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Vientiane is the capital of Laos.
Compared to the hectic, bustling capitals in other Southeast Asian countries, Vientiane's deliciously relaxing atmosphere makes it feel like the small town it is. After you've done the round of temples, the best thing to do here has always been to wander down to the riverside, relax with a cold Beerlao - the national beer - and watch the sun set over the Mekong.
A visa on arrival is available for most nationalities at Wattay Airport, the Friendship Bridge and Tha Naleng train station. Some nationalities do require a pre-arranged Laos visa from a Lao diplomatic mission abroad. You can also get a visa in advance at the Lao Embassy in Bangkok; the only real advantages of doing this are that you need to spend less time queuing when you get to Laos and if you are travelling by through-bus from Udon Thani in Thailand to Vientiane the bus may not wait for visas on arrival to be processed.
Vientiane's Wattay Airport (VTE) is 4 km west of the city. International services are quite limited, but this is slowly changing.
From Bangkok many visitors choose to fly into Udon Thani in Thailand, and cross the border by bus, as this domestic flight is considerably cheaper than a direct international flight to Vientiane. There is a direct shuttle from Udon Thani airport to the Thai/Lao border at Nong Khai. Alternatively,Nok Air offers flight+minivan service from Bangkok to Vientiane v.v. by flying with Nok Air from Bangkok to Udon Thani and transferred on a minivan to Vientiane. This can be booked directly from their website.
Lao Airlines flies to five domestic destinations (three to five flights daily to Luang Prabang; once or twice daily to Pakse, four times per week to Huay Xai and Oudomxay, and six times per week to Xieng Khuang (Phonsavan).
Lao Air, the second Lao airline, operates two flights weekly each between Vientiane and Phongsali, Samneua and Sayaboury (Sainyabuli) (aircraft: Cessna).
Lao Central Airlines has daily flights between Vientiane and Luang Prabang.
The Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge (Saphan Mittaphap) from Nong Khai, Thailand is the most common means of entry. The bridge cannot be crossed on foot or by bicycle (theoretically; however people have been seen strolling the bridge), but there are frequent 20 baht shuttle buses just past Thai immigration. The price changes depending on the time of day and day of week. You will get a receipt. Bicycles can be carried on buses in the cargo compartment.
A direct bus from Hanoi takes at least 20 hours. There is a twice a week VIP bus (better seats) and a local bus that departs every day. For the local bus: apparently you're not always certain of a seat and Vietnamese people tend to sit and never get up again until you've arrived.
Getting around Vientiane is generally easy, as the traffic is far less murderous than in larger Southeast Asian cities like Bangkok or Ho Chi Minh City. Street signage is, however, rather lacking though in the centre more and more signs are appearing.
Your best bet when asking for directions is to ask for the wat (temple) closest to where you want to go, whether asking a pedestrian, a police officer or a tuktuk driver. When asking for directions or streets with "r" in them, be aware that Laotians often pronounce them as "l".
Tuktuks in Vientiane do not work in the same way as Bangkok or Phnom Penh. Generally, tuktuks are considered public transport, and if you hop on one at That Luang, the driver will often consider it perfectly reasonable to pick other passengers up while on route, even if you have negotiated a price. So, if you hire a tuktuk by yourself, the quoted rate may well be astonishing; but if there's a group of you, then it may be 10,000 kip per person.
What to see
Vientiane is best viewed as a comfortable transit point for other places in Laos, or as a recuperative stop on the way out. It's a pleasant enough place, but generally, there is little reason to spend more than a couple of days here.
Lao National Museum, Thanon Samsenthai . Formerly the Lao Revolutionary Museum by name, the historical exhibits on the first floor are modest though very interesting in depicting some of the early history. They include one of the original Jars from the Plain of Jars and various stone and bronze age implements.
Patuxai (Victory Gate), Avenue Lane Xang. A local rendition of Paris' Arc de Triomphe. Besides the elaborate Buddhist embellishment, it differs from the original in having four gates instead of two and being just a bit higher (to trump the French).
The Art of Silk, Manthatourath Road, Lao Women's unnion. A local magazine says "Phone before visiting as there is no permanent staff."
Kaysone Phomvihane Museum, km6 Dongdok Road. Museum about Kaysone Phomvihane.
Lao People's Army History Museum, Kaysone Phomvihane Road, Ban Nongsangthong.
Memorial of president Souphanouvong, Kaysone Phomvihane Road, Ban Phonsa-art.
Buddha Park (Xieng Khuan) is a bizarre outdoor collection of huge concrete sculptures of Buddhist and Hindu deities, and real and imaginary beasts. The reclining Buddha is especially impressive. Built in 1958 by mystic Luang Pu Bunleua Sulilat, who left the country after the communist take-over, and in 1978 established a similar but more impressive park across the river in Nong Khai, Thailand. Located 24 km from the city, it's about 6 km to the east of the Friendship Bridge - hence it's well worth visiting on the way into or out of Laos if you're crossing the Friendship Bridge, as this will save a 48 km round trip if you visit from and return to Vientiane.
Monk Chat. Once a month, local monks gather at the Sangha College (Wat Ong Teu) for chats with tourists.
Green Discovery Laos, on Setthathirat Road (next to Khop Chai Deu). Agency organising adventure tours and eco-tourism. They have a 100% safety record. The trips are environmentally friendly and socially responsible.
Zip-Lining Adventure. Beginning of January 2010 Green Discovery opend up the first Zip-Lining park in Nam Lik just 2h away from Vientiane. Zip-lining gets you the feel of freedom while whooshing from tree to tree along steel wires in up to 37 meters height and 180 meters in length.
Trekking through nature parks. The National Protected Area of Phou Khao Khouay is the nearest National Park to Vientiane, the nearest point just over an hour away. Besides some great scenery and beautiful waterfalls, the NPA offers trails through dry evergreen and mixed deciduous forests, numerous waterfalls and rivers. Wildlife is abundant but elusive.
Picnicking on the Shores of Nam Ngum Lake, 90 km from Vientiane. A local favourite. There are floating restaurants along the lake shore; their specialty is fish fresh from the lake. Cruises among the lake's islands can be booked here, which makes for a relaxing couple of hours. Just inquire at your guest house/hotel or at any travel agency (where they will then try to sell their tours).
Lao Massage. Your masseur or masseuse will be grateful for a tip. The staff will be happy if you have the decency to take a shower before you go. They won't say anything to your face, but smelly foreigners make their job less than pleasant. The one next to The Drop Zone on Chao Anou Road is particularly delightful. The massage parlour does not really have a name, and the most prominent signboard merely says "now open". Don't go to the famous Wat Sok Pa Luang to a Lao Massage.
Centre Culturel et de Coopération Linguistique (French Cultural Centre), Lane Xang Road. Situated very close to Patuxai, it has a French library and a small theatre that shows plays and films. The cultural centre have often free photo exhibitions about the Laos culture and its people.