The Feeling of Vientiane: Doing Business in Laos

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Each city has its own feel to it. Vientiane, the capital of Laos, is nothing like you’d expect out of any other capital city in Asia. First ...

Each city has its own feel to it. Vientiane, the capital of Laos, is nothing like you’d expect out of any other capital city in Asia. First in a series on doing business in Laos.

By Karn G. Bulsuk



For many jet setting business travelers, Vientiane proves to be quite the anti-thesis of capital cities belonging to the Asian Tigers. Even before landing, you get a feeling that Vientiane isn’t a busy, bustling metropolis that places such as Hong Kong or Bangkok would have trained you to expect, given the vast expanse of paddy fields visible from the sky on approach from to the airport.

While in major cities, a night approach is a spectacular show of lights and colours from buildings and traffic, in Vientiane you’re treated to a different show: the few lights that are dotted throughout the ground are like white stars glistening in the dark of the night, as if flying upside down with the sky below you.

The airport itself will also confirm your suspicions that the capital city of Laos is no Hanoi. The place is virtually empty and almost deserted, with only two or three parked turboprop planes belonging to Lao Airlines parked at night. Out of the dozen or so flights that land daily, most of them make the immediate return flight back to their countries of origin on the same day.





Day or night, Vientiane's airport is practically deserted with barely a plane in sight. When your correspondent disembarked from the pictured Thai Airways plane, the only other sign of life was the single Lao Airlines plane parked on the tarmac.

Once you step out of the airport into your left-hand drive taxi, they will probably drive down the well paved roads at a leisurely speed of 40-50 km/h. In fact, practically no one drives faster than this, with road signs indicating 30 km/h as the speed limit. All around you, you’re surrounded by buildings no taller than 4 stories, and signs in both Laotian and French.

One of the few things
actually produced in Laos.
Vientiane feels like a small, rural country town in Thailand, and the effect is amplified by the fact that supermarkets here are stocked mostly with food and other products made in Thailand. Manufacturing in Laos is still relatively low-key, and they are not yet able to produce enough to meet their own needs, with very few Lao produced products available for sale. Even a fair amount of Thai manufactured Coca Cola is imported despite having locally produced Pepsi in Laos. The only obvious exception would be Beer Lao, which is made locally.

Even after staying here for a few hours, you’ll get a sense of how laid back and relaxed everyone is. There’s no buy-buy-buy mentality you would get in stock market dominant economies (Lao just opened their first stock market in January 2011), nor is there a sense of deception or ill-will towards you. Life here may be extremely slow, but one of its redeeming qualities is just how nice people are, and how they will actually take the time to talk to you.

Quality of life here is also surprisingly high when you consider the amount of sports people in Vientiane can play after work – which ends on-time and even with peak season, rarely past 8:00 pm. They’re happy, and that is something that we in more “developed” economies seem to treat as being an inefficiency.

While Vientiane is probably the most relaxed and least developed capital in Southeast Asia, it certainly has its charms. While it may drive some highly driven business people up the wall, the Lao people simply don’t want to get a million things done in one day, and to be honest, why should they? Business here is laid back but once you learn to enjoy it, perhaps it's a reminder that in the good old days, business was actually a pleasure.




Photo credits:
Beer Lao -Lucas Torresi

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Karn G. Bulsuk: Full Speed Ahead: The Feeling of Vientiane: Doing Business in Laos
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