Occupied by the Burmese, levelled by the Siamese and eventually rebuilt by the French, Vientiane is a city shaped by outsiders.
A trip to Vientiane means fine dining and sunset strolls
Occupied by the Burmese, levelled by the Siamese and eventually rebuilt by the French, Vientiane is a city shaped by outsiders. Not just physically, but culturally, too. Syrupy black espressos are slurped at cafes along the city's wide boulevards, old men play boules by the riverfront and Thai TV shows flicker brightly behind dusty shop fronts. But even now, as the booming Lao economy begins to attract more foreign investors, Vientiane remains a proud national capital.
Visitors are well catered for, but don't expect to see the crowds that blight more touristy destinations such as Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang, farther north. Here, sights are limited to a handful of temples and some hastily constructed concrete monuments. The real pleasure of a trip to Vientiane comes from fine dining, people watching and taking sunset strolls through what must be one of the world's most tranquil capital cities. After a bone-jarring bus ride across rural Thailand or Laos, arriving feels like heaven.
A comfortable bed
For such a small city, Vientiane has a surprisingly good range of accommodation. Unfortunately, most of the top-end hotels are aimed at short-stay business types, and can feel a little soulless. The perfect antidote is the colonial-style Settha Palace Hotel (www.setthapalace.com; 00 856 2121 7581), a five-minute walk from the city centre, which has a deep indigo swimming pool that's surrounded by sweet-smelling frangipani trees. Doubles start from US$234 (Dh859) including taxes and breakfast. For an extra fee, staff will pick you up from the airport in a shiny London taxi.
Closer to the Mekong on leafy Rue Hengbounnoy is the mid-range Vayakorn Inn (www.vayakorn.biz; 00 856 2121 5348), of which the simply furnished rooms have polished wooden floors, cutesy balconies and speedy wireless internet access. Doubles start from US$35 (Dh129) including local taxes, but excluding breakfast.
If it's a friendly welcome and traditional Lao-style architecture you're looking for, try Auberge Sala Inpeng (www.salalao.com; 00 856 2124 2021), where nine stilted bungalows occupy a central yet secluded garden plot. Coffee and croissants, included with the rate, are brought to each room's shaded veranda at breakfast time. Doubles start at US$25 (Dh92), including taxes.
Find your feet
Still refreshingly low-rise, Vientiane hugs the northern edge of a bend in the Mekong, with Thai soil visible across the water. One block back from the riverfront is Rue Setthathilath, Vientiane's main tourist drag, which connects a handful of gilded Buddhist monasteries with the cafes and bakeries of Nam Phou Place, a former roundabout that's crowned by a gently sploshing fountain.
Head farther north along Lane Xang Avenue, the city's own Champs Elysées, and you'll catch a glimpse of Patouxai, a triumphant concrete arch dedicated to those who fought for independence from France (ironically, it looks a lot like the Arc de Triomphe).
Meet the locals
Built in 1818, Wat Si Saket was the only monastery spared by Siamese invaders, who sacked Vientiane a decade later. Local holy men and worshippers wander contemplatively through the statue-lined cloister, which surrounds a sloping, multi-tiered sim.
Book a table
For a zesty green papaya salad (40,000 Lao kip; Dh18) or some soy-drizzled spring rolls (K42,000; Dh19), check out Makphet (www.makphet-restaurant.org; 00 856 2126 0587), just behind Wat Ong Teu. Run by former street children, the restaurant is often packed out, so it's worth booking ahead.
With icy-cold air conditioning, Joma Bakery Café (www.joma.biz; 00 856 2121 5265) is in a prime location, just across from Nam Phou Place. Step in for a thirst-quenching mint and lemon freeze (K14,000; Dh6) or, if you're feeling peckish, try the roasted veggie wrap (K25,000; D11).
Among a glut of high-end French restaurants, L'Adresse de Tinay (www.ladressedetinay.com; 00 856 2056 913434) stands out. Its evening set menu (K160,000; Dh72) includes a creamy, "cappuccino style" pumpkin soup and a tilapia fish fillet that's dished up with papaya sauerkraut.
Run by an American designer, and based in an old colonial mansion near the Mekong, Carol Cassidy Lao Textiles (www.laotextiles.com; 00 856 2121 2123) specialises in pure silk wall hangings, scarves and shawls. Just across the road is the well-stocked Monument Books (www.monument-books.com/laos; 00 856 2124 3708), which has the city's widest selection of English-language books, including titles dedicated to Lao history.
What to avoid
Staying out too late. Vientiane is a safe city, but government forces sporadically enforce a midnight curfew. Most restaurants close up by 11.30pm to allow time for visitors to get back to their hotels.
America's war with Vietnam and the subsequent bombing of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which ran through Laos, left large parts of the country littered with unexploded ordnance. You can learn more about the problem at the eye-opening Cope Visitor Centre (www.copelaos.org; 00 856 2121 8427; free).
A return flight on Thai Airways (www.thaiairways.com) from Dubai to Vientiane (via Bangkok) takes about seven hours and costs from $997 (Dh3,660), including taxes.