One of the most pleasant surprises awaiting the visitor to Vientiane is the French cultural influence surviving in the city, the legacy of the colonial period which lasted from the late 19th century until the 1950s. It is a pleasure to enjoy a breakfast of croissants and coffee. Lunch may well comprise freshly baked baguettes and pate accompanied by a carafe of wine. In the evening, excellent French cuisine is available at up-market restaurants, survivors of the years of socialist austerity.
This agreeable ambience aside, Vientiane’s most notable memorial to the French influence must be its architecture. There are numerous small residences, not just a few mansions, built in the style of the former colonial power. Many of these may be found in the older part of the town, along the riverside appropriately designated Quai Fa Ngum. Here, as by the shaded boulevards in the vicinity of That Dam and along Lane Xang Avenue-the “Champs Elysees” of Vientiane-you will find fine examples of colonial French architecture, complete with shutters and red-tiled roofs, which would not be out of place in a French provincial city like Dijon or Tours.
And then there is Patuxay, a near-replica of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Many of the former private residences are in stages of advanced decay, and some are clearly beyond saving. Others, however, have been painstakingly restored-and as the authorities come to realize the potential value to tourism of this unique architectural legacy, not to mention the inherent charm of the Lao capital, preservation rather than demolition is becoming the order of the day.