Vientiane is quite likely to be one of the smallest capital cities you’ll visit in Asia and while it won’t have the flash or buzz of Bangkok or Hanoi, it does have its own charms and yields surprises to those who spend a little time exploring. If you only have two days, here’s what we suggest you do.
Start your day with a caffeine kick at any one of the city’s numerous cafes, many of which use stellar coffee beans grown in Laos. It’s will arguably be the best cup of coffee and croissant that you’ll have in Southeast Asia. Another option is a streetside Lao coffee. Brace yourself for the intense dose of thick strong coffee with sweet condensed milk.
After breakfast, rent a bicycle and prepare for a day of pedalling around town. Visit a few of the must-visit wats, including Wat Sisaket, Wat Ho Phra Kaew and if you’re up for a quiet, green spot further from town, Wat Sokpaluang.
For lunch, get yourself a delicious, satisfying and cheap bowl of noodle soup.
Pedal up Lane Xang and stop for a photo op at Patuxai. Climb up Vientiane’s own Arc de Triomphe for a great view of the city. Roll along to That Luang stupa, the gleaming golden symbol of Laos, and one of the country’s most important cultural sights.
Allow for at least 30 minutes to an hour at the COPE Visitor Centre to learn about the devastating US bombing campaign on the country, the current problem with UXO contamination and how this organisation is helping survivors or anyone with disabilities with prosthetics and rehabilitation. A visit to the COPE centre is an absolute must while in Vientiane.
It’s the end of the day. Head to any of our top picks for sunset on the Mekong. Grab a cold beer at a local beer bar on the river, build a sand stupa, watch as vendors set up the night market, or if for some crazy reason you still have enough energy, join the public aerobics class.
Nights can be a highlight of any time spent in this city. Vientiane has delicious Lao eats and outstanding international dining options. For Lao food, try street carts, local barbecue joints or for a restaurant setting, head to Makphet, Pha Kao Lao or Amphone.
Vientiane is famous for its French restaurants, and you won’t go wrong with the classic bistro fare on offer, but other cuisines are beginning to outshine. How about Vietnamese, Japanese, Korean, Belgian or even Brazilian? Those craving something other than sticky rice, get pizza that rivals any in Italy at Ai Capone. Those wanting steak or tapas, head to Pimenton. If you’ve never tried nem nuong, it’s a must. Head to Viengsavanh.
When day two dawns, it’s time to stimulate the body and mind. Connect with Lao traditional arts with a tour and natural dyes class at the Houey Hong Vocational Training Centre for Women. If handicraft isn’t your thing, sign up for a cooking class or a cycling, trekking and kayaking day trip in the Phou Khao Khouay National Park, only two hours away. Shop for handicraft or take a whirlwind walk through the morning market. And if you need to cool off, refresh yourself in one of Vientiane’s swimming pools.
It’s the end of the afternoon and you’ll no doubt find yourself gravitating to the Mekong. On your way there, walk through the wats to hear chanting from evening prayers. Even though the city is racing towards modernity and development, there are pockets of old traditions.
If it’s your final night then make it a lively one. Start out at some of the upscale bars for a great glass (or two) of wine or a well-made cocktail. Jazzy Brick, I-Beam, Dresden Lao and The Spirit House all have a happy hour. As the night progresses, slide on down the scale, eventually finding yourself at a lively local bar or nightclub. By then you should have made new friends and chances are you will find yourself in a karaoke bar singing Hotel California and drinking Spy coolers. Have fun! But remember, it all ends with curfew. Like Cinderella, when the clock strikes 12 it’s time to hurry home.
By Cindy Fan.
The Travelfish newsletter is sent out every Monday and is jammed full of free advice for travel in Southeast Asia. You can see past issues here.