Vientiane. An authentic traditional Asian lifestyle.

If you have been to Bangkok or even Chiang Mai or Phnom Penh, you will be surprised to discover that Laos state capital looks more like a provincial town. No high rise there. The city spreads out in a plain between the Mekong and rice fields. No wonder it has been labelled as 'the largest village in Asia'. But Vientiane population is roughly estimated 750,000 inhabitants.

It has kept an endemic charm - a blend of an old French colonial style mixed with a touch of Thai-lao culture. No fast food, no recognizable sign of familiar international brand names. Here, the culture lies in cafés, small restaurants, spas and golden temples.

The pace is definitively slow and easy-going. Motorbikes, scooters, bicycles or the ubiquitous tuk-tuks rule the streets more than cars. The large avenue that goes from the President's Palace to Patuxai Arch has been nicknamed the Champs-Elysées.

The “Victory Gate' (Patuxai) acts as a local Arch of Triumph. This huge concrete block is not particularly beautiful. It was built in 1962 with the cement that was intended for a new airport. But it may be worth to climb the stairs to admire the view at the top. The garden below is well-kept and on weekend evenings they have a musical fountain that attracts hundreds of citizens. Next to the President's Palace, stands a lovely old temple Ho Pra Keo, which has because a sort of Buddhist museum with an extraordinary collection of Buddhas of all sizes.

Across the street, there is another monastery, whose former library is worth seeing too. However, Vientiane landmark is further away. Pha That Luang or the Great Sacred Stupa has become a Lao national symbol. Once a year, there is a huge Buddhist pilgrimage that attracts thousands of visitors. This is where the Emerald Buddha used to be before it was seized and sent to Bangkok. This is a major sight for the many Thai tourists, who come to visit Vientiane. While there, it may be good to visit another nice Lao temple on the right side of Pha That Luang main entrance. The other curiosity to see in Vientiane is Wat Si Muang. It is a very old and fine building, which dates back to the 16th c. It was built on the site of an old Khmer Hindu Temple. The local legend has it that a girl named 'Si' (hence its name) is the spiritual guardian of this holy place. And indeed, a lot of Lao or Thai visitors come to visit it.

The huge Chinese-built Cultural Center downtown is an imposing building. Right across the street, you will find the National Museum. It retraces all stages of the Lao history and ends pontificating the Communist Heritage of the country. It is amazingly kitsch and has definitively had better days. There is also an old brown stupa on a round square in town. The old colonial houses around looked gorgeous but they have not been restored yet.

The heart of the city beats in another square with a fountain in the middle. There are some antique shops, a few fashionable restaurants nearby and Vientiane's favorite expats' café, Joma Bakery Café, a sort of Lao version of Starbucks.

Of course, the life and real charm of Vientiane lie on the banks of the mighty Mekong River with dozens restaurants and little cafés that drain the town atmosphere.

Trendy Thai-style spas have blossomed in town these days but once in Laos, you should experience a more typical and traditional herbal sauna. So the charm of Vientiane is not held in its cultural heritage as much as in its lifestyle.

Actually, Luang Prabang, in the northern part of the country is far richer in history and Lao culture. Rather, Vientiane is a place to pause and relax. And once you are in the receptive mood, let the surroundings, the overall ambiance invade you little by little to fully appreciate this sort of magical touch that Vientiane will provide you with.