When people arrive in Laos, the land-locked, slow-moving, peaceful country in Southeast Asia, they generally gravitate toward Luang Prabang as far as cities. But while a different vibe, the capital city of Vientiane has a lot to offer. It’s much larger, and more crowded and busy, than Luang Prabang to be sure. But it is well worth a few days spent, especially if you are flying through Vientiane — and if you stay in a great location like the Salana Boutique Hotel, where we stayed, it makes navigating the city even easier.
Keith and I were beginning our international flight home from Vientiane after our recent trip to Laos, and so we decided to arrive in the city two days early and explore what it had to offer. While I loved the laid-back charm of Luang Prabang immensely, Vientiane was quite interesting in its own right.
Here are my picks for a 48-hour itinerary in Vientiane:
1. Rent a bicycle
Getting around Luang Prabang is also very enjoyable on bike; but the larger sprawl of Vientiane, combined with fairly expensive taxi fairs for Southeast Asia, means that a bicycle can offer you a much easier and more independent way to get around the city. On our first morning, Keith and I rented bikes from our hotel, the Salana, for $3 per day each. We went everywhere on those bikes. For myself, the traffic of Vientiane got to be a little nerve-wracking because I am not the best or most confident cyclist. However, we found it fairly easy to plot our course to avoid the busiest thoroughfares — and found some charming streets and neighborhoods along the way. TIP: Biking along the recently developed river waterfront lanes was particularly nice.
2. Start your day at Le Banneton
Stop by this charming French bakery just a few blocks from the Salana hotel. The bread and pastries are to die for, as are the smoothies and coffee. I admit that we had lunch there, not breakfast — and while our lunch baguette sandwiches were delicious, had I found this place the first day it would have made a great breakfast stop to fuel up for touring the city.
In this land of thousands of wats, or Buddhist temples, Wat Si Saket is not to be missed in Vientiane. It is right across the street from the Presidential Palace so you can take a look at its imposing beaux-arts facade on your way to Wat Si Saket; but the palace is used mainly for ceremonial occasions and not open to the public. Wat Si Saket has been impeccably restored in a way that I really liked; it wasn’t “glitzed” over, but rather underwent a 2011 restoration of complete integrity that doesn’t mar the original architectural wonder. Thousands of Buddha’s line the four walls that surround the wat, which is filled with exquisite murals.
4. Talat Sao Market
If you want to take home some Lao textiles or jewelry, this is the place. According to Keith, who was in Laos about 8 years ago, this place has been modernized from the more traditional market it used to be. The exterior is quite underwhelming — it looks rather like a shopping mall. Even when you first walk in, it seems dubious; many of the stalls are filled with either cheap made-in-China souvenirs or everyday household items for locals. But venture into the indoors section and upstairs, where you will find many stores selling high quality jewelry and handmade local textiles. Worth wandering around a bit. TIP: You might hear this referred to as the “morning market,” but as far as I can tell it’s open until late afternoon.
This is a quite interesting piece of architecture, Lao’s nod to the Arc de Triomphe of Paris. Like the French arch, this one also sits grandly in the middle of a busy intersection roundabout. It was built in the 1960s with cement purchased from the U.S. that was supposed to have been used for a new airport. The views from the top are quite nice, and the arch is an interesting counterpoint to the more traditional Asian architecture. TIP: Don’t pass by the marker at the entrance, which is amusing in its honesty: “From a closer distance, it appears even less impressive, like a monster of concrete.”
6. Fabulous French Lunch for Dollars
Although I found Lao food to be quite delicious, the French influence here also means that there is some damn fine French food to be found — and possibly nowhere else in the world can you eat fine French cuisine more cheaply. Lunch is an especially good deal at places like Le Vendome, tucked away in an old house a block away from the Salana Boutique Hotel. Daily lunch (and dinner) menus are priced extremely reasonably, but you can’t beat the revolving weekday lunch special, three courses for only 22,000K — about $3. Several others are also highly recommended, such as Chez Philippe and Le Silapa.
7. Get a massage and herbal sauna
As in most places in Southeast Asia, massages are plentiful and inexpensive, usually around $5 per hour for a basic body massage in Laos. Of course, just because a massage is cheap doesn’t mean it’s good; I’ve had some great and some terrible massages in Asia. Check a place out in a guidebook or ask at your hotel to make sure people are trained and skillful, or they might do more harm than good. In Vientiane in particular, in addition to massage the herbal saunas are also popular, and heavenly. My absolute favorite was called the Herbal Sauna, also just down the street from our hotel on Chao Anou. Here I got a one-hour body scrub, an absolutely wonderful one-hour massage, and in between I sat in the herbal sauna, which not only felt wonderful and detoxifying on my skin, but the herbs used are so aromatically delightful that they really make the experience. Total cost for this three-hour splurge of relaxation? $15. There is also a wat that offers herbal sauna and massage, interestingly enough — Wat Sok Pa Luang, a little on the outskirts of the main part of town. I had a massage here too, and it was nice; but the Herbal Sauna couldn’t be beat.
This is a very interesting place, toward the outer edge of city center but still easily bikable (if I can do it, most people can!). Pha That Luang itself is a gold-covered stupa surrounded by a fortress-like wall. But it’s part of a larger complex that includes a very large, very new Buddhist wat and several small cemeteries filled with stupas. The wat itself is not very interesting; big and glitzy to be sure, but lacking in history or character. However, just to the one side is a very interesting large old tree that is surrounded by Buddha statues in varying poses, and the cemeteries filled with stupas are quite interesting and very photographic.
9. Wandering the Riverfront and Eating in Open-Air Restaurants
The riverfront has been developed in the last few years, and still being developed and constructed. It’s quite nice and a big gathering place for locals; smooth car-free paths are popular with cyclists, roller bladers and joggers and lots of couples and families sit and stroll here. The market stalls that spring up in the evening are largely uninteresting, but still fun to walk around. Just a block up Chao Anou you will find several open-air restaurants just next to each other; it is a very pleasant place to get a fresh, delicious home-cooked meal for only a few dollars, and just as pleasant to eat and people-watch. Keith and I went to two of them, and both were delicious.
10. Salana Boutique Hotel
I’ve mentioned before that we stayed at Salana during our time in Vientiane, and I highly recommend it. It truly is a boutique hotel — small, beautifully and impeccably decorated, very comfortable and excellent service. The location is simply superb; within walking distance to the French bakery and restaurant I’ve already mentioned as well as the street restaurants, riverfront, Wat Si Saket and Herbal Sauna. Our room was quite nice, they have wi-fi and a restaurant and bar — really all the modern conveniences you might want. And the rates are still very reasonable, running between $80-150 depending on the time of year and the room.
Have fun, and travel well!