And welcome to our short stint in Lao! It was absolutely worth getting a multiple-entry visa for Vietnam so that we could easily hop in and out of its landlocked neighbor. We flew from Hanoi to Vientiane on an evening in March, and I couldn't figure out why everything I could see from the plane was so hazy and gray.
Turns out April in Lao PDR is "burning season", when farmers burn off overgrowth on their fields in preparation for the new round of planting. Generally I prefer Spring or Fall to Burning. Things were pretty smoky in the country during our visit.
Also, we were knocked back by a wave of heat and humidity when we exited the plane. Hanoi had been cool and misty - Laos cannot be mistaken for anything but TROPICAL.
Time to hunt down the fresh juices as meal replacements! Sometimes they even come with handles. Ooh, portable!
Our first stop in Laos was the capital, Vientiane (pronounced Wang Jan by the locals).It's a small city, especially by world capital standards - well under a million people. That means it's pretty easy to walk everywhere and the vibe is small-town laid-back, almost islandy - again, very much unlike Hanoi.
There aren't too many tourist sights, per se, in Vientiane. I've heard tourists use this as a reason to give the city a pass. But it's a lovely place to stay for a few days and recharge your batteries.
There's Patuxai, which is sort of Lao's answer to the arc de triomphe, except this one's built out of concrete that the Americans sent a while back to help the country expand its airport. Apparenty, some people call Patuxai the "vertical runway".
We checked out Wat Si Muang.
I admired their Buddha figures, sheltered by naga serpents.
While Logan checked out their... uh. Elephant hamsas, I guess?
Gotta get me one of these things.
There were lots of interesting little shops to poke around, including this one that sold much-needed bottles of water as well as a huge collection of tumor-headed goldfish (called Humpy Heads, I kid you not) and items for their care and feeding. Apparently this head...thing is a desirable trait around here. (In Thailand, too, it turns out.)
Kinda looks like a bad Elvis impersonator.
We visited COPE, the Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise, and learned a lot about the horrors of cluster bombs and our government's role in dropping them ALL OVER THE PLACE during the Vietnam War.
Between 1964 and 1973, the United States dropped 260 million cluster bombs on the country of Laos. That is more munitions than we dropped on Germany and Japan during WW2, if you're keeping track. (Here's some more information, if you're interested.)
People still regularly lose limbs, their eyesight, or their lives to unexploded ordnance (UXO) in the Lao PDR. COPE does wonderful work in assisting these people (and people who have been victims of accidents or who are born with genetic malformations) with rehabilitation and prosthetics. A very worthy cause, if you're looking for one to support.
Sometimes a simple action, like building a fire over a buried cluster bomb that failed to explode, can kill multiple people. It's heartrending.
Shaken, but also heartened by the good work being done, we walked back towards the center of town. It wasn't long before a scene presented itself to boost our spirits.
Bath time! Sorry, puppies.
I love the little 'horns' on the one on the right.
There is also some very good food in Vientiane. Makphet is staffed by former street kids who are learning a new trade. The place is really pretty and has a very nice gift shop, too.
The food is rather good, though it's been toned down quite a bit for tourists. The Lao tend to like their food quite bitter and spicy - not flavors that your average Westerner is too comfortable with. Still, we enjoyed their pork and pumpkin larb, a sour and spicy salad.
We also enjoyed a (VERY, VERY) leisurely meal at a restaurant connected to the Intercity Hotel, near the night market, just off the banks of the Mekong.
We'd been seeing saltgrilled fish everywhere, and to be honest, I didn't think it looked that great. Kind of dry. Mealy, maybe.
WRONG! (Think Dana Carvey doing his McLaughlin impression here.) This fish turned out to be the moistest, most flavorful, perfectly cooked fish I've had the pleasure of eating anywhere. Especially served with a lime/chile/garlic dip and some greens for wrapping. And, of course, the ubiquitous sticky rice.
AND we found a great little food court inside a mall behind Patuxai. Papaya salad, fresh spring rolls, Lao spicy/sour pork soup with handmade noodles, and more porky larb salad? Sure!
As a treat, while we ate, we got to study this anti-drug propaganda. I gather opium use is still a bit of a problem in Laos. That opium poppy just does not know how to act like a lady.
Thank you for an interesting, relaxing time, Vientiane, and for easing us into the tropical heat of your country!
Next up: Luang Prabang!
(Also: HAPPY BIRTHDAY, MOM!)