Vientiane is a capital city that doesn’t really feel like a capital city, especially when you compare it to the metropolises of Laos’ neighbouring countries. Compared to cities like Bangkok, Hanoi or Phnom Penh, Vientiane is a sleepy little city, located right on the Mekong River. It is a city that is now forever changing, and it is a very different place compared to the rest of Laos. It may not keep its relaxed and sleepy atmosphere for much longer, but its attractions and beautiful location on the Mekong River will always make it an interesting city to visit.
Things to do in Vientiane
Vientiane has plenty of history, and its temples and monuments get most of the attention, but the city also has a large French influence, resulting in a great cafe culture.
Mekong Riverfront and Parklands
In the late afternoon/early evening as the sun is setting, the Mekong Riverfront is the place to be for locals and tourists alike. The riverfront has been transformed over the years into some lovely parkland and pedestrian/cycle only areas. Every night when I was in Vientiane, I wandered down to watch the sunset over the Mekong River. It is also a great place to people watch as the locals like to come down to the riverfront to exercise. On my last visit, they even had an aerobics class that you can join in with.
In the centre of the city is Laos’ huge victory monument called Patuxai. Built between 1957 and 1968, it is definitely French influenced but keeps the Laos style architecture. From the Presidential Palace near the river, you can see Patuxai at the end of Avenue Lang Xang, and I couldn’t help but think of Champs Elysees and the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. The monument itself is huge and quite spectacular, and you can climb to the top of it for great views of Vientiane.
Entrance to the top of Patuxai costs 3000 kip
Ho Phra Keo
Ho Phra Keo is the oldest temple in Vientiane and now stands as a museum that contains some important historic pieces. The temple has an interesting history and has been destroyed and rebuilt a couple times throughout the centuries since its establishment in 1565. The famous Emerald Buddha – which is now housed at Wat Phra Kaew in Bangkok – was housed here when it was in the hands of the Lao Monarchy.
Entrance to Ho Phra Keo costs 5000kip
Located across the road from Ho Phra Keo, Wat Sisaket is another old and important Buddhist temple in Vientiane. Built in 1818, this working temple has a lot of interesting details, from its Buddha covered walls to its old artwork inside the viharn. This is a must see in Vientiane.
Entrance to Wat Sisaket costs 5000kip
Pha That Luang
Pha That Luang is known as the national symbol of Laos. This 44 metre high golden stupa is the largest in the country and has a long and important history. It is suggested that Pha That Luang began as a Hindu temple built in the 3rd century, but the stupa as it is dates back to 1566 after the king moved the capital to Vientiane. It has been destroyed and reconstructed several times since then, but its main reconstruction to what it is today was done by the French in the 1930’s.
Entrance to Pha That Luang costs 5000kip
During my first visit to Vientiane in 2011, the night market was hardly more that a handful of stalls. During my last visit, I discovered that it has evolved into a full blown night market. The stalls set up along the riverfront in the late afternoon and stay open until late every night selling all kinds of knick knacks, clothes, handbags and lots more. There are also a few street food stalls that set up along the main street next to the market.
If the French left only one thing in Vientiane, it would have to be the cafe culture. There are little cafes and coffee shops all over the place, so if you love your coffee like me, you will have plenty to keep you busy.
Vientiane has too many temples for me to count, and away from the popular ones that I mentioned above, most are free to visit. A couple of small, but interesting temples to check out in the riverfront/guest house area are Wat Inpeng and Wat Mixay. Just remember to dress appropriately and be respectful in the temples.
Where to Stay in Vientiane
Don’t expect to find $5 per night private rooms in Vientiane like you would in other parts of Laos. The capital is a bit more pricey, but you can still find a nice room at a reasonable price. Just remember to plan a little bit more in your accommodation budget. Most people head to the main guest house area near the riverfront. There are hotels and accommodation all over the city, but I find the riverfront area to be the best location.
We moved to this guesthouse after our first night in Vientiane during our most recent visit, as we wanted something a little more comfortable since we were staying in the city for about a week. For 100,000 kip ($13.30) we got a really nice, clean room with private bathroom and aircon. It was also down a quiet little street, so we had a great sleep each night. The staff were friendly and helpful. I’ll go back to this place next time I visit.
Benacam is located on a little side street behind Wat Ongteu.
Doung Deuane Guesthouse
We stayed at this place for one night when we arrived in the city on our recent visit. Our double room was clean, but very small with shared bathroom and fan for 80,000 kip ($10.60). The bathrooms were clean. The staff were pretty rude and uninterested in the guests. Benacam was a much better option for only a couple of dollars extra per night. This guesthouse does have dorms if you’re after cheaper rooms.
Suksavanh River Hotel
I stayed at Suksavanh during my first visit to Vientiane in 2011. The tricky part is that they actually have two hotels; one located on the river to the west of the main guest house area, and one located on the main road a few streets back. The riverfront hotel looked quite nice, but I found out that I was booked into the other hotel which turned out to be only half constructed at the time. I’m sure the construction is done now, but I found it to be too far from everywhere, and there was also a night club nearby that kept me up at night. The room I had was nice and clean with private bathroom and aircon for around $12 per night. You might like this hotel if you want to stay away from the main tourist area.
Where to eat in Vientiane
You won’t have any trouble finding cheap and tasty food in Vientiane. From street side stalls to air conditioned cafes, there is something for everyone.
This cafe became our regular breakfast spot while in Vientiane as it is tasty, serves great coffee, has outside or aircon areas and free wifi. Plus it is located just around the corner from Benacam Guesthouse.
There are some little street side restaurants that set up at night along Rue Francois Ngin. One of the little places there does some great noodle soup for 10,000 kip. Also try some Lao style sausage or grilled pork with some sticky rice. Yum!
Feel like a pizza? This is the place to go. Nice crispy pizzas with plenty of options, plus other dishes as well. The pricing isn’t too bad for western food.
I first visited this little coffee shop in 2011 and it was still there during my recent visit. Excellent coffee and some nice meals. Plus it has air con and wifi.
Located at the French style plaza at Nam Phou Fountain is this tasty bakery/cafe. A good spot for a coffee and something sweet.
Thonglor is one of many little restaurants along Quai Fa Ngum at the riverfront. Cheap prices and decent food. Try their crispy noodles or something from their grill out the front.
There are quite a few street food stalls that set up along Quai Fa Ngum at night next to the night market. Plenty of options to choose from.
Getting to and around Vientiane
I’ve arrived in Vientiane from two different directions. The first time I came from Thailand and crossed the Friendship Bridge into Laos. From the border I took a shared minivan into the city. On my last visit I arrived from the south of the country, taking a bus from Savannahket and arriving at the very busy bus station in Vientiane. From the bus station it is best to hop on a shared Songtheaw (pickup truck with seats in the back) that will take you right into the centre of town for 20,000kip.
Vientiane has an international airport which has flights to other cities in Asia. At this stage, buses are the way to get around Laos, but there is a train station located outside of Vientiane that runs into Thailand. It is nowhere near the city though, and there are no train lines in the rest of the country (though I hear China may be changing that in the near future).
I personally find walking to be the best way to get around in Vientiane as most sites are within walking distance from the riverside area. Tuk tuks are also readily available to take you anywhere in the city. Just remember to negotiate a price before you accept a ride.
More great travel guides here.