Vientiane, Laos Report of what it's like to live there - 06/03/20
Personal Experiences from Vientiane, Laos
1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?
No, we have had other assignments in Asia and Africa.
2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?
Washington DC. It's possible to get from Vientiane to DC in (just) under 24 hours going through Seoul. Other options include going through Bangkok. There are relatively few non-stop flights to Vientiane so you will almost certainly have to travel through Seoul or Bangkok. There are also non-stop flights (but not many) to Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.
3. How long have you lived here?
Nearly two years.
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
Housing is nice, generally decent-sized houses with small to medium yards. Vientiane is not a big city but it is fairly spread out. There is little traffic compared to other capital cities in the regions and you can get almost anywhere in the city in 20-30 minutes.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
If you shop locally, it's very cheap. Imported goods are more expensive and are relatively easy to find. Rimping Supermarket has a wide variety of choices and there are other smaller shops that stock up on western goods.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
Maybe cleaning supplies? We did have some issues with ants so maybe products to deal with pests would be a good idea as well.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
There are a wide variety of restaurants (French, Italian, Mexican, Russian, etc) and going out to eat is one of the great delights in Vientiane. A few pizza places deliver, but I never found a reliable delivery service like I have in other countries.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
It is a tropical country so don't be surprised to find ants or other six-legged friends in your house. Mosquitoes were not too bad. I have seen one snake near my house in nearly two years here.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
DPO. I never used local facilities.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Availability is widespread, ability to speak English is very limited. Most people employed a "maeban" for cooking and cleaning. Salaries for household help are about US $200-300/month.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
There are a handful of gyms which are not too expensive. Free zumba classes near the river are offered every evening.
4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?
Credit cards are becoming more common in fancier restaurants and some shops (usually with a 3% fee). ATMs are common although they don't always work-- sometimes you'll have to try 4-5 before you find one that accepts your card, is working, and has money. I think they are relatively safe to use.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
In Vientiane, you can find Catholic and Protestant services. I don't know which (if any) offer English language services but I would guess it's very limited.
6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
You can get by without Lao, but life will definitely be easier if you can speak a little. You should not assume that people will be able to speak English.
7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Yes, I would think so.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Taxis are safe although there are very few in town. Make sure you save the number of a reliable taxi driver. You shouldn't expect to be able to find a taxi or rickshaw waiting on any corner, like you can in many Asian capital cities. It is very difficult to move around without your own vehicle.
2. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?
SUVs are the most popular and are good for getting out of the city, but can be difficult to maneuver on narrow streets.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
It takes a while (up to 30 days) to install. We were able to stream Netflix with no issues.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
I think most people used a local provider which was reliable.
1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?
Not sure about this one; I think there are kennel services available.
Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:
1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?
It would be very hard to find a local job here. Language barriers, government bureaucracy, and a small economy makes it almost impossible.
2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?
Not sure, but there are plenty of NGOs (both local and international) operating in Vientiane that might need volunteers.
3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
In diplomatic/government circles, most people dress in a fairly formal style, although the heat means jackets are taken off almost immediately once a meeting starts
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
I generally found Vientiane to be a very safe city with little crime.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
There are a handful of international clinics but any health issues that are marginally complicated or serious are done in Thailand. A Thai company is building a private hospital due to open in 2021 that could change things but for now medical care is limited.
3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?
Air quality is quite good for 10-11 months of the year. In February/March, it can get very bad as fields (both in Laos and neighboring Thailand) are burned in preparation for planting.
4. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?
It can be a tough post if you like to ever put on a sweater!
5. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
It's hot. Almost always very hot. If you're lucky there might be a couple of weeks in December or early January when the highs are in the 70s (25 C) but winter is very fleeting.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
Most families with school-aged kids sent them to Vientiane International School and most seem happy enough with the school.
2. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?
Yes, they are available although they are not necessarily 100% in English. We had a good experience at two different preschools.
3. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
The climate can make it difficult but VIS does offer a number of sports for kids. There are not many options beyond VIS.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
It's a fairly small expat community in a fairly small town. Morale is generally high. If Vientiane is starting to feel too small for you, Bangkok is only an hour flight away.
2. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?
The language barrier and cultural norms make it difficult to interact with local people extensively. However, the Lao are very friendly. Having small children that play with Lao kids is a good way to bridge the cultural divide.
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
It's probably better for families that single people. There's not a lot of nightlife (although plenty of it in nearby Thailand) and dating would be a challenge here.
4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
Although Laos is next to Thailand, Laos is still fairly conservative and not overly-welcoming for the LGBT community.
5. Is it easy to make friends with locals here? Are there any prejudices or any ethnic groups who might feel uncomfortable here?
Lao are very friendly but it's still challenging to make friends, probably as a result of language and cultural divides.
6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
There are problems with ethnic and religious prejudices but I don't think it would affect expats very much.
7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
Laos is a beautiful country and it's imperative that you get out of Vientiane to see the rest of the country. Luang Prabang is sublime, Vang Vieng is a fun weekend destination, and the Bolaven Plateau has great waterfalls and coffee. Kong Lor cave is also a good weekend trip (although it's a bit of a haul from Vientiane).
8. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
They say that Vientiane is a horrible place to visit but a nice place to live. What it lacks in sights, it makes up for in a relaxed, charming lifestyle. Enjoying a Beer Lao along the Mekong as the sun goes down is a simple pleasure but a pleasant memory. Vientiane is also a good base for exploring northern Thailand. If you need a little Western indulgence, Starbucks and McDonalds are only an hour away!
9. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Yes, there are a number of markets with interesting woodwork and Buddhist figures.
10. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
If you're looking for big city excitement, this isn't it. If you're looking for a laid-back city with good restaurants and charming cafes, you could do worse!
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
I was surprised by how difficult it is to get around without a car.
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
Yes, living in Laos was a great experience.
3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Sweaters and formal/evening wear.
4. But don't forget your:
Bugspray, sunscreen, and sense of adventure.
5. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
"A Great Place to Have a War" by Josua Kurlantzick.