I visited Vientiane not long after the borders reopened in May 2022. I was there to ride the new Laos-China Railway, which had been running since December 2021.
The last time I was in Vientiane was via train from Bangkok, and the next time I visit will probably be when the line from Thailand is extended to Vientiane. That is a lot of rail-related trips for a country that wasn’t known for its railways.
“Sleepy capital” is a phrase often used to describe Vientiane, and it felt even more so because I was here when international tourists were still trickling in. I was meeting a friend here who would join me on the train trip to Luang Prabang. The train tickets could only be bought three days in advance in person (and not online) so I went in advance before my friend arrived to buy the tickets. This also gave me an opportunity to have a wander around.
One of my favourite sights in Vientiane are the old villas in various states of disrepair.
Vientiane appeared old and dusty on first visit in the dry season of 2010. It felt like a different place to be here during the rainy season with the grey skies.
I don’t come here enough to be familiar with all the buildings, but even in the time that I have been coming here I am noticing differences. I may not have noticed the old shops going missing with out seeing evidence like this.
Many of these shops are unremarkable and not practical to live or work in, but they are usually replaced with something even less remarkable. I compiled a construction report for the city, which you can read here: Vientiane construction update – 2022 edition.
There are historic buildings that I still remember, such as The Living library.
I saw a sign that showed an outline of the historic town conservation area.
The blurb suggests that the conservation area is more of a suggestion than law.
One thing that can be relied upon to remain the same are the many wats (buddhist temples).
The city railway ticket office is in the Vientiane Center Lao mall outside the historic area, so that was a good excuse to walk around in another part of town. Next to the mall is the Parkson Mega Mall, which started out as the World Trade Centre. There was meant to be an Intercontinental Hotel at this site, but it has been put on hold. Here is the full list of future Vientiane developments.
This mall had recently opened and it was still early in the pandemic reopening, so it was a ghost town inside.
Most of the shops were unoccupied, but there were some signs of life. The local cafe chain JOMA has a branch here, and there was a construction sign announcing that the first Starbucks in Laos would open here (it opened in November 2022).
On this trip it was more evident how Laos is getting pulled into China’s orbit. Vietnam has always played the role of big brother for Laos, and people go to Thailand to work and shop. The new railway will bind Vientiane closer to Beijing.
In the Parkson Mall there was a display for Hongqi cars.
I had never heard of them, and I was impressed that they don’t care to have an English name on their badge. I took a photo so I could look them up later, and they have an interesting history. Their name is literally “red flag”, which is a figurative 🚩 for me.
The one Chinese car company that most people have heard of by now is BYD (Build Your Dreams), who have a more global outlook with their name. I first learned of this electric car company after seeing an advertisement with Leonardo DiCaprio in a hotel at was staying at somewhere in China. I saw a BYD dealership in my wanders.
[BYD dealership in Vientiane.]
At the Vientiane Center Lao I saw advertising for Chinese classes, and many of the apartment projects around the city were advertised in Chinese and English.
Another sign of catering to the Chinese market are the UnionPay ATMs. Not all of the ATMs accept Mastercard/Visa, so I had to try my luck at a few until I found one that worked for me. I used to have a UnionPay debit card with a Hong Kong bank account but I let the account go dormant. I wish I still had it for backup. When I bought the train tickets I couldn’t use Mastercard or Visa either, only local bank transfer or UnionPay were accepted.
Another thing that you see more of in Chinese cities are these electric bikes. They are not quite a bicycle and not quite a scooter, but they are ideal for urban errands. It would be great if the big cities of Southeast Asia adopted bikes like this.
It was timely to see electric bikes and cars being sold in Vientiane, because I was in Laos in the midst of a fuel shortage. There were queues at every service station until they ran out of petrol.
This could be a catalyst for more people converting to electric bikes. This could also hasten the building of another railway.
Laos plan to build a railway from Vientiane to Vung Ang in Vietnam. That might seem like a random place to build a railway, but this is the location of a port that is 60% owned by Laos. This is the closest seaport to Laos, so the government want to build this railway to secure future fuel imports. The most recent news update said that the railway could start construction at the end of 2024. As a side benefit, it would then be possible to get a passenger train from Vientiane to Vietnam.
[Reading the news in Vientiane of the petrol shortage.]
There are plenty of nice cafes in Vientiane, and I happened to be staying near one of the best in the city – Naked Espresso.
[Naked Espresso – Vientiane.]
No visit to Vientiane is complete without a visit to the Mekong riverfront area. Come here in the late afternoon to see it become alive with activity.
The riverfront is the best place to watch the sunset and mingle with the crowd at the night market.
There are more night markets along the streets in the riverfront area. The city starts buzzing (by Laotian standards) when more people emerge from hiding from the daytime heat.
I started and finished this trip to Laos in Vientiane, so these photos are combined from the start and end of my trip. I went by train to Luang Prabang, Muang Xai, Boten, and Vang Vieng. Here is my review of the Laos-China Railway from May 2022.
I was there when there weren’t many foreign tourists, so most of the passengers were from Laos. The railway is a point of pride in the nation, even if the amount of debt remains a mystery. I saw non-affiliated products associating themselves with the railway, and my friend reported railway t-shirts at the airport.
The gravitational pull towards Beijing is now stronger with the Laos-China Railway. This might be adjusted towards Bangkok once the Bangkok – Vientiane high-speed railway opens. Then there is Vietnam’s tug of war with China over Laos, which might mean they start a direct Hanoi – Vientiane rail service if/when the Vientiane-Vung Ang Railway opens.
I said I will likely be back in Vientiane when the railway is extended from Thailand to Vientiane. I also plan to ride the Laos-China Railway the entire way from Vientiane to Kunming, so that might be another trip if I can’t schedule it together.
[Vientiane City Pillar Shrine.]
My next stop on this trip was to Luang Prabang.
Greg Rodgers says
Had a chuckle at the Red Flag…not ideal for marketing in the West. 🙂
I always enjoyed the French food in Vientiane. Was stuck there one year much longer than expected as the Thai embassy had my passport then closed up for 8 days!
James Clark says
There were a bunch of visa runners at the guest house I was staying at, though they blended in with the dudes that appeared to have gotten stuck in the city. I imagine I will need to factor in time to stay longer while waiting for a China visa.
Keith Crane says
I hope you’re well. We last chatted when I was stuck in Saigon during the pandemic!
I’m back here now and planning to go back to Laos at the end of this visa. Last time I was there the high speed railway was under construction so I’m now keen to ride on it.
But are there better overland ways you can suggest please to get there from HCMC to either Vientiane or Luang Prabang other than a 24-hour bus via Cambodia? Or is the better option to fly?
Thanks again for your help,
James Clark says
unfortunately, there is no good overland option from HCMC to Laos. I see that Vietnam Airlines are restarting some flights to Laos, so you could check that. Another alternative is to fly to Bangkok and then get the overnight train to Nong Khai. You can then get the shuttle train to Thanaleng on the other side of the Laos border. That would at least fit in with the train travel theme for your Laos trip, and avoid a long bus trip.
Keith Crane says
Thanks James. Yes, I’ve ridden that overnight train before but probably not again – the bunks are far too short!