Vientiane's main draw card is the laid-back small-town feel tourists get while visiting. 'Provincial' is the operative word, and it comes to mind repeatedly in the sleepy temples, open-air markets and quaint French cafés of Laos' capital.
The trade off in a backwater like Vientiane is the lack of infrastructure and organization. Some of the dusty streets are riddled with potholes, and for every beautiful temple or colonial structure there are five times as many drab, communist-era buildings.
There are two main themes in local sightseeing: Buddhist temples and French colonial architecture. The latter is found on wide avenues fringed with trees in the historic quarter. Visitors will find everything from government buildings to decrepit mansions that have seen better days.
Life goes on in the temples, or wat, of Vientiane. Worshippers come to make merit while tourists arrive for the sights, smell of burning incense and the chance to watch the tenets of Buddhism play out before them. Tourism hinges on temple-hopping across town.
But there's plenty to do beyond this. As tourism takes off, an increasing number of guest houses, bars and restaurants spring up across the city. Diners can enjoy spicy curries side-by-side fine, French fare. And there's no better way to top off a day of sightseeing than watching the sun set over the Mekong River with a bottle of Beer Lao at hand.
For many, a trip to Vientiane is simply a necessary stopover on a foray into Laos. It may not have the charm of Luang Prabang or the sophistication of other Southeast Asian capitals, but this city has plenty of surprises in store for those willing to give it a chance.
Vientiane-Wattay International Airport is the main port of call for visitors, usually via direct flight from Bangkok (1 hour). Less frequent connections are made to Chiang Mai, Phnom Penh and Ho Chi Minh City. Flights to Luang Prabang take 40 minutes and are much preferred to overland travel as roads are in variable condition.