A Second Look at Vientiane

Outside the walls of Pha That Luang, Vientiane’s iconic golden stupa.

Outside the walls of Pha That Luang, Vientiane’s iconic golden stupa.

It may be Southeast Asia’s most laid-back capital, but change is afoot even in this compact Lao city. Isn’t it time you took another look? 

By Jonathan Hopfner
Photographs by Jason Michael Lang

While other Asian nations are feted for their beaches, diversity, or dynamism, Laos is treasured for being slightly aloof. The adjectives commonly trotted out in descriptions of the country—remote, tiny, landlocked, sleepy—hint at a sort of perpetual stasis; a place that declines to march to the frenetic drumbeat of contemporary life and goes about its business with charming indifference.

The fantasy is so enchanting—and such places so elusive—that I confess to happily entertaining it myself on occasion. But not in Vientiane, not this time. Revisiting the Lao capital after almost a decade shattered all such illusions. Instead of the peeling colonial villas, red-dirt roads, and ramshackle riverside eateries that I recalled from my previous trip, I got traffic jams, shiny malls, and enough concrete to fill a sports stadium (there’s one of those now, too). But tempting as it can be to bemoan the inevitable push of progress, I soon found there was much in Vientiane’s ongoing transformation to celebrate. What was—if we’re being honest—a pleasant yet largely unremarkable town is now well on its way to becoming as complex, conflicted, endearing, and, yes, occasionally infuriating as only a city can be. And that means it warrants experiencing. No longer is Vientiane, to quote some uncharacteristically harsh words from the great Australian scholar of Southeast Asia, Milton Osborne, “scarcely worthy of mention.”

History, admittedly, hasn’t been kind to the place. While the more secluded former royal capital of Luang Prabang—the current jewel in Laos’s tourism crown—was spared a certain amount of conflict over the years, poor Vientiane was ravaged at regular intervals: in 1779 and 1827 by the neighboring Siamese, and again during the Laotian Civil War of the 1960s and early ’70s, which ultimately ended in the victory of the communist Pathet Lao.

In the early 20th century, the city enjoyed a relatively tranquil spell under half-hearted French rule that resulted in the restoration of key Buddhist temples and monuments and an inheritance of striking colonial architecture that endures (albeit barely) today. Collectively these constitute Vientiane’s handful of genuine tourist attractions. Among them: the golden, fantastical Pha That Luang (“Great Sacred Stupa”), which even the religion-averse communists co-opted as a national symbol; Wat Si Saket, where an ornate five-tiered roof shelters almost 7,000 Buddha images; and Haw Phra Kaew, a former temple first built in 1565 to house the Emerald Buddha (seized, alas, by a Thai army two centuries later and installed in the Grand Palace of Bangkok) and now a repository for much of the country’s most treasured Buddhist art.

Dutifully, I revisit all of these, as well as the somewhat neglected Lao National Museum, where rusting weapons of civil war and proud displays of antibiotics and schoolbooks indicate just how much bloodshed and poverty this seemingly innocuous nation has experienced. But so much for things that were reassuringly unchanged: I wanted to see what was new.

Views across the Mekong to Thailand from Vientiane’s riverfront.

Views across the Mekong to Thailand from Vientiane’s riverfront.

To start, I headed to what in many ways has always been Vientiane’s best feature: the meandering Mekong riverbank, with its views across the water to the Thai province of Nong Khai. Though a few vendors remain, gone are the rickety bamboo huts that once dispensed copious amounts of crisp Beer Lao and grilled river fish to visitors. Today, courtesy of a US$30 million loan from South Korea, the entire central stretch of the embankment is paved, leading strollers through an orderly night market and past an imposing statue of Fa Ngum, founder of Laos’s historical antecedent, once-mighty kingdom of Lan Xang. The promenade finally ends at the optimistically titled, Chinese-funded New World retail development, a collection of mock-vintage storefronts that, for the moment, stand mostly empty. However, perched a few floors above, the excellent Suntara restaurant serves up ice-cold beer and eclectic European-Lao cuisine on a beautiful terrace with views that top anything the old riverbank dining scene had to offer—albeit at a much higher price point.

One doesn’t have to drift far from the riverbank to find further evidence of Vientiane’s improved culinary offerings. Thanks to its colonial pedigree, the city has always had a certain baseline of quality French eateries; at bistro La Cage du Coq, for instance, one can savor impeccable duck-leg confit in a breezy space decorated with dangling wicker chicken cages. But now, there’s plenty more besides. Take current hot spot Pimenton, an Argentinian-style steakhouse run by a Lao-Spanish husband-and-wife team; come evening, patrons crowd a high bar to mingle over tapas plates, carefully curated Spanish wines, and prime cuts of dry-aged beef directly off a massive, fearsome-looking open grill. Or try Café Ango, whose kitchen artfully reproduces the kind of comfort food its Japanese owners struggled to find elsewhere in Vientiane—rich curries accompanied with homemade pickles, fried tofu, and miso soup bursting with fresh shellfish—alongside an impressive lineup of baked goods.

A spread of Lao dishes at Doi Ka Noi.

A spread of Lao dishes at Doi Ka Noi.

For me, though, the real standouts are the newcomers that proudly flaunt local culinary traditions in a city where many nominally “Lao” restaurants feature far more Thai and Vietnamese dishes on their menus. Doi Ka Noi, which occupies a cheerily painted shophouse across the road from the Japanese embassy, is the best example. Proprietress (and head chef) Ponpailin Kaewduangdy’s seemingly permanent smile masks a steely resolve to carry out a mission: resurrecting unadulterated Lao cuisine in a place where it’s become something of an endangered species.

Her menu, which changes daily, is entirely seasonal and based on whatever Kaewduangdy deems to be the best produce available at the local market. On the day I visit that includes delicate, silky wild mushrooms that are mixed into a tart stew, and pork and fresh herbs stuffed between fragrant stalks of lemongrass, fried until golden-brown. Doi Ka Noi’s portions are generous, the flavors are intense without being overpowering, and the prices are entirely reasonable, but Kaewduangdy still has trouble luring younger Vientianites, who tend to flock to fusion or Japanese restaurants. “Perhaps only older people appreciate what I’m doing,” she sighs. Nonetheless, she is preparing to double down; Doi Ka Noi will soon move to a larger location with the intention of opening for dinner (it only offers breakfast and lunch currently) and taking advantage of the additional space to grow its own produce, host exhibitions, and serve as a wider repository of local culture and knowledge. “But I’ll never compromise on the menu,” Kaewduangdy is quick to add. And her hometown will be better for it.

Hybrid spaces—restaurants and shops that moonlight as artistic or cultural venues—seem to be all the rage in Vientiane. Lao Textiles, founded by American weaver Carol Cassidy almost 30 years ago, is perhaps the most established example. Set in a colonial villa off central Rue Nokeokoummane, it’s a production facility (the house hums with the sounds of dozens of women at work on traditional silk looms), retail space, and gallery all in one; visitors can buy radiant handmade scarves but also take in museum-quality pieces with impossibly intricate designs that represent the pinnacle of a centuries-old craft.

Inside the T’Shop Lai Gallery.

Inside the T’Shop Lai Gallery.

One evening, I visit T’Shop Lai Gallery, where the ground floor is given over to displays of wooden handicrafts as well as soaps, body oils, cosmetics, and teas fashioned from local ingredients by the Les Artisans Laos collective. But I bypass all this in favor of an exhibition on the second floor featuring the work of expatriate artists Judy Clune and Baj Strobel, whose monotypes and prints unite in their focus on themes close to the Lao heart: temple guardians, indigenous fauna, monsoon rainfall. What looks like Vientiane’s entire diplomatic corps and a sizeable contingent of locals have turned out to fete the artists on opening night, and the store quickly fills with the clink of wine glasses and the kind of laughter that only meetings of old friends can generate.

On a sunny afternoon in Naked Espresso—one of the many stunningly good independent cafés that have popped up to fill the void as yet unoccupied by the likes of Starbucks, all boasting enough in the way of roasting gear, local artisanal bean varieties, and tasting literature to make the best-informed Brooklyn barista blush—young photographer and filmmaker Thanavorakit “Nin” Kounthawatphinyo explains why in Vientiane, art exhibits pop up in all kinds of places. “This is a small place; there aren’t that many formal venues [for art] and the ones that do exist are very expensive. On the plus side, everyone knows everyone else, and the Internet makes it easy for people to get together.” Inevitably, Kounthawatphinyo is “exhibiting” much of his recent work on Facebook—a photographic series in which he juxtaposes torn old photos of local landmarks with the present-day reality. “I want to show people what we have and what has changed,” he explains.

This is a pressing issue. Though temple spires and aging colonial buildings still dominate many blocks in central Vientiane, it’s a very different story on the outskirts. Just east of the city, towering golden pillars and white elephant statues welcome visitors to a 365-hectare expanse of former marshland that is being redeveloped as a residential and commercial complex. Rising above a perfectly circular lake, several 19-story apartment blocks are already well on their way to completion. Signs erected around the area depict the finished product, a landscape of gleaming condominiums, office towers, and retractable-roof sports complexes that could have came out of Hong Kong or Singapore.

Many of the signs (and, judging from the conversations I overhear, the construction workers) are entirely Chinese. According to local media, developer Wan Feng Shanghai Real Estate plans to spend some US$1.6 billion developing the so-called That Luang Lake Specific Economic Zone, one of several such projects taking shape around Vientiane and around the country. Closer to town, the gleaming Vientiane Center mall—a joint venture of China’s Yunnan Construction Engineering and Vientiane-based Krittaphong Group—is already open for business, though the attached office space and luxury apartments are still a work in progress. Apart from the high concentration of gold shops and limited big-brand presence, it could pass for a shopping mall in any other regional capital.

The government has insisted in official media that developments like these are designed to serve local needs; by all accounts That Luang condos are being snapped up by locals and expatriate Lao retirees pondering a return home. Yet there is ample evidence of a degree of unease. As photographer Kounthawatphinyo says, “There’s a lot of investment coming in that we may not be properly ready for.”

Similarly, I was told by a longtime resident with deep knowledge of the local real estate sector that the rapid pace of development had triggered a full-scale speculative boom, with plots of land trading hands for millions of dollars and the old bungalows and villas occupying them being summarily knocked down. In the 1990s, she tells me, a Canadian-funded survey identified hundreds of houses in the capital worthy of preservation. No one has thought to count how many are left.

One of the old houses that Unique Lao Properties has converted into apartments.

One of the old houses that Unique Lao Properties has converted into apartments.

Unique Lao Properties, an agency founded in 2002 by American Allison Brown, has attempted to preserve many older houses by working with their owners to convert them into elegant rental accommodations. Visiting one such property, a century-old villa on a quiet lane just south of Wat Ong Teu, I was impressed by just how restrained the renovation was; though kitchens and bathrooms had been fitted with mod cons, the building retained its original wooden surfaces and layout, which in this case included an expansive porch overlooking a thriving garden and a vast living area fitted with straw mats and rattan furnishings that blended right in with the beautifully weathered surroundings.

It’s easy to see how renters—typically expats with a penchant for old-world character—could fall in love with these places. But against the specter of the wrecking ball, such demand can only go so far. Unique Lao Property’s website, which also serves as an unofficial inventory of Vientiane’s heritage homes, tracks “endangered” and “lost forever” houses, and these now well outnumber the active rentals on offer. Quoting the head of the local Historic Preservation Office, the site says, “there is a law [protecting historic buildings] but it has no teeth, and there is disdain for history at the highest levels.”

So change, it turns out, is as relentless in Vientiane as anywhere else. But some of that change may be needed; no city should be confined to being an object of nostalgia, and surely local residents deserve some of the lifestyle and leisure choices enjoyed by capital-dwellers elsewhere. My visit also convinced me that even as some heritage goes by the wayside, more people may focus on what’s being lost, and assert local culture through cuisine, art and crafts that will make Vientiane an even richer place to visit—and, just maybe, help this chronic underdog of Southeast Asian capitals finally take its place on the region’s travel circuit.

This article originally appeared in the October/November print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Vientiane Revisited”).

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