We were told to make sure we had something booked for Christmas in advance because hotels fill up and prices increase. Usually, we book a place the night before we get there or upon arrival but we took the advice and tried to guess where we might be for the holiday. We came up with Vientiane, Loas and we booked a nice looking hotel three weeks out. My aunt even found us an article declaring Vientiane the best capitol city in the world. Taking a bus from Hoi An to Vientianne was insanely difficult so we decided to save some time and fly there. We arrived on December 17, spent one night in Vientianne, had our excursion in Vang Vieng and came back.
Our first night in Vientianne, we spent getting to know the area a little bit. We were in the same hotel we’d be in for Christmas, the Golden Sun. It was a very pretty hotel and we splurged for the holiday, paying $35/night. Other than being pretty and spacious, there wasn’t much else going for the hotel but we liked it enough and it had two swimming pools. We walked along the river, found a long market with at least 400 meters of red tent covered shops and ate some street food. The street food was weird – we got a cone, possibly filled with skinny strips of hot dog and wrapped in an Avengers cone (Nate got to pick it out).
Before our bus to Vang Vieng the next day, we were able to visit a couple sights. The first was That Dam Stupa, not to be confused with the Great Golden Stuppa (we saw that one a few days later). I was pretty confused by That Dam Stupa. It was a giant cone with grass and trees growing on it. The road was built to go around it so it just seemed like a really weird center to a roundabout. Turns out, accourding to Visit Laos, that it’s regarded as the city’s guardian spirit and legend has it that a seven headed water serpent used to live inside it. It’s a cooler story than landmark.
Our next stop was at the Wat Si Saket, a Buddhist temple. Like many religious areas in Southeast Asia, they had a dress code – pants or dress that goes below the knees and shoulders must be covered. My dress went just to my knees, but not below. I thought I’d have to sit this one out but luckily the lady at the ticket counter pointed to a basket of rental skirts. I could tie one around my waist and go inside. Genius! I don’t think that was an option at the religious places in Cambodia and Vietnam but they should consider adopting it. I happily threw on the rental skirt and went in. The walls were lined with stone Buddhas and the inside of the wat had some beautiful wall paintings. It was a sight I was glad I didn’t miss.
After spending five days in Vang Vieng (loved it there), we came back to Vientianne on December 23. Once we got off the bus and got checked back in at the Golden Sun, we decided to walk to the movie theater to see if we could go to the new Star Wars movie. Success, “Rogue One” was playing and it was in English but we didn’t double check what time our tickets were for and we ended up having to hang out in the movie theater lobbie for an hour and a half. Worth it.
On Christmas Eve, we took a city bus (bus number 14) to check out Buddha park where some artist made a bunch of crazy looking statues out of cement. It was a pretty neat area to walk around and we got pictures inside the iconic demon mouth that leads into a giant, hollow, cement pumpkin depicting three levels, hell, earth and heaven.
After crawling into a demon’s mouth, we went to church. Well, we swung by the church to see what time mass was (we couldn’t understand anything on the sign other than the times, it was a shot in the dark if we’d end up at the English service) then we went to the red tent market. Nate had a great idea that we could split up at the market, we’d each get $10 and a time limit to find the other a gift to open on Christmas morning. We met at a German pub when we were done. I splurged and got a German IPA for $10 (yes, one beer. $10). That beer tasted like heaven. We’re not sure if it’s because we’d been drinking light Southeast Asian beers for so long or if it really was an amazing beer but the hops danced on my tongue. We savored every drop before heading to mass. It was not in English. We sat through it, not understanding a word. One difference we thought was interesting was during the Rite of Peace. In a Catholic mass in the states, there is a part when you shake eachothers hands and give hugs. Here in Laos they bow to each other. It goes a lot quicker to simply bow four times in a circle.
Back at our hotel, the Golden Sun put together a BBQ Buffet for Christmas. It was free, had a pretty good spread of food and even included beer. All the tables by the pool were taken so we filled our plates and ate in the lobby before heading up to our room and ending Christmas Eve by watching “The Grinch”.
Christmas morning we opened our presents. I got Nate a new belt, an old French coin from the 1800’s and a frog that was also a wood block. He got me a beautiful elephant scarf and a wooden elephant candle holder. We were able to spend some virtual time with our families via video phone calls. Then we went to a grocery store, bought cheese, sausage, crackers and wine, and spent the day laying by the swimming pool. It was another holiday spent away from home but it was a good day and at least I was able to spend it with the love of my life.
The last thing we saw in Vientiane was the Great Golden Stupa. It was a pretty long walk to get there but we stopped and shared a smoothie halfway. Just before we got to the stupa, we crossed a big parking lot filled with people – some were doing a dance workout routine, some were playing soccer, some just walking laps. It was roped off to cars and was the size of a small runway. The grassy park across the street was empty. Not sure why they preferred the asfalt but it was good to see so many people outside, enjoying the night.
The stupa was pretty. It was walled off so we admired it from where we could. We walked around it and found a big Buddha. There were a few monks wrapped in their orange robes, crouched behind the Buddha watching movies on their phones. I’m pretty sure we accidentally intruded so we left and made the long walk back to our hotel.
Overall, we liked Vientiane. It was clean, quiet and had some interesting things to see. Not sure if it’s the best capitol city in the world but it was good.