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Pronounced ‘hway’, this deeply evocative capital of the Nguyen emperors still resonates with the glories of imperial Vietnam, even though many of its finest buildings were destroyed during the American War.Hue owes its charm partly to its location on the Perfume River – picturesque on a clear day, atmospheric even in less flattering weather. Today the city blends new and old as sleek modern hotels tower over crumbling century-old Citadel walls.
The vast majority of travellers to Si Phan Don end up on these twin islands. Don Det in particular has become more popular among younger travellers in recent years, leading some to speculate that it will replace Vang Vieng as the go-to spot in Laos for vice-fuelled excess. That would seem unlikely. There's nothing stronger than grass in the 'happy' snacks sold openly at some bars, and the locals seem to have a genuine desire to keep it that way. Our best guess is that a hippyesque party scene will continue to thrive in Ban Hua Det at the north end of Don Det, but it will never become as depraved as the old Vang Vieng.
Phonsavan is a popular base from which to explore the Plain of Jars. The town itself has an unfinished feel and is very spread out with its two parallel main boulevards stretching for about 3km east–west. Fortunately a very handy concentration of hotels, restaurants and tour agents is crammed into a short if architecturally uninspired central 'strip'. More shops, markets and facilities straggle along Rte 7. But the town is best appreciated from the surrounding hills, several of which are pine-clad and topped with small resorts.
Like a rural scene from an Oriental silk painting, Vang Vieng crouches low over the Nam Song with a backdrop of serene cliffs and a tapestry of vivid green paddy fields. Thanks to the iron fist of the Lao government finally making its presence felt in 2012 (when the river rave bars were finally closed down), the increasingly toxic party scene has been banished and the community is recalibrating itself as an outdoor paradise home with some achingly lovely boutique hotels and a raft of adrenalin-inducing and nature-based activities.
From its sleepy tuk-tuk drivers to its cafe society and affordable spas, this former French trading post is languid to say the least. Eminently walkable, the historic old quarter of Vientiane beguiles with tree-lined boulevards crowded with frangipani and tamarind, glittering temples, wandering Buddhist monks and lunging naga (dragon) statues.
Situated on the banks of the Mekong at the start of Route 9 to Danang in Vietnam, Savannakhet - or Savan as it is usually known - is an important river port and gateway to the south.