Directions in Vientiane

Nobody uses addresses is Vientiane. Yes, you heard that correctly. I, for example, live in a house on a street but it has no number on the front, and no street sign. Some of the bigger streets, particularly in town, have do have street signs but no one uses them, or seems to know where they are, if mentioned.

You can appreciated that this can create a few issues.

For starters, I can't tell anyone exactly where we live. Not just friends but essential people like taxi drivers and pizza delivery guys. Which is why we haven't had any food delivered. Or why I started driving myself around as soon as possible.

It also makes finding places rather tricky. When I embark on an errand to the bank or the hairdresser or wherever, I look first on google maps to get a rough idea of where said place is, and then I painstakingly write out all the directions, from point A to B. "At first roundabout, turn left; then second right and go straight over bridge" etc. I'm pleased to say that most of the time this works, despite my having zero sense of direction, and having to turn my head to the side to figure out left and right. I feel perpetually surprised to discover the Mekong in the direction opposite to where I thought it was.

Fortunately, Laotians have their own, far more practical way of getting about than relying on street signs and maps. Landmarks. Find one and pin your location to it. The Mekong is a great landmark, of course (for most people), as well as hotels, restaurants, markets, hospitals, embassies, and schools,

So, the first stage is finding a landmark. "We live near the..." I say, and people nod; they've identified the general locale. "And then it's just a couple of blocks behind that" I add, helpfully waving my hand in the general direction (stage two).

If I need someone to actually come to my house, I'll move onto the third stage, topographical descriptions of the surrounding infrastructure. "To the left of the two-storey building with the blue wall is a small, dirt road. It curves around to the left and then on the second corner by the tall mango tree, there's a rusty red gate. This road is unpaved and full of potholes with large ditches to either side. There will also be a pack of mangy dogs that will chase the car, barking madly. You're on the right track, follow that to the end and..."

Crystal clear.

The fourth stage is actually drawing a map. Many people do this with varying degrees of accuracy to scale. I've yet to do one myself, mostly for the reasons explained above.

Check out this amazing falang map of Vientiane

Check out this amazing falang map of Vientiane

And the fifth and final stage is admitting defeat and asking your maeban or other Lao-speaking good Samaritan to explain it to the taxi driver or pizza guy or whoever.

We've muddled on and haven't as yet gotten drastically lost or been embarrassingly late. But if we ever want to up the stakes and order a pizza, it'll be a whole other story...

When was the last time you had to ask for directions?