Laos is a small country, about the size of California. Along the eastern half of the country, it's very mountainous. The central part of the country and the lands bordering the Mekong are flat and this is the major rice growing sections of the country.
is one of the most laid back cities ever. The name of the city is actually pronounced "Vieng Chan". Some people believe that it means "Beautiful sandalwood tree," which is supposedly taken from the Pali language; however most people will say that the name means "Beautiful moon." Wiki-travels has information on the major sites and getting around for tourists at Travel in Vientiane
Louangprabang is the capital of the former Kingdom of Louang Prabang. In spite of tourism, the city is still very laid back. About eight years ago, they tried to enforce a rule that Lao women had to wear traditional sinh, Lao silk tube skirts, in keeping with its UNESCO status - but while you can preserve buildings in time, it's more difficult to do this with people.
Phonsavanh is a relatively new city. The old capital of Xieng Khouang Province was originally 30 to the southeast. Known as "Xieng Khouangville," it was totally destroyed by bombing in 1968-9, leaving one enigmatic Buddha sitting among the rubble of the building surrounding it. Phonsavanh became the new capital as it was closer to the main highway linking Route 13 to the west to the Vietnamese border on the east. Although it is about 100 miles from the VN border, it is an active commercial center as well as the main city near the Plain of Jars sites.
is the northeastern most large city in Laos. During the war, it was the center of resistance against the old regime. To escape bombing raids by the American backed Royal Lao Airforce, people lived in caves in the natural limestone cliffs about 40 kms from Xam Neua town, in the district of Viengxai. The main military hospital was established in the cliffs. As many of my friends who grew up in the caves told me, living in the caves was cold and difficult but the bombing and loss of friends strengthened their resolve.
Tha Kaek is the main city in Khammouan Province. One of the sleepiest places around, it is across the river from Nakhorn Phanom in Thailand. Right now, tiny ferries cross the river, but it's like that a bridge will be built within the next ten years.
Savannakhet is one of the main trade centers in southern Laos. Across the river from Mukhthahan, Thailand, it's also not too far from Route 9 to the Vietnamese border. A new bridge was opened last year and trade has been running through the city to Vietnam, making Laos a land-linked rather than a land-locked country.
Pakse was the old capital of the third independent kingdom, Champasak. In 1946, the separate kingdom was merged into the "Kingdom of Laos." While it was once a desolate city, the opening of the bridge across the Mekong and improvement of the road from their to the Thai border and the city of Ubon Ratchathani have made it a major commercial and tourist hub. Several tourist companies promote eco-tourism and village visits, though most of the Thai tourists come in large groups on tour companies visiting the main attractions in the area - the four thousand islands (Si Phaan Dohn), the Khone Falls on the Mekong, Wat Phu and Pha Suan resort (a very peaceful resort set up by a Thai businessman).
Salavan was totally destroyed during the 'Vietnam' war because of its location near the series of footpaths that made up the Ho Chi Minh trail. While there is a lot of trade going on and building up of the city, it's still basically a small town that's growing into a larger small town.