Landlocked between China, Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia, Laos is the country that gets forgotten by travelers exploring Southeast Asia. I could see hundreds of blogs with information about Bangkok, Phuket, Ho Chi Minh, and Phnom Penh, but very few about Laos, and especially its capital- Vientiane. Before visiting, I knew almost nothing about Laos and this was a real mystery country for me, but after spending some time in Laos’ capital, it started revealing some of its secrets to me and I discovered a very interesting city under the surface. That’s why I decided to write this Vientiane travel guide. I’ll try to give you some useful suggestions about awesome things to do in Vientiane, where to eat, and a bunch of other useful tips that will help you make the most out of your trip.
Vientiane, the most quiet capital in the world
I’ve never quite seen a capital city like Vientiane. Apart from the remnants of French influence, Vientiane seemed pretty generic and too quiet for a capital. There aren’t big and fancy skyscrapers or shopping malls and crazy nightlife, but yet there’s this peculiar charm, especially in the sunsets next to the Mekong River.
In Vientiane, everything happens next to the river. You can see an array of food and beer stalls, street vendors, musicians, and jugglers. All this creates a visual and aural disharmony, but still beautiful in its own way. You can hear Lao pop (very likely the world’s worst) coming from every corner, while most of Vientiane’s 600,000 people seem to be here, squeezed along the Mekong bay.
Getting to Vientiane
Even the airport seemed awfully quiet even though I didn’t arrive at an odd hour. There’s no Uber in Laos. There is a similar app (whose name I forgot) but I didn’t have any luck in booking a cab with it despite my numerous attempts. This means that the only way to get out of the airport is a shuttle bus or a pre-booked taxi/minivan. However, the airport isn’t very far from the city center- only around 6km, so even the cab doesn’t cost a lot.
While we’re at it, if you’re looking for a cheap flight to Vientiane, check out this Qatar Airways special offer and save big on all flights to Laos. If you’re coming from some of the neighboring countries by bus or train, use the form below to find the cheapest prices for getting to Laos.
Where to stay in Vientiane?
As I mentioned above, Vientiane isn’t a big city, and staying in the city center isn’t much different than staying away from it. The prices aren’t very different as you might expect when visiting other capitals around the world but it surely is more convenient to stay in the center because most of Vientiane’s attractions are located in near proximity.
If you’re looking for some good hotel deals, you can use this Booking.com discount code to get up to 15% off on all accommodation properties in Vientiane. Alternatively, you can choose one of the many local hostels, some of which are priced as low as $1.5 per night.
Additionally, most hostels have a lot of solo travelers visiting them and you can arrange your transportation to near-by sights for a really good price if you are a guest. One day trips to Buddha Park and Long Kor cave cost around 100,000 Kips ($12 USD) but more about this below. Let’s see which are some of the most exciting things to do in Vientiane.
We’re starting off this list of things to do in Vientiane with the capital’s most popular museums. True, Vientiane’s museums are relatively modest compared to the ones in Bangkok, Ha Noi, and even Phnom Penh, but are a great place to learn about the country’s culture and heritage.
Lao National Museum
A lot of travelers and travel websites describe this museum as ‘being rundown’ but personally, I can’t help but disagree. Sure, the museum isn’t glamorous but it’s a great display of the story of Laos, its people, their culture, their struggles, and the heritage they left behind. Here, you can find neolithic artifacts, ancient pottery remnants, weapons from the war, Communist documents and propaganda, and a lot of other artifacts that showcase Lao’s strive and independence with all the struggles along the way.
If you’re looking to learn more about the history of this small, mysterious country, the National Museum is a great place to start. The entrance fee is $1 USD.
Lao People’s Army History Museum
Vientiane’s People’s Army History Museum is dedicated to the leaders of Laos’ war of independence. The museum is home to more than 10,000 artifacts, photos, and weapons that cover the period between 1950 and 1975 and the two Indochina wars; the first one being Laos’ War of Independence and the second one being the Vietnamese War.
Kaysone Phomvihane Museum
The Kaysone Phomvihane Museum is one of the newest additions to Vientiane’s museum scene. It was opened in 1995 to commemorate the 75th birthday of the first leader of the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party, Kaysone Phomvihane. The museum portrays the leader’s life and here, you can find a lot of artifacts related to him, including a model of the house he was born in and the cave he was using as a hideout during the war.
Haw Phra Kaew
Even though not as famous as the eponymous temple in Bangkok, Haw Phra Kaew in Vientiane is one of the most popular temples/museums in the capital. This temple was built in 1565 and throughout the years, it served as a royal chapel and for a brief period, also housed the sacred jade Emerald Buddha after it was stolen from the Siam Kingdom. The Siamese (today Thai) managed to retrieve the Emerald Buddha but the name remained the same.
Today, the once-temple was turned into a museum that houses some of the most important artifacts in Laos, including sculptures and statues, ancient relics, a lot of Buddhist art, and the iconic golden throne.
You probably know all about the horrors of the Vietnam War but do you know about the Secret War that took place in Laos? Between 1964 and 1973, the US army dropped more than 2 million tonnes of bombs in Laos (more than the total number of bombs used in WWII) in attempts to cut off the Vietnamese communists from the infamous Ho Chi Minh Route, their perhaps most important supply route.
The consequences of this were horrible; for nine years in a row, on average, at least one bomb blasted every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day. To make things even worse, around 80 million of the landmines never detonated and are scattered around Laos’ countryside. Today, almost 50 years later, people in Laos still die because of this.
This NGO/rehab clinic/free museum showcases this not-so-known part of Laos’ history. I strongly recommend you visit it- you will learn a lot of things you didn’t know about this war. The entrance is free but after visiting, I’m sure you’ll want to leave at least a small donation.
The main religion in Laos is Theravada Buddhism. Hence, you can expect to see a lot of beautiful Buddhist temples and Vientiane is no exception. And with all the beautiful temples around, this list of things to do in Vientiane wouldn’t be complete without showcasing some of Vientiane’s most important temples.
Pha That Luang- Vientiane’s Holiest Shrine
Located in Vientiane’s northeastern part, this temple is probably the most important religious and cultural monument in Laos. The temple was constructed in 1566 on top of the remains of an ancient Khmer temple. Additionally, according to historical sources, a temple existed here as early as 250 B.C. when King Ashoka sent workers in Vientiane to build a temple where they would consecrate a piece of Buddha’s breastbone.
Whether this is true or not, no one can deny the temple’s stunning architecture and its importance to Laos. The golden dome-shaped stupa is perhaps the most iconic monument in Laos and it can even be found on the country’s national seal and most currency bills.
Today, the temple is surrounded by few other architectural masterpieces as well, making the complex looks more like a fortress, rather than a monument. So, if you’re searching for ideas of what to do in Laos, this temple is just a must-visit.
Wat Si Saket
Wat Si Saket is the oldest temple in Vientiane that wasn’t damaged and restored as a consequence of an act of war or a natural disaster. The temple was built in 1818 and is famous for housing close to 7,000 ceramic, stonxe, bronze, and silver statues and images of Buddha nestled into the temple’s walls, some of which up to 500 years old.
If you wake up early enough, you can also catch a fascinating ritual in which locals bring their offerings to the temple’s monks. The temple is open for visitors during this time but that doesn’t mean you should intrude on this important ceremony with the clicking sounds of your camera or mobile phone. Be respectful!
This 16th-century temple is one of the less-frequented temples in Vientiane. It’s located near the banks of the Mekong River and is famous for its beautiful murals and statues. However, in my opinion, the most dazzling thing about this temple is the gate that’s ‘guarded’ by a green seven-headed Naga snake.
Other Vientiane Landmarks
So far, we covered the most important temples and museums in Vientiane but this doesn’t mean we’re approaching the end of this list of things to do in Vientiane. These barely scratch the surface! Life in Vientiane starts and ends at…
The Mekong Riverside
The Mekong River has historically been a giver and taker of life in Southeast Asia for thousands of years. Even more in Laos, as the only landlocked country in the region. The Mekong for Laos has the same importance as the Nile for Egypt, the Ganges for India, or Huang He for China. Without Mekong’s waters, life would be a daily struggle for survival; but still, its waters made life a daily bet for some villages, whether through natural disasters or diseases throughout history.
Even in these modern times, this is clearly visible. While walking around the streets of Vientiane you might get the impression that it’s a boring city. Just take a walk on the Mekong Bay and your presumptions will be completely denied. The charm of Vientiane lies at the Mekong Bay. It’s here that the boring, generic city transforms into a vibrant and authentic scenery. It’s at the Mekong Bay where you truly will experience the best of what Vientiane has to offer.
The French Influence
Laos used to be a French protectorate back in the days, and Vientiane as its capital has an obvious French influence in its appearance. The city is a unique mix of Oriental and French architecture. There are a lot of colonial looking buildings and breathtaking temples peeking through the wide boulevards. The wine and coffee shops with the flaky baguettes in the window, just add to the French legacies which are ubiquitous in this country, especially in its capital. And speaking of French influence…
Patuxai, also known as the Laos Victory Gate is a famous replica of the Arc de Triomphe. This monument is a symbol of Laos’ independence and all the soldiers that died fighting for freedom. The Patuxai is actually a bit larger than the Arc de Triomphe. Take that, France!
If you’re looking for a good view to click some amazing pictures of Vientiane, it only costs 10 cents to climb up to the 7th floor of the Patuxai and enjoy probably the best view in Vientiane, especially during the sunset.
Fun fact: the monument was constructed with cement that was supposed to be used for the new airport runway. That’s why a lot of locals refer to Patuxai as the ‘vertical runway’.
Similarly to the National Museum, a lot of travelers refer to this stupa as nothing more than a pile of bricks. However, this is actually one of Vientiane’s most important historic landmarks.
That Dam was actually once covered in pure gold but during the Siamese-Laotian War of the 19th century, all of the gold was was pillaged, giving That Dam its modern appearance. Sadly, as a consequence, this old stupa is seen as ‘nothing spectacular’ and most tourists choose not to visit it during their trip to Vientiane.
Enjoy the sunset at Chao Anouvong Park
Chao Anouvong Park is a park named after Chao Anouvong who was the last monarch of the Kingdom of Vientiane and the leader of the Laos Rebellion. His statue is located in the center of the park and near it, lies one of my favorite sunset spots in Vientiane.
This small park next to the Mekong River is the perfect spot to observe the vibrant banks of the Mekong River and Vientiane’s charming riverside. This is where the real show in Laos happens as dusk starts unwinding over the city; you’ll see a lot of people walking along the riverside, a myriad of street food vendors, and the city coming to life after a long working day.
Another thing that makes this park a perfect sunset spot is its near proximity to…
Vientiane’s night market
After sunset, all street vendors take out their stalls and turn the riverside into a bustling night market. Sure, the market is mostly for tourists but here, you can find practically anything from Beerlao t-shirts to traditional clothes, handicrafts, and other relics. If you’re looking for a place where you can find good bargains for some authentic souvenirs, the night market is a perfect choice.
If you’re a fan of local liquors, try to bargain for a bottle of Lao Lao; a traditional rice whiskey that has a scorpion in the bottle!
If you’re looking for a place to unwind after a long day of exploring the city, there’s no better place in Vientiane than Rue Setthathirath. Here, you can find a lot of cafes, bars, restaurants, and even a lot of French-style bakeries with baguettes peaking from the window shops.
Before visiting Vientiane, I could only dream about chatting with a Buddhist monk but in Vientiane, this is completely normal. Monks regularly visit the Sangha College once per month to chat with students and tourists passing by. So, you can finally ask them all the questions that have been bothering you for years. It’s definitely a unique experience.
Leisure activities in Vientiane
If you want to catch a break and indulge in some leisure activities, here are a couple of suggestions!
Get a traditional Lao massage
Just like Thailand, no trip to Laos is complete without trying a local massage. The massage starts with some foot reflexology and culminates with rhythmic repetition of pressuring spots you didn’t even know existed. Just try it, you’ll thank me later!
Visit a herbal sauna
If you want to relax like a local, treat yourself with a trip to a herbal sauna. The medicinal benefits of steaming in a sauna with aromatic herbs are huge and if you follow this up with a Lao massage, you’ll feel reborn and gain more energy for some more exciting things to do in Vientiane, such as…
Learning Traditional Arts
At Lao Disabled Women’s Development Center is a place where disabled women can find support and contribute to society. Here, they learn new empowering skills that help them make a living for themselves. You as a visitor, can also participate in these courses and workshops and learn some traditional crafts, arts, and techniques while supporting these women at the same time.
Day trips from Vientiane
Now that we covered most interesting things to do in Vientiane, it’s time to move onto day trips. There are a couple of quick getaways that you have to take when visiting Vientiane. Let’s start with the most popular one.
Buddha Park (Xieng Khuan) is located 25 km on the outskirts of the city and is home to more than 200 Hindu and Buddhist statues sprinkled across the place. Some of the statues are fascinating while others are flat-out bizarre but one thing is for certain; no temple or park in Southeast Asia can match Buddha Park when it comes to religious statues.
Some of the park’s most popular statues include Indra on a three-headed elephant, 40-meters-high reclining Buddha, a head with four arms and no torso, a three-story pumpkin, etc.
Tad Moun Waterfall
If you’re fond of the outdoors, you should definitely visit Tad Moun Waterfall. Located only 24 kilometers out of the city, you can easily rich the falls by hiring a driver. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can also rent a bicycle and try to reach by cycling. It’s safe, cheaper, and one heck of an adventure!
Phou Khao Khouay National Biodiversity Conservation Area
This protected area is only 40 minutes away from Vientiane and is the perfect choice for a day trip. The conservation area is home to a myriad of waterfalls, rivers, gorges, sandstone cliffs, and a large stretch of mountains that’s home to elephants, monkeys, tigers, bears, deer, and numerous plant species.
Nam Ngum Dam
Sitting in the northeastern part of the Tran Ninh Plateau, Nam Ngum is the largest lake in Laos and the first hydropower dam in the country. Sure, the lake is man-made but that doesn’t take away its beauty. This is one of the favorite picnic spots of the Vientiane locals and you can always see a lot of people fishing and swimming in the lake. It’s the perfect place if you want to unwind and see some of the charming countryside that surrounds the capital.
Wat Dane Soung
The Dang Soung Plateau was once upon a time a spiritual hub of the ancient Vientiane Kingdom. According to several historical sources, the remains of the temple that can still be found in the southern part of the plateau date back to at least 1,000 years ago.
There were several attempts to reconstruct this temple in the 1980s and 1990s but both were unsuccessful. However, the foundation of the temple and the numerous Dvarati-style Buddha images that are carved into the temple’s remains are still open to the public. If you’re like me and like getting off the beaten track, this is one place you wouldn’t want to miss.
If you want to get there, get out on the road to Luang Prabang and drive to Houakoua. After the bridge, turn left and head to Ban Nagnang (you’ll pass Ban Naxone on the way). Take the dirt-track road next to the local school and drive until you see a small lake. From here, follow the route and you’ll get to the Wat Dane Soung Jungle Temple.
Is Vientiane Safe?
Saying that Vientiane is the safest capital in Southeast Asia is probably not an exaggeration. Incidents are a rarity and scam artists aren’t as common as in some other cities. However, that doesn’t mean that you don’t need travel insurance.
Personally, I always choose World Nomads. To be honest, they are more expensive than everyone else but they provide coverage even for the least likely of events that don’t happen often but when they do, they can live you stranded. After all, it’s better to be safe than sorry.
A few words for the end
Finally, if you are looking for a busty and dynamic city, Vientiane probably wouldn’t be the best choice. The city is quite different compared to the neighboring capitals like Bangkok and Hanoi. However, Laos is a country that’s’ certainly worth a visit, especially because of its raw, untouched and unexplored nature. After the Vietnamese War, Laos became the most bombed country per capita, leaving most of its forest not reachable because of the number of active mines that’s still out there.
In Laos, all roads lead to and from Vientiane. I always say you can get an idea about a country from life in its capital, and Vientiane is an example of the laid back and calm nature of Lao people…
Helpful resources for visiting Vientiane
For the cheapest flights to Vientiane, Qatar Airways is always a great choice. To save even more, this use this Qatar Airways special offer and save big on all flights to Laos.
If you’re a student, get great discounts on all flights to Vientiane with this STA Travel offer.
For travel insurance, I always recommend World Nomads.
Do you want to rent a car in Vientiane? This offer gets you up to 30% off on all car rentals in Laos.
If you want to travel around Laos by bus or train, use 12goAsia and save big on all transportation bookings.
For saving on accommodation, this Booking.com offer gets you up to 20% on all accommodation bookings in Vientiane.
FInally, don’t forget to sort out your visa. To get your visa for Laos without a trip to the embassy, consider using Ivisa. I have used their services a few times in the past and their service is amazing.