Leisa Tyler enjoys the lingering French flavours of a capital that balances ambitious growth with timeless Buddhist calm.
Sleepy Vientiane seems little more than a village. Snuggling a curve in the Mekong River, Laos's capital city is a charming clutch of decrepit French villas and art deco Russian buildings mingled with splays of hot pink bougainvillea and the golden spires of Buddhist temples reaching above elongated palms.
I lived and worked in Vientiane in the late 1990s. Laos was just opening up after 25 years of rigid communist rule and the city felt trapped in time. There were no ATMs or paved roads. Communications were sketchy, and people got around on tuk-tuks and bicycles. Land-locked and mostly agrarian, it was reported that the country's paltry income came from foreign aid and air rights, the fee airlines pay to fly over a country. The Lao preferred sleep and beer with ice, over economics. I loved every bit of it.
Naturally, Vientiane has changed. There are now cocktail bars, slick restaurants and SUVs. Running off the back of super highways planned between China and Thailand, there are ambitious plans to develop Vientiane into a centre for commerce and trade. Enormous billboards advertise gleaming world trade centres with cheerful foreigners doing business in equally luminous surrounds. Luxury villa developments and hotels are springing up on the periphery. Budget carriers Air Asia and Nok Air have started touching down at Vientiane's Wattay Airport - making the city more accessible.
Despite its changing face, Vientiane still feels the same as when I left, in 2000. It has a slow, sleepy stride ideally suited to long lunches, afternoon naps on shady verandahs and evenings watching the sun set with icy cold glasses of Beer Lao, the celebrated local brew that most connoisseurs agree is the best in Asia.
While the air is still cool, grab a bicycle - about $US5 ($4.80) a day from most guest houses - or a tuk-tuk and head up to Pha That Luang (open 8am; entrance fee LK 5000 or 60¢), a lustrous stupa and national emblem four kilometres north-east of the city centre. Built in 1566 and covered in tonnes of gold leaf, That Luang was plundered and destroyed by first the Burmese, then Siamese, Chinese and Thai before being rebuilt to its present glory.
On the way back, stop at Patuxai (LK 3000 to climb to the top), a replica of Paris's Arc de Triomphe with great views from its top deck. When I lived in Laos we called Patuxai the Vertical Runway. Bequeathed concrete by the US to improve the airport's runway, Laos opted for a piece of Paris instead. Poignantly, the structure was finished in 1968, just months before American forces started their bombing offensive. It's a great place to watch the traffic but it's harder to ascertain if it is liked. "From a closer distance [the monument] appears even less impressive, like a monster of concrete", a plaque on its wall says.
The French didn't just leave splendid architecture; they left coffee, most of which is grown on the cool slopes of the verdant Bolaven Plateau in the country's far south. Drink it like a local from a cart parked kerbside. Brewed with cloudy robusta beans mixed with a heady dollop of sweetened condensed milk, cafe nohm (cafe dam without the milk) is so strong you could almost stand a spoon up in it. It will either leave you utterly repulsed or addicted for life.
For a more urbane infusion, try one of the excellent coffee shops that have sprung up in the narrow streets fanning north of the Mekong. The Little House (Ban Xiengnueun; phone +856 2055 406 036) is a Japanese-run cafe inside a little wooden house with excellent iced espressos (from LK 15,000) and decadent truffles.
Vientiane's most charismatic temples are a stone's throw from the city centre. The stunning, auburn-hued Ho Phra Keo is best known as the former home of the Emerald Buddha, which now sits in the Grand Palace in Bangkok. Don't miss the two-metre-thick walls on the 16th-century temple and the wooden carvings of nagas and dancing apsaras inside, some hundreds of years old. Across the road, Wat Sisaket's (LK 5000 entrance) frescos retell the story of Prince Pookkharabat, who defeated his enemies with a magic fan. Outside, 2000 silver and ceramic Buddha statues crowd the temple's cloister walls.
Learn about Laos's horrific recent history at the excellent exhibition by the Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise, or COPE Centre (Khouvieng Road, copelaos.org). Between 1964 and 1973, it is reported the US dropped more than 260 million cluster bombs on Laos, making it the most heavily bombed nation on earth. About 30 per cent of these bombs failed to detonate, causing more than 20,000 deaths or injuries since. For me, the most troubling story in the exhibition is of Ta, a young man who lost both arms while fishing and wears a T-shirt sporting the American flag.
Don't be put off by the tin-shed setting or long lines; Vietnamese restaurant PVO (Simeaung Road, Block 4; phone +856 2121 4444) serves the best food in town. Order bun bo xao - a bowl of rice noodles with chopped spring rolls, fried beef strips, raw bean sprouts, cucumber, garlic, banana flower, mint, carrot and coriander mixed with sesame seeds, peanuts, turmeric and sweet chilli sauce. Or try a baguette - toasted over a coal fire and stuffed with local paté, smoked pork, spring onion, pickles and sweet chilli sauce. This is street-food perfection; lunch for two about LK 30,000.
Several non-profit and fair-trade organisations have opened shops in Vientiane's leafy back-streets. Puean Mit (behind Wat Ong Teu; friends-international.org), a venture by the innovative non-government organisation Friends International, sells colourful stuffed animal toys with proceeds going to vocational training projects for at-risk youth. Nearby Saoban (Chaoanou Road; saobancrafts.com) works with more than 300 hill-tribe artisans to preserve Lao village textiles and handicrafts. There are beautiful silk scarves coloured with vegetable dyes, hand-hammered jewellery, hats, baskets, wild honey and banana liquor.
Join the throngs of strollers, joggers, lovers and jesters as they promenade along the 14-hectare Chao Anouvong Park, a new development flanking the Mekong River. You can browse stalls selling handicrafts, clothes and other knick-knacks, join tai-chi classes or an aerobics lesson to kitsch '90s pop songs (in front of the Chinese temple; 6-7pm; LK 3000).
Take in the last of the day's sun as it sinks over the Mekong River from Baw Pennyoung Bar (meaning no worries). It's not the most wholesome place in town (it turns into a girlie bar after 8pm) but the beer is cold and delicious and the views are the best in town. Order Beer Lao, here LK 15,000 for a longneck.
Rich in fresh herbs and sour, rustic tastes, good Lao cuisine is oddly in short supply in the capital. Stylish Lao Kitchen (Hengboun Road, Ban Anou; lao-kitchen.com), a hole-in-the-wall diner with wooden tables spilling out onto the road, offers national staples such as laarp (minced meat with ground rice and herbs) and or lam (upcountry stew seasoned with pepper bark) plus excellent jaew bong (chilli dip) with fried river weed. Friends International's Makphet (Behind Wat Ong Teu; friends-international.org) serves modern Lao dishes in a charming streetside cafe manned by hospitality students. Try the ancient fish, a gorgeous dish of deep-fried river fish topped with tamarind and green-mango salad.
A bevy of sleek wine bars has recently opened along leafy Setthathilath Road. Pick a wine at brick-and-wood Gecko Wines (Setthathirath Road; geckowines.com) and pay 10 per cent more to drink it at their outside bar.
For a more vivacious atmosphere, head to Kop Chai Deu (Setthathirath Road; inthira.com), the city's longest-standing bar institution. Housed in an old colonial bungalow, it's a little grungy and a little kitsch, but the service is friendly, the price is right and with live bands belting out Stairway to Heaven, it's quintessentially Lao.
Getting there Thai Airways has a fare to Vientiane from Sydney and Melbourne for about $1210 low-season return, including tax. Fly non-stop to Bangkok (about 9hr) and then non-stop to Vientiane (70min); see www.thaiairways.com.
Intrepid travellers will love the clunky old sleeper trains running overnight from Bangkok to Nong Khai, the Thai city adjacent to Vientiane. See thairailticket .com. Australians require a visa, which can be obtained upon arrival for a fee of about $US30 ($28.90).
Staying there Ansara has 14 small but neat rooms tucked behind a grand colonial bungalow with a shady courtyard cafe in the city centre. There are laptops in every room and free wi-fi, hampered by frequent power cuts. Double rooms from $US125, including breakfast. See ansarahotel.com.
The 29-room Settha Palace first opened as a hotel in 1932. Reopening in 1999, it's the city's grandest, with 28 rooms finished with reproduction furniture and a swimming pool in lush gardens. Double rooms are from $US196.80, including breakfast. See setthapalace.com.