Laos' sleepy capital takes its name from the Indochina era, although the city has been important to the area since at least the 14th century. Those who go to this once sleepy city along the Mekong River will find a mini-construction boom, which is good for Laos no doubt but inconvenient for tourists and shoppers unaccustomed to leaping over newly poured concrete en route to find sumptuous silks.
Despite its name, the Morning Market (off Rue Mahosot) is open all day. Its rows of woven silk treasures are enough to make even an aficionado dizzy. Vintage textile bags look far more chic than their asking price (US$6), but haggle anyway. There are inexpensive cotton checked sarongs (US$2), textile teddy bears (US$5) and hill-tribe baby slings (US$25), with intricate, colourful stitchwork.
The undisputed queen of Vientiane weaving is American Carol Cassidy, who, along with her African husband, has turned Lao Textiles (above right; Ban Mixay, tel: 856 21 212 123) into the city's must-stop shop. Located in a 1900s mansion near the Mekong, this is almost a museum of warp and weft. Inexpensive collectables fill the lower floor, such as love pillows (US$45), monochrome farm scarves (US$20) and simple brocade runners (US$55) featuring the mythical Siho, a half-lion, half-elephant revered by locals as a symbol of fertility. Upstairs is a world-class collection of unique wall hangings.
Vientiane's fashion fix can be found just down the street at Satri Lao (Ban Mixay, tel: 856 21 244 384). The Lao owner scours Southeast Asia's markets for sequined frocks and unusual lacquerware. Hollowed coconut bowls lacquered pink (US$6) turn the simple shape into something fun while indigenous-textile boxer shorts (US$7) make practical souvenirs. There is no beach nearby, but the cowry shell bikinis (US$30) will make a stylish accessory on future travels.
Pop into Mixay Boutique (53/55 Nokeokoummane Street, Ban Mixay, tel: 856 21 216 592) for adorable stuffed elephants and monkeys covered in day-glo antique textiles that little ones will love, plus silk sleeping bags that make the perfect gift for the adventurous traveller who still likes a little luxury.
Next door at Lao Silk Store (Ban Mixay, tel: 856 21 223 496), consider the polished rosewood bowls (from US$10) and carved dragon hangers (US$5), then head towards the Mekong to Camacrafts (Nokeokoummane Street, Ban Mixay, tel: 856 21 241 217). The founder, Kommaly Chanthavong, was nominated for the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize for creating silk-weaving jobs in this struggling country, but Cama-crafts' high-quality items would be worth buying even without this tender tale. Homewares abound, from simple pot-holders (US$3) to festive holiday ornaments shaped like candy canes (US$2), but the most appealing items are baby bibs (US$3) in the shape of elephants, penguins and rabbits.
Sophisticated sorts will be surprised to find wearable designs in Laos, but the selection at Tamarind (Ban Xiengnheune, tel: 856 21 243 564) has clearly been influenced by a more global aesthetic. Three-quarter-length silk coats (US$95), wrap-around blouses (US$45) and business jackets (US$45), in neutrals and black, are all office-worthy. Those with bohemian flair should consider the Kashmir-inspired flower brocade skirt (US$65), perhaps teamed with an ethnic hill-tribe silver choker (US$100).