The on-again, off-again opening of the highly touted Vientiane-Vang Vieng expressway has a new (and third) official launch date…20 December. In an attempt to mitigate the recent confusing communications, the expressway’s Chinese operators tried playing nice by offering toll-free travel between 21 to 23 December. But will it happen?
Note the vehicles with “approval”
The much anticipated 113-km expressway will cut travel time from the capital to the popular retreat to less than two hours from the current half-day romp over a rough road. The toll of LAK 60,000 opens the way for smooth sailing at 100 km/hr. Chinese investors plucked down 95% of the USD1.2 billion cost, and received a 50-year concession in exchange.
Construction began in late 2018, with completion expected by December 2021. In mid-September this year, Vientiane Mai reported the expressway would be handed over on Lao National Day on 2 December. The report stated construction was ahead of schedule, and 90% complete.
Meanwhile, the expressway appeared to be holding a soft opening. Posts on social media showed photos of trips that were allowed if vehicles received “approval”, though few seemed to know how to get approved. This writer took an approved public minivan on the expressway to Vang Vieng in late September. The trip took a bit over two hours.
Then, 2 December rolled around. Eager motorists ready for a long holiday weekend headed to the spanking new expressway, only to be shuffled off to the pothole-plagued old road. No forewarning came and no reason given.
However, those with “approval” took to the new tarmac, while those without took to social media and complained, something Lao people rarely do.
A week later on 8 December, the Laotian Times reported that the Laos-China Joint Expressway Development Company Limited had rescheduled the expressway’s launch until 31 December, just in time to make it to Vang Vieng for a New Year’s Eve celebration.
In their piece, “Vang Vieng Expressway Contractor Clarifies Delay”, the respected publication reported that the contractor blamed the delay on “the finalization of certain points along the expressway, including on-ramps and off-ramps, lighting, and final cleaning works.” Too little, too late.
Perhaps the patience at the Lao Prime Minister’s Office was running out. National Day is the country’s independence celebration, the highlight of most country’s holiday lineup. Surprise announcements, vague excuses, and lack of clear communications may not have cut the mustard.
On 11 December, the media reported that according to government officials, the expressway would open on 20 December, just in time for the end of the Vang Vieng Music Festival*. However, other reports that same day claim the PM’s office pointed to a less-exact official launch date occurring in “two weeks”, a few days after the 20th.
Meanwhile, Vientiane motorists considering a December Vang Vieng holiday must be pondering the old cliché, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” As for the increasingly desperate domestic tourism and hospitality industry…another reason to sigh.
*The Vang Vieng Music festival was postponed on 16 december due to Covid-19 fears.