Laos’ unassuming low-rise capital city Vientiane needs a little while to work its charms.
Trust me, give it a day or so and you’ll find yourself falling for what is one of Southeast Asia’s most relaxed cities — and one that harbours plenty of hidden surprises.
The laneways of the Old Quarter leading down to the Mekong waterfront are lined with restaurants, cafes and guesthouses, a good percentage of which are housed in restored French-colonial villas. There are golden Buddhist wats dotted across the city and plenty of historical points of interest. While Vientiane doesn’t have the same degree of old-world charm as lovely Luang Prabang up north, it’s still a ‘must-include’ on your Laos itinerary.
Here are ten top things to do in Vientiane.
Vientiane was a French colonial trading post and has retained plenty of stunning architecture from the period, along with a love of good coffee and pastries to match. Cafe Vanille (formerly Le Banneton) is renowned for its croissants and Danish pastries, which I have to say are out of this world. Get there early to enjoy the pastry cabinet in all its fully stocked glory. Other opportunities for a great café au lait include trendy Naked Espresso, which wouldn’t look out of places on any trendy Melbourne laneway, and stalwart Joma Bakery Cafe.
Wherever you travel in Laos, the country’s Buddhist wats are a peaceful retreat from the relative chaos outside. Incredibly ornate and endlessly intricate in their design, most wats are freely open to visitors until around 6pm. Remember to dress modestly (covering shoulders and knees) and consider leaving a tip towards maintenance. Taking photos is generally OK, but always seek permission from a monk before you snap. One of the must-see wats in Vientiane is Pra That Luang — a 45-metre-high golden stupa that serves as the national symbol of the country. You’ll find yourself waiting for the sun to strike the 45m-high structure which brings the gilding to life. The wats surrounding the stupa are all worth exploring.
The golden reclining Buddha at Pha That Luang has a similarly sized cousin out at Buddha Park. Located 24 kilometres from the city centre, you can access the whimsical sculpture garden by bus, tuk tuk or on an organised day tour. Climb to the top of the giant pumpkin for Instagrammable views of the fantasy landscape that melds Buddhist and Hindu iconography. It’s quite an experience.
Located over the road from the Presidential Palace, the intriguing Wat Si Saket is believed to be Vientiane’s oldest building. Constructed around the beginning of the 19th century, it was all that remained of the city following razing by the Siamese in the 1820s. Today it’s a fascinating, if slightly run down step back in time. The stunning murals inside the central structure have been recently restored with the help of Germany. The slightly haunting collection of Buddha statues stacked up along one wall that were damaged during the Siamese conflict only adds to the atmosphere.
The Patuxai Victory Monument seems at first glance to be Vientiane’s nod to the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, but the monument actually celebrates the country’s push for independence. It’s well worth the cost of the ticket to climb to the top for the amazing 360-degree views of the city. You’ll also find two unexpected levels of souvenir shopping.
Laos cuisine distils many of the best culinary elements of neighbouring Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar and China, giving them a unique local spin. There’s a French infuence in there to make matters even more interesting. Hearty Laos stews are a must-try, along with meat larbs (meat salads), curries and delicacies like deep-fried riverweed. Accompany your meal with an ice-cold Beerlao.
The Mekong waterfront forms one edge of Vientiane’s Old Quarter. The waterfront promenade is a little underutilised but it’s worth a sunset stroll to witness a slice of Vientiane city life. Predominantly young Laotians hang out with friends or stroll shyly hand in hand. The mighty Mekong flows gently between Vientiane on one side and Thailand on the other.
Every evening the promenade along the waterfront transforms into a bustling night market. The market is targeted more at locals than anyone else and sells clothing, cheap electrical items, homewares and random knickknacks. The wares themselves won’t prove overly interesting to most visitors, but again it‘s the opportunity to do a spot of people watching that’s the chief reason to go. There is some street food on offer in the middle section.
The city’s French colonial heritage is celebrated in style at the gorgeous Ansara Hotel in the heart of the Old Quarter. Located on a quiet laneway surrounded by frangipanis and tamarind trees, the hotel’s 28 rooms occupy two fully restored Indochinese villas. Even if you’re not staying at the hotel, splash out on dinner at its fabulous French eatery: La Signature. Ooh la la!
There’s no shortage of cost-effective opportunities across the Old Quarter to enjoy a relaxing massage, but the Tangerine Garden Spa, located just across the road from the Ansara Hotel, is supremely tranquil and suitably chic. Book in for a foot or head and shoulder massage, or a range of spa treatments. You’ll pay a little more here, but hey, you’re worth it.
Do you have any suggestions to add to our list of ten top things to do in Vientiane? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Additional images: Bigstock
Adam Ford is editor of The Big Bus tour and travel guide and a travel TV presenter, writer, blogger and photographer. He has travelled extensively through Europe, Asia, North America, Africa and the Middle East. Adam worked as a travel consultant for a number of years with Flight Centre before taking up the opportunity to travel the world himself as host of the TV series Tour the World on Network Ten. He loves to experience everything a new destination has to offer and is equally at home in a five-star Palazzo in Pisa or a home-stay in Hanoi.