Edit Blog Post
Published: November 19th 2009
Patuxai - the vertical runway.
Let's just say they're not good.
But first, Vientiane.
Vientiane (pronounced V-N-T-N) is Laos' capital city and home to about 250,000 people. Like Phonsavan, it also seems to be undergoing a huge building boom with dozens of new buildings going up all over town and millions of dollars of foreign investment pouring in for mining, hydroelectric power, timber and, of course, tourism. It's much bigger and busier than we'd expected.
There are also many, many more tourists here than in Luang Prabang and exponentially more than Phonsavan. We had breakfast at the JoMa cafe here: muffins, lattes, croissants. All delicious and under $8 for the lot. We're going to miss this Laos so much!
Vientiane is swarming with backpackers: 20 year olds with expensive packs and dreadlocks. Some have micro laptops and sit in the cafes and drink iced lattes and surf the web all day (actually, not a bad life). We think that the regular backpacker circuit now includes a week or two in Thailand with an add-on trip of 4-5 days in Laos for the passport stamp. Probably a few days in Vientiane and a few in Vang Vieng, a backpacker town a few hours
Plaque at the base of Patuxai.
north filled with hostels, pizza places, bars and drugs. The main attraction there is tubing down the river while drunk or stoned. Not surprisingly, we decided to give Vang Vieng a miss.
The temperature by late morning was approaching 90F so we limited our sightseeing to a few hours. The most incredible thing has sparked our curiousity and we were almost trembling with excitement to see it: the Arc de Triomphe of Laos. It's called Patuxai and it sits at one end of the largest boulevard in Vientiane (a straight shot down the road from the beaux art former French governors' palace).
We walk up the tree-lined boulevard and there it is, in all its concrete glory. To be fair, the French are not responsible for this magnificently ugly beast. Back in the 1960s, the U.S. provided Laos with an enormous load of concrete for development of a new airport. The Lao government instead decided to build their glorious Patuxai and so it is often referred to as "the vertical runway". It's quite ugly and the Lao agree. An engraving on the edifice states "From a closer distance, it appears even less impressive, like a monster of concrete".
Some of the 8,000 buddhas at Wat Sisaket
10 points for honesty.
There's a certain excitement buzzing through Vientiane at the moment. Next month, the city will host the SEA (southeast asia) Games, a mini-olympics for countries in the region which takes place once every two years. The "big" countries often host the event so for Laos to do so is a big, big deal. There are banners and posters everywhere in town. The official mascots are two little elephants (one pink and one blue) - cute.
Talet Lao, the main market, is near Patuxai. The market is typical of the region, three stories some OK stuff and lots of random junk. Angelique found a nice silk scarf.
It wouldn't be a real day of sightseeing in Southeast Asia with taking in at least one wat. So our wat for the day was Wat Sisaket, the oldest surviving wat in Vientiane - from the 1800s. The star attraction at the wat are 8,000 Buddha statues, some big, but mostly small little guys tucked comfortably away in a series of alcoves (kind of like honeycombs) that line the walls.
Behind the main temple, a long water trough in the shape of a naga (snake) holds
Wat Sisaket. Needs some TLC.
holy water in which the little Buddhas bathe during the Lao New Year.
We spent the rest of the day relaxing - checking email in delicious air conditioned comfort (temperature had climbed to 95F by 2 p.m.), taking a few short walks around the town and by the river, and grabbing a late lunch. Our flight to Hanoi was at 6pm so we got to the airport around 4:15pm. It's a nice little airport We had no problems with check-in or immigration. Interestingly, we weren't charged the $15 international departure fee mentioned in Lonely Planet; but it may just be that it's already included in the cost of our plane tickets.
The flight on Vietnam Airlines took an hour and was largely uneventful outside of some mild turbulence and a somewhat rough landing. We went through yet another thermal screening area before immigration. We were relieved to see that we apparently don't have swine flu, malaria or dengue fever yet.
It looked like our hotel had not received our email request from earlier today to arrange a pickup so we were faced with the daunting prospect of finding a taxi to drive us 45 minutes into town
(and actually find our hotel). The guidebooks, our hotel's website and signs on the baggage carousel all warn about taxi scams so we were on high alert. The information desk gave us the card for our hotel (with a map). We walked out to the curb and were immediately accosted by dozens of men trying to get us into their cabs. One flashed an official-looking "Airport Taxi" laminated card. We reluctantly said OK and he proceeded to call someone on his cell phone to come and pick us up. But something didn't feel right to us and we pushed on (with the guy following us aggressively) and found the real taxi queue. Fortunately our driver took us directly to our hotel for the posted price ($16 USD). The scam, we heard later, is that the other drivers will agree on a price but take you to their friend or cousin's hotel, not yours - and then you have to pay even more to get to your actual hotel. Very annoying.
We didn't think it was possible for a city's traffic to be more chaotic and dangerous than Bangkok's but Hanoi leaves Bangkok in the dust. All 3.5 million inhabitants have motorcycles and they ride them through the streets all day and night. It's the law. Kidding aside, there are thousands of scooters all careening wildly through the streets obeying some kind of traffic law that we'll never understand. Entire familes of four or five will ride on one bike, and no one (not even the kids) will be wearing a helmet. Honking of car horns/scooter horns is virtually nonstop.
Our hotel received great reviews on TripAdvisor and we now know why: location and service. The location is right inside the Old Quarter, one of the oldest areas of the city with twisting little streets filled with shops. The Old Quarter is buzzing with commerce and is the heart of Hanoi. Our hotel's layout is a bit unusual. In Hanoi, property taxes are calculated based upon the amount of street front space taken. So it's not too surprising that homeowners choose to build up and back, resulting in many "long houses" which are exactly that - long and tall. Our room is just off a steep staircase. The room is basic but perfectly fine. Actually, even better than fine: we have a computer with a fast internet connection. Yeay! That's why you've seen so many blog entires from us lately; we now have reliable access to a computer.
After settling in, we grabbed a map and asked for a restaurant recommendation from the very nice manager of our hotel. He evidently could feel our panic at even the thought of crossing the street here and said, "How about somewhere nearby?". The restaurant offered a mix of western (pizza, pasta) and Vietnamese (noodles) food. We tried the local Hanoi beer and are sad to report that it's firmly at the bottom of our Asian Beer List (Adrian's review: "Budweiser's nasty little brother").
Safely back at the hotel by about 10pm, we stayed up late updating the blog and then drifted off to sleep to the sound of Hanoi's urban jungle (we're pretending that we're in a swanky loft in SoHo - it helps).
Tot: 2.851s; Tpl: 0.048s; cc: 9; qc: 52; dbt: 0.0398s; 2; m:saturn w:www (18.104.22.168); sld: 1;
; mem: 1.4mb