Set on a bend in the Mekong River, Vientiane was first settled around the 9th century AD and formed part of one of the early Lao valley meuang (city-states) that were consolidated around the 10th century. The Lao who settled here did so because the surrounding alluvial plains were so fertile and initially the Vientiane meuang prospered and enjoyed a fragile sovereignty.
In the ensuing 10 or so centuries of its history, Vientiane’s fortunes have been mixed. At various times it has been a major regional centre, at other times, it has been controlled by the Vietnamese, Burmese and Siamese.
The height of Vientiane’s success was probably in the years after it became the Lan Xang capital in the mid-16th century. (King Setthathirat moved the capital of the Lan Xang kingdom from the city now known as Luang Prabang.) Several of Vientiane’s wats were built following this shift and the city became a major centre of Buddhistlearning.
It didn’t last. Periodic invasions by the Burmese, Siamese and Chinese, and the eventual division of the Lan Xang kingdom took their toll on the city.
It wasn’t until the Siamese installed Chao Anou (a Lao prince who had been educated in Bangkok) on the throne in 1805 that the city received an overdue makeover. Chao Anou’s public works included Wat Si Saket, built in 1815.
Unfortunately, Chao Anou’s attempts to assert Lao independence over the Siamese resulted in the most violent and destructive episode in Vientiane’s history.
In 1828 the Siamese defeated Chao Anou’s armies and wasted no time in razing the city and carting off much of the population. Wat Si Saket was the only major building to survive, and the city was abandoned.
In 1867, French explorers arrived but it wasn’t until late in the century, after Vientiane had been made capital of the French protectorate, that serious reconstruction began. A simple grid plan was laid out for the city and a sprinkling of colonial-style mansions and administrative buildings emerged. However, Vientiane was always low in the French order of Indochinese priorities, as the modest building program testifies.
In 1928 the ‘city’ was home to just 9000 inhabitants – many of them Vietnamese administrators brought in by the French – and it wasn’t until the end of WWII that Vientiane’s population began to grow with any vigour. It was a growth fed primarily by Cold War dollars, with first French and later American advisors arriving in a variety of guises.
After a couple of coups d’état in the politically fluid 1960s, Vientiane had by the early ’70s become a city where almost anything went. Its few bars were peopled by an almost surreal mix of spooks and correspondents, and the women who served them.
Not surprisingly, things changed with the arrival of the Pathet Lao (PL) in 1975. Nightclubs filled with spies were the first to go and Vientiane settled into a slumber punctuated by occasional unenthusiastic concessions to communism, including low level collectivisation and an initial crackdown on Buddhism. These days the most noticeable leftovers from the period are some less-than-inspired Soviet-style buildings. Things picked up in the 1990s and in recent years Vientiane has seen a relative explosion of construction, road redevelopment and vehicular traffic.