A friend told me he would choose Luang Prabang to settle down in, as it’s the most relaxing and amiable city he has ever visited. Located 425km north of Vientiane, Luang Prabang is Laos’ former royal capital and is recognised as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
Some say it looks like a mix between Hoi An — with its rows of old houses and lanterns lit up at night — and Sapa with hilly roads and smoky streetside BBQ eateries. I found Luang Prabang interestingly different, full of charm, attractive architecture and culture.
Luang Prabang is small and well known for its Buddhist flavour. Clichéd images of monks in their saffron robes are everywhere, as are wats (temples). This former royal capital has 33 temples that have been preserved for over 500 years. To this day Luang Prabang is the centre of Buddhist learning in Laos.
While most of the houses are built in the French colonial style, with one or two storeys painted white, wooden window shutters and doors, and tiled roofs, the temples are made of stone and richly decorated with sculptures, engravings, paintings, gilding and furniture pieces. The architectural influence here is distinctly Thai and Khmer, as is the Buddhism practiced — Theravada.
You can find those design elements at prominent temples including Wat Xieng Thong (entrance is 20,000 kip / VND55,000 per person), Wat Mai Suwannaphumaham (10,000 kip / VND28,000) or Haw Pha Bang.
Mount Phousi is another must-see. Located opposite the Royal Palace, it’s 100 metres high and is the perfect spot to watch the sun rise or set with a full view of the city and the mountains in distance. On top of Phousi, there is a small temple and a golden stupa. Entrance is 20,000 kip / VND55,000 per person.
Food and Specialities
If you have ever been to a local Vietnamese market, you will quickly realise that Luang Prabang’s markets are not that much different. The city has two main markets, set up along the streets — one in the morning and the other at night. While the morning market focuses on food and drink, the night option is more about souvenirs and clothes.
Located near the Royal Palace Museum along Sanasongkham Road, the morning market is a colourful and lively canvas of daily life with vegetables, sacks of rice, fresh fish, cooked insects and piles of spices. There are also ready-to-eat dishes like charcoal-grilled fish, chicken wings and Lao sausages that you can try on the spot. Since the vendors start to wrap up around 10am, make sure to be there early to get the best quality products.
The night market runs from 5pm to 10pm, prior to the whole town closing down at 11pm. Set up on Sisavangvong Road, sandwiched between Mount Phousi and the Royal Palace Museum, the market is a good place for travel gifts such as sarongs, miniature Buddha statues or handcrafted silver jewellery. Its desserts are also a highlight with crepe and fruit and Lao coconut cake stands.
Kuang Si Falls
Two other attractions that tourists should visit in Luang Prabang are Kuang Si Falls and Pak Ou Caves. Both are 30km away from the centre of the city, but in opposite directions. As my friend and I didn’t have enough time to visit them both, we decided to go to the falls, as we were told it has more things to see and we could enjoy a swim if we wanted to.
According to our tuk-tuk driver, it normally takes up to one hour to drive to Kuang Si because of the snaking hill road. The trip was stunning thanks to the scenic views — rice paddies, local villages and green hills.
After paying the 20,000 kip entrance fee, we stopped at a bear rescue centre which is supported by the Free The Bears Fund. You can either watch the rescued bears playing from a platform or support the fund by purchasing T-shirts or key rings.
Heading up to the sound of the falls, my jaw dropped when I reached the shallow pools with turquoise water next to many small cascades (three to five metres high). There were a dozen or so tourists soaking in the pools. The further we hiked upstream, the more picturesque it became.
Following the trail on the left to the top (despite the warning signs), I was glad to be wearing a pair of running shoes, the clay soil made the going slippery. At the top, the waterfall looked like a turquoise silk scarf.
As we had a flight back to Vietnam in the afternoon of the same day, we couldn’t get in a shared tuk-tuk (50,000 kip/VND138,000) with other travellers because the driver only leaves when he has a complement of at least four passengers. We paid double the normal price for the return journey but we were happy. The trip to Kuang Si Falls was worth every penny.
There is no direct flight from Saigon to Luang Prabang. You have to fly either to Hanoi or Vientiane then to fly to the city. For flights, visit vietnamairlines.com.
As a tourist city, Luang Prabang has the full range of accommodation. Depending on your needs, you can stay at either The Sofitel (from US$190 / VND4.2 million per night, sofitel.com) or somewhere like LPQ Backpackers Hostel (from US$10 / VND220,000 per night, book through agoda.com)
Restaurants, from Lao traditional dishes to international fare, line Sisavangvong Road and the roads along the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. For Lao street food at bargain prices, go to the night market.
Photos by Vu Ha Kim Vy / July 2016