Fall in love experiencing traditional Laotian temples, Beaux-Art buildings, and Gallic gastronomy and wine in Laos’s capital.
by Anita Zaror
Bonjour! says a Frenchman pushing a baby stroller to a Laotian woman who’s coming out from Le Banneton with a freshly baked baguette in her hand.
Salut, Jerome! Ça va? she replies.
One moment: I’m having a spell of déjà vu from any given day in France. But I’m in Vientiane, having traditional Lao coffee and éclairs on the awning-covered terrace of a bakery where the bread is “baguette de tradition.” What did I miss?
Lao People’s Democratic Republic (PDR) was a part of French Indochina from the late 19th century until 1975, when communist Pathet Lao took control of the government, ending a six-centuries-old monarchy. The country and particularly its capital, Vientiane, are still a cozy French oasis in Southeast Asia. Visitors go there for business; as a stopover before continuing to other cities like Luang Prabang; and an increasing number—like me—just want to spend a few days and relax while enjoying Gallic food and wine at lower prices than in Thailand and, needless to say, than in France.
Vientiane is an easy one-hour flight from Bangkok, and the city center is around 20 minutes from the airport. A trip there from Thailand is so short and smooth, that it is the kind of getaway that can even be done over the weekend.
On the way downtown from the airport, you will probably pass by the Presidential Palace, located on the banks of the Mekong River. The Beaux-Arts palace, built in the architectural style that was synonymous with France in the 1800s, is sometimes called “mini-Versailles.” It will no doubt be the first sight of the city that will make you wonder if you’re still in Asia.
Your perambulations will probably take you to Lane Xang Avenue, Vientiane’s Champs-Elysées; to the city’s own Arc de Triomphe, Patuxai Arch, which commemorates Laotians who died in the battle to seek independence from France; to the Bibliothèque Nationale, a French-style two-storey building from 1923; or to the Lao National Museum, a former hotel built by the colonial government in the early 20th century. And you won’t miss the French restaurants, of course, where you must try the soufflés, gratins, and quiches, the duck confit, coq au vin, and pâtés, together with French wine.
Yet the French colonial charm is only one aspect of Vientiane. A second is the religious architecture of a country in which around 67 percent of the population practices Buddhism. Part of your tour through the city will also be to highly regarded monuments such as the That Luang (the Great Stupa), originally built in the 16th century, a symbol of Lao sovereignty, and an icon of Buddhism in the country; Wat Sisaket, known for its wall with thousands of niches containing images of the Buddha, and the only ancient temple that remains intact from the Siamese attack in 1828; and Xieng Khouan, also known as the Buddha Park, among others.
Please Don’t Rush
Just a 20-minute drive east or northwest from the city center, a third aspect of the city shows time standing still in nearby rural and semirural areas, where farmers tend rice, corn, and livestock, and where monks, nuns, and novices perform evening poojas at places like Wat Sok Pa Luang.
And this tranquility is standard in the country. Vientiane might be the capital, but except for the traffic and noise in the larger roads, you should not expect a fast-paced city to evolve in front of your eyes. And this is part of its beauty. You can either choose to get frustrated about it—and it sometimes happens—or you can choose to let go of your expectations of getting things done immediately and being understood easily. Although the older population might speak French, the younger generations don’t, and English is not widely spoken either, even in the tourism and hospitality sectors. Therefore, being in Vientiane will exercise your patience and make you understand the truth behind a common joke that says “PDR” stands for “Please Don’t Rush.”
Breathe deeply when you get lost in the poorly marked streets; make time to go for a run at sunrise, or to take a stroll at sunset by the Mekong; sit in one of the city’s many cafés to have mulberry tea and macarons, and to watch people and time pass by. This is also part of the Vientiane experience.
Where to Stay
To live Vientiane’s French colonial experience to the fullest, you must stay at a hotel that reflects part of this history.
Ansara Hotel (Fa Ngum Road, Ban Vat Chan Tha, Hom 5, Chanthabury District, Vientiane, Laos, +856 21 213 518) is a boutique property with 12 rooms and two suites with Jacuzzis, and views over a quiet garden. Located in the peaceful neighborhood of Vat Chanthabury, and just a short stroll from fabulous sunsets by the Mekong River, Ansara was built on the same land of the former Thai consul’s residence. The hotel opened its doors under this name in June 2010 and, although as its manager Zukrimin Latief explains, “Ansara in Arabic means ‘the champions,’” in this case the name is a construction formed from the initials of the names of the hotel’s Lao-French owner, his French-Japanese wife, and their children.
The property is both elegant and relaxed, and it exudes the warmth and hospitality that only a boutique hotel can offer. Ask about things to do in the city, for example, and the hotel manager himself will sit down with you and give you the best insider tips.
“While the building with high ceilings and windows has been done in French style, the interior décor is mostly Asian,” explains Latief. A second building with 14 rooms and suites and a swimming pool are currently under construction, and they will be finished by Q1 2014.
La Signature, its French restaurant located on the second floor, serves breakfast from 6:30 a.m. to 10 a.m., lunch from 11:30 a.m. until 2 p.m., and dinner from 6:30 p.m. until 9:30 p.m.. The ground-floor terrace offers outdoor dining, and the bar, French-inspired drinks.
Ansara provides an airport pick-up and drop-off service for its passengers, who are mostly European corporate travelers, as well as Chinese and Thai travelers who stay there for business or leisure.
Now if you’re looking to be a witness of a more historical Vientiane, to smell antique wood that has been there since the beginning of the 20th century, yet to enjoy a luxurious stay with contemporary comfort, Settha Palace Hotel (6 Pang Kham Street Rue Pangkham, Vientiane, Laos, +856 21 217 5812) is the place to be.
Also located in the city center, within walking distance of the commercial district, restaurants and tourist attractions, the hotel is housed in a building that dates from 1932, and is a modern testimony of that long-lost era of classical elegance, gracious service, and French colonial charm. Still owned by the same family that ran it in its heyday, the hotel has been sensitively restored in creamy ivory and natural rosewood décor.
With 29 spacious deluxe rooms, junior suites, and executive suites, perfectly manicured gardens, and period furniture, “Settha Palace is definitely a special place within Vientiane, and in Laos. It’s not just the heritage and the colonial feel, but it overall provides an experience taking you back to what it has been in the 1930s and 1940s. What makes it even better now is that now there is a comfort that has been mingled together with the charm of the French colonial buildings, exteriors, and interiors: you would have a guest come in and experience the colonial elegance and charm, but then you also have the luxury of being in a resort, feeling the peace, the quietness, and experiencing what people call ‘the best swimming pool in town’,” says general manager Yeshi Phuntsho.
La Belle Epoque Restaurant, in the hands of French chef Christophe Dugas, offers a classical menu with dishes like boeuf bourguignon and confit de cuisse de canard et sa purée à l’ail, which go well with the building’s colonial feel. A selection of fine-dining typical Laotian dishes is also available, such as the delicious or lam ngoua (Luang Prabang style beef stew with vegetables and buffalo skin) and mok pa (marinated steamed tilapia wrapped in banana leaves).
Have a glass of French wine or a Settha Delice (Lao krao, Lao vodka, banana liquor, blackberry cream, cranberry juice, and pineapple juice) at La Belle Epoque Bar, open daily from 7 a.m. until 10 p.m., and soak in the atmosphere while sitting on plush loveseats or stylish European-designed armchairs that are set around polished marble tabletops, while listening to Billie Holiday.
Take Settha Palace’s limousine service, a traditional London black cab, back to the airport, and wave au revoir to a city that you might grow to love for its exquisite fusion of traditional Asian style and French colonial charm.