Slice of the City: Vientiane - a walk through old Indochina

Sixty years ago, Laos gained independence from France. Claire Boobbyer explores its capital city

On the corner of the old Mekong River road in Vientiane, and the site of a now vanished river, slumps the tiled, tumbledown ruins of a French colonial building – the erstwhile home of Laos royal prince-turned-Communist revolutionary, Prince Souphanouvong.

The disintegrating ochre-hued 1909-1925 home of the “Red Prince”, who later became Laos’ first president under Communist rule in 1975, is set to be saved by an aid agency. But its decrepit condition is a metaphor for many other French colonial buildings in Laos’s riverside capital.

Vientiane became the smallest capital of France’s parcel of land in Indochina. The French arrived in 1893, having forced Siam to cede the Lao territory to them through gunboat diplomacy. They set up shop in a backwater.

Viang Chan (City of Sandalwood), as it was, had been razed to the ground by the marauding Siamese in 1827, and the decapitated temples and Buddha statues had sunk beneath arboreal anarchy. Slowly, the spiritual structures resprouted on the land that hugged the middle Mekong. The French realigned the city with broad tree-lined avenues and planted elegant shuttered villas. This month marks 60 years since Laos’s independence from its French colonial masters.

Just to the south of Prince  Souphanouvong’s house is the gold and crimson shrine to the spirits of the vanished river, Nam Pasak, dedicated to Inthachakkhunag, one of the nine naga (dragon-serpent totems) of Vientiane.

Head north up Rue Khoun  Boulom and turn right into  Wat Ing Peng, a Buddhist temple vision of gold, scarlet and emerald green with deeply sloping layered roofs and protruding golden, bird-shaped chofa (roof ornaments). Exit by the southern gate of Wat Ing Peng. Browse the wares of the T’Shop Lai Gallery (00 856 21 223178) with its “lost world of Indochina” prints by French artist Louis Delaporte who accompanied explorer Francis Garnier on his Mekong exploration expedition in 1866-1888.

Cross Rue Chao Anou and enter Wat Ong Teu, rebuilt after the 1827 Siamese attack. The wat, housing a 100,000kg Buddha statue, is sheltered by towering coconut palms. It also houses the  sangha, the monk’s school community, supporting 500 novice monks studying Buddhism, Buddhist art and sanskrit.

Emerge on to Rue Setthathirat, dominated by the lotus bud-tipped white walls of the city’s wats and towering mahogany trees. Lunch at elegant Le Silapa (00 856 21 219689) for its fine French food. Or climb to the first floor of the Antique Café (00 856 21 223528; for coffee, conversation and shopping for old French postcards and memorabilia. Cut back through Wat Ong Teu before heading south down the Wat Chan alley.  At the corner of Quai Fa Ngum, turn left and head north up Rue Nokeo Koummane. Further up, stop for iced Lao coffee (café nom yen) and almond croissants at  Le Banneton (00 856 21 217321; closed Sunday afternoon), one of several French-style cafés in Vientiane.

Cross the main road, Setthathirat, to the next corner. Here, shaded by trees in a compound, stands a cream and  blue Lao/French house. This home now shelters the richly worked silk creations of Carol Cassidy Lao Textiles (00 856 21 212123;; closed Saturday afternoon and Sunday).

Wandering north, visit the  Lao National Museum (00 856 21 212461) on Rue Samsenthai. By 2015, it will have been flattened to make way for a five-star hotel. Continue east to Rue Pangkham and turn south to the newly enclosed (and aesthetically ruined) Nam Phou fountain area. At the junction of Rue Setthathirat is the delightful, diminutive, cream-coloured shuttered French Colonial National Library. The books will go and it’s slated to become a restaurant-café.

Continue east to the corner of broad French-built Lane Xang Avenue. This axis is anchored by the monumental pale grey 1970s presidential palace on your right, the Oriental Arc de Triomphe Patuxai monument further up to your left and the gilded French-restored That Luang, the holiest Buddhist monument in the country.

Cross wide Lane Xang to Vientiane’s most beautiful temple complex, Wat Si Saket, built in 1818. Wat Si Saket survived the 1827 ransacking of Vientiane as the Siamese army holed up in the cloisters. Today, the black and gold-leaf columned cloisters house 120 terracotta Buddhas collected from other wats. Opposite is the French-resurrected Hor Phra Kaew, which used to contain the iconic Emerald Buddha until the Siamese carted it across the Mekong in 1779.

Continue east along Setthathirat to the corner of Rue Mahosot, the original main thoroughfare in Vientiane, where the Mahosot hospital sprawls. Behind a white boundary wall is the vast manicured French Embassy compound. On the left, facing Rue de la Mission, is a 1910-1911 French school, now a printing office. Turn east along Rue de la Mission, behind the French Embassy, for the glorious lime green, stone and white painted Ecole de  Médecine. Cross Rue Sakarin to visit the small Roman Catholic blue-roofed Sacred Heart Church, built in 1928.

Head right down Rue Sakarin and then left along Setthathirat and take the third right after Wat Kao Nyo (signposted Lao House Massage and Spa) for refreshments at the former 1960s private home of a French family, now Hotel Mandala (00 856 21 214493; Return to the main road and turn right towards Wat Si Muang, site of the guardian spirit of the city. Take one of the city’s colourful tuk-tuks from here to the sumptuous colonial  Settha Palace (00 856 21 217581; Drink a sundowner, or the renowned Beer Lao, at Vientiane’s most illustrious hotel.

Fresh cuts

New Café Sinouk (Quai Fa Ngum; 00 856 030 2000 654), is all glass walls, parasols, pastries and fresh coffee in its streetside homage to French flâneurs.

Reflecting the old USSR influence in Laos is the new MiG Soviet Restaurant (48 Hengboun Road; 00 856 20 5863 0937) run by Russian escapees from the cold serving pelmeni, bliny, kvass and vodka, amid MiG plane lamps and memorabilia.

Travel Essentials

Getting there

Claire Boobbyer travelled with Buffalo Tours (020 8545 2830;, which offers  five-night holidays to Vientiane from £900 per person. The price includes flights, accommodation and city tours.

Vietnam Airlines (020 3263 2062; flies to Vientiane from Gatwick via Hanoi; returns start at £646.

Alternatively, Thai Airways (0844 561 0911; flies from Heathrow via Bangkok.

Staying there

Hotel Mandala, Baan Phiavat, Vientiane (00 856 21 214493; Doubles start at US$80 (£53), including breakfast.

More information

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Technical Supervisor

    £24800 - £29000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: As one of London's leading Muse...

    Recruitment Genius: Centre Manager

    £14000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

    Guru Careers: Accountant

    £28 - 45k (DOE): Guru Careers: An Accountant is needed to take control of the ...

    Recruitment Genius: Hotel Assistant Manager

    £18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This hotel in Chadderton is a p...

    Day In a Page

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living