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Vientiane (Wee-en-chan) is one of the few world capitals that lacks the look and feel of what most Westerners would consider a "city," much less a capital. Quiet, provincial, sleepy: These are terms that come to mind on seeing Vientiane for the first time. And if you drive into town, you might not even realize when you're actually in the city proper, as "metropolitan" Vientiane blends seamlessly with the countryside. Just a short ride in any direction from Lane Xang, the main north-south avenue, will quickly carry you into the beginnings of rural Laos.

But for better or worse, the slow march to modernity seems inevitable, as the massive influx of foreign aid and manpower from both foreign governments and NGOs is bound to reshape the city and dramatically affect those who inhabit it. While recent infrastructure and telecommunications improvements portend greater future transformation, change has still come slowly in Vientiane. Traffic is only a trickle on the city center's beautiful tree-lined boulevard, the people are always armed with their easy and ready smiles, and the city is asleep by 11pm every night.

The city was ransacked by the Siamese in 1828, so it lacks some of the ancient history you find in the former capital of Luang Prabang, but many of Vientiane's temples have been beautifully reconstructed. That Luang is the preeminent Buddhist temple in the country and the scene of a huge festival every November. The Patuxay Victory Monument is a peculiarly Lao version of the Arc de Triomphe. The Morning Market comprises a full city block of goods to explore. And the Mekong, lined with picturesque colonials and cozy thatched bars, rolls through the very heart of the city and glows pink at sunset -- not to be missed. It's worth a stay of several days to take it all in and enjoy Vientiane's relaxed atmosphere -- while it lasts.

Vientiane is often described as one of the world's most laid-back capitals. It is small, pleasant, and compact. Although it lacks the splendors of Luang Prabang, it does have its own unique charm. Even though it is a long way from the sea, by this stage in its course the Mekong River is very wide, meandering, and rather mesmerizing. Upon arrival, whether by land or air, make your way Chanthabuli, the central district by the river. Here you will find guesthouses, hotels, restaurants, and Internet cafes. Once there most things you want to reach will be within easy walking distance.