Vientiane, the capital and urban center of Laos, typically serves as only a short stopover for travelers on visa runs or those on their way north to Luang Prabang or Vang Vieng. Some insider Vientiane travel tips will certainly help enhance your stay in what many travelers often call the dullest city on the Banana Pancake Trail.
Although Vientiane isn't particularly packed with things to do and see, the atmosphere in the city is pleasant and far more relaxed than other big cities in Southeast Asia. A daily rhythm left over from the colonial days still lingers.
- Despite war and hardships in the past, Laotians are extremely friendly to foreign visitors. Avoid creating uncomfortable situations by raising your voice or getting angry enough to cause someone to "lose face."
- Be cautious about any mention of war, violence, the government, or the current problem of landmines remaining in Laos. Tread carefully if these topics come up in conversation.
- Use sabai dee (sounds like "sah-bye dee") as a friendly way to greet anyone, regardless of the time of day. Say thank you with kawp jai (sounds like: "cop jye").
Hotels and Guesthouses in Vientiane
- Even though Vientiane has an abundance of accommodation options, decent places tend to book up quickly during the busy months between November and May. Consider booking in advance if traveling during the peak season.
- While the rest of Southeast Asia's major cities have somehow largely escaped the world's bedbug resurgence, Vientiane wasn't so lucky. Bedbugs are becoming a growing problem in budget hotels, particularly the cheapest backpacker hostels.
- Nearly all guesthouses in Vientiane follow the government curfew and lock their doors sometime after 11 p.m. You may have to wake up one of the staff designated to sleep in the reception area if you come home late.
- Although advertised at nearly every guesthouse, Wi-Fi can be hit or miss in many hotels. Ask if access is available in your room or only in the reception. Some hotels may even turn off their Wi-Fi -- along with all other electricity in the lobby -- at night.
Food in Vientiane
- Vientiane has a great selection of eateries ranging from simple street food noodle stalls with plastic stools to Italian pizzerias and French cafes.
- Vegetarians and vegans can enjoy a cheap buffet in the food court on top of the Talat Sao shopping center for 10,000 Lao kips per plate.
- Forget the instant coffee that plagues much of Southeast Asia; the coffee in Laos is excellent! Unless you specify otherwise, expect to receive an overabundance of milk and sugar in coffee drinks.
Money in Laos
- When crossing into Laos from Thailand, try to pay the visa-on-arrival fee in U.S. dollars for the best exchange rate. Paying in exact change is best, but if not possible, you'll probably receive change in Thai baht. Visas fees vary by country; strangely enough, Canadian citizens pay more than Americans.
- Western-networked ATMs can be found throughout Vientiane, however, they are prone to failure and sometimes even capture cards. The safest bet is to always use ATMs attached to bank branches.
- ATMs charge the hefty US $5 or more fee per transaction; take as much cash as possible per transaction to avoid multiple charges.
- ATMs dispense Lao kip, however, Thai baht and even U.S. dollars are accepted for payment in many places. If paying with a different currency, keep an eye on the exchange rate you are offered on the spot. With the exception of paying the visa fee in US dollars upon entry, you'll typically fare better by paying in Laos kip.
- Tipping is not the norm in Southeast Asia; it is not expected in Laos.
- Prices for purchases can always be negotiated; friendly haggling is an integral part of Lao culture. Even rooms in guesthouses can be negotiated in the low season, particularly if you are staying for several days. Avoid negotiating for food or fixed-price items such as bottled water.
- Lao kip is practically useless outside of the country and cannot be exchanged; use all your local currency before you depart.
Getting Around Vientiane
- Just as in other parts of Southeast Asia, you'll receive plenty of offers from tuk-tuk drivers as you walk the streets. Flagging a taxi is almost always cheaper than getting a ride from a driver parked outside of a tourist area.
- Taxis and tuk-tuks don't use meters. You'll need to negotiate a fare before you get inside.
Nightlife in Vientiane
- Don't expect very many late nights in Vientiane. Due to a city-wide curfew, all but a handful of 'underground' places shut down around 11:30 p.m. or midnight.
- Beer Lao is famous throughout Southeast Asia as a cheap, quality beer. At 5% alcohol, a tall (640 ml) bottle of lager can cost as little as the US $1.50, even in bars and restaurants. A bottle of beer is often cheaper than a cup of coffee in cafes!
- Bor Pen Nyang, located on the main river street near the traveler's area, doesn't look like much from street level, but the fourth-floor rooftop bar is popular with locals, travelers, and expats. The bar offers a scenic view of the river and a wide selection of food and drinks; closing time is around midnight.
- Prostitution is rife throughout Vientiane, particularly on the streets around closing time for bars.
Health and Safety
- Mosquitoes are a real problem in Vientiane -- especially during the rainy season. Malaria isn't a serious problem in Vientiane, however, dengue fever is a real risk.
- Tap water is unsafe to drink in Laos. Bottled water is available everywhere; the free drinking water and ice provided in reputable restaurants are safe.
You should have a good travel insurance policy and get the recommended vaccinations for Asia before visiting Laos.