
Common Grounds' chicken pita. Courtesy of Common Grounds.
Following the southern wall of Wat Ong Teu, I get sidetracked on a picturesque alley where the scent of ylang-ylang and moke flowers draw me to Tangerine Garden. After an aromatherapy scrub and massage, I've worked up an appetite. Dining options are plentiful in the riverside district. L'Adresse de Tinay is a charming bistro with inventive dishes like the hamburger terrine with creamy layers of potato standing in for the standard bun. On Rue Françoise Ngin, Acqua's wood-fired pizzas look enticing, as do the neon-hued cocktails. At Han Sam Euay Nong or Three Sisters (Rue Chao Anou), opposite Wat Chan's gilded gate, the fish larb (grilled fish salad), tam mak hoong (papaya salad), and spring rolls are the real deal.
Traditional loom work at Saoban. Courtesy of Saoban.
Rue Nokeokoummane to Rue Hengboun
Long-time residents of this burgeoning 'hood can recount early days of the 1975 coup when the mood was quiet and subdued. Today, the local temples are filled with chanting monks and giggling school children, and the streets are bustling with pushcart vendors selling seasonal fruit and shops shilling everything from sweets to hardware and handicrafts. Come here to people-watch and sample delicious cocktails and small bites.
Following a morning visit to Wat Mixay, I wander into Maichan. The narrow shop is stocked with textiles such as wedding blankets and sinhs, some specimens half a century old. Nearby at Carol Cassidy Lao Textiles, a wooden looms-filled colonial-era bungalow, weavers produce intricate works inspired by animist and Buddhist iconography as well as the mythical naga or serpent. Down the street, a Japanese expat opened Dresden Lao, a cheerful gastropub where Western and local flavors blend surprisingly well, and potent cocktails are poured over carved ice. I'm perked for a walk along Rue Hengboun, passing by shophouses where customers linger for a chat and old men sit out front, smoking and palavering with neighbors. On a side street, La Cage du Coq (Rue Hengbounnoy; +856 20 5467 6065) opened with on-theme décor such as lampshades retooled from bamboo baskets that were used to cage hens. The vintage, bohemian vibe seems more Bahamas than Cote d'Azur, but the kitchen knows its stuff: the vegetable tart and the confit de canard are spot on. The balmy evening calls for further exploration, and I make my way to The Beer House, another dining options. Inside, a group of young Lao friends toast and banter at the rustic wood bar. With a glass of Belgian ale and a plate of pralines, I find a seat outside and take in Vientiane's laid-back nightlife.
Courtesy of The Beer House.
Rue Sokpaluang to Rue Dongpaina
This is where Vientiane's well-heeled live and work. Luxury SUVs ferry city folk along wide, tree-lined boulevards to the many embassies and government offices. Peek over the walled compounds and you will see manicured tropical lawns and gardens surrounding restored Art Deco and colonial bungalows. International schools, yoga studios and smart coffeehouses appear at various intervals, next to noodle stalls and mom-and-pop groceries. For entrepreneurs, there is ample space to reinvent cultural styles and sensibilities.
I cycle to Ban Thongkang and nearby Ban Saphanthong, east of the city center. On the wide leafy streets, the feel is both homespun and urbane. I stroll through sylvan Wat Sok Pa Luang where monks meditate in cloisters cloaked in dense jungle foliage. Steps away is the bold and colorful Chanmaly's Café. Chanmaly's is a serious gastronome without being fussy. The mood here is playful, with darts and pétanque on the terrace and an area for tots to rumble while parents sip Rosé and sample cheese boards with gran reserva manchego, chorizo and salsichon ferried from Catalan and crêpes made with flour imported from Brittany. The wife of owner and chef Mathieu Thaëron, Caroline, arranges classic round bouquets à la française in her atelier next door. Soirées and pop-up shops for handmade jewels, artwork and garments keep the neighborhood's dance card full. I pedal to Rue Dongpaina and hop off at Sea Sunset. The menu meanders from Spanish tortilla to Lebanese hummus (both excellent) to the house-style American cheeseburger, and owner Pietro Zorzi tells me that while it's easy to source foodstuffs, "good-quality aged spirits are still hard to come by in Laos." Somehow he's still managed to cobble together one of the city's best bar menus, but I don't need a fancy cocktail. Bor pen yang (no worries), I say. In Vientiane's humid climate, a glass of Beer Lao on ice, the way locals drink it, is the way to go.
A colorful Chanmaly's Café. Courtesy of Chanmaly.
Rue Pangkham to That Dam
The sleepy That Dam roundabout is filled with royal and colonial vestiges while trendy wine bars bring out the young and prosperous. Businesspeople wrangle deals at working lunches and fete their success at celebratory dinners. All this unfolds alongside local women selling homemade pork sausages and street carts cooking syrupy crêpes to order. Against the backdrop of the 16th-century That Dam, Vientiane is coming of age.
I walk by a shack with a corrugated tin roof several times before realizing it is Pho Zap (Rue Phai Nam), my destination for Laos rice noodle soup. Once the steaming bowl of thin noodles garnished with fresh basil and watercress arrives, I am glad I perservered. A short walk takes me to That Dam, or Black Stupa. An indomitable seven-headed naga, Vientiane's guardian spirit, is believed to reside inside the shrine, although in 1828, the Siamese managed to abscond with the stupa's original goldleaf casing. At sunset, shades of orange, pinks and violets color the stupa, and for a moment That Dam's original luster comes to life. Several wine shops border the roundabout, with That Dam Wine House (Rue Chanthakoumane) offering the best selection in town. Rosey from a few glasses of a crisp Verdejo from New Zealand, I retire to my home for the evening, the opulent Settha Palace Hotel. Standing outside, I imagine life here some 80 years ago, when the landmark colonial hotel welcomed its first guests.
Rue Setthathirath to Rue Phonpapao
There is no one neighborhood to experience the art scene, but this outpost of Vientiane is a strong contender. Here, new forms of artistic expression are taking root, as a new generation draws upon a rich cultural legacy to tells its stories through film and painting. Vientiane's creative set, much like the town itself, is awash in self-discovery.
I start the day sipping a top-notch espresso from Le Trio Coffee on Rue Setthathirath's most commerical block. Fortified with a house-roasted Mata Hari blend, I walk east past the beaux arts-inspired Presidential Palace and Haw Phra Kaew.
Courtesy of Le Trio Coffee.
Near the Wat Si Muang, the city's spiritual pillar, the Buddhist-inspired frescoes and carvings etched on the temple's walls give way to modern art forms. At I:Cat Gallery, a contemporary narrative unfolds in compelling watercolors by Lao and expat artists. To discover more about the city's budding art and film scene, I hop on a songthaew and head to Baan Tonmali Cake, a hip café run by Phanumad "Ton" Disattha and his wife Kanlayanee. Ton is part of Lao New Wave Cinema, a coalition of young filmmakers creating buzz with their provocative arthouse films. Lao New Wave screens movies at Vientianale, the city's international film festival held each year in March. Perhaps equally artful are Kanlayanee's inspired confections. A layered cheesecake served in a mason jar and the mango mousse are particularly mouth-watering. I bite into a chocolate caramel cupcake and am overwhelmed by the sweetness. I may be lost, but I feel right at home.