Hugging a bend along the Mekong River as it winds south between Thailand and Laos, Vientiane first appears a rather non-assuming town with a mixture of French, Chinese and Vietnamese-style buildings interspersed among Buddhist temples and modern structures.
Busy and hectic compared to the rest of the country, with a population just a little over 200,000 Vientiane is quieter and more laidback than other capital cities in Southeast Asia. Don’t let that fool you, though. As quiet and unassuming Vientiane might first appear, it is an exciting and vibrant city filled with antique shops, quaint open-air cafés, and a trove of restaurants and guesthouses, amidst cultural landmarks steeped in Laos’s historical heritage.
The origin of the name Vientiane is rather interesting: it either means “the King’s grove of sandalwood” in Pali or “City of the Moon” in native Lao Language and today’s spelling is of French origin. Depending on whatever name origin you choose, Vientiane is a city that has retained much of its exotic Indochina charm amidst dizzying modernization.
The gateway for exploring Laos for some travelers might begin at Wattay International Airport—which is just a short taxi or tuk-tuk ride downtown to many of the hotels and guesthouses (which are the best bet for budget-minded travelers). The town always seems busy with travelers and tourists coming and going.
Most travelers spend two or three days here before heading north to Louang Prabang or south to Chiang Mai and Bangkok or perhaps even further to Siem Reap or Hanoi. That’s pretty much all the time you would need to take in most of the sights here unless you are like me and just want to have a week to chill out, enjoy some delicious Lao food, and enjoy sitting outside some café.
Most of Vientiane’s landmarks can seen in two or three days. For starters there’s Patouxai, Vientiane’s very own Arc de Triomphe and That Louang, the country’s symbol of national unity and Buddhism. There’s also the mysterious-looking chedi, That Dam—what really is inside?
If Buddhism is your thing, Vientiane has two very important temples Wat Phra Kaew (yes, like the one in Bangkok, and there is a reason for the same-sounding name—the Emerald Buddha, now in Wat Phra Kaeo in Bangkok, used to be here in Vientiane) and Wat Si Saket, located right across the street.
There is also a museum that might be a little short on artifacts, but not on historical scope. All of these landmarks can easily be walked to from most of the guesthouses along the Mekong River and side streets.
However, the best way to get around Vientiane is by renting some bicycles and riding around the city. You can rent one for the day from most guesthouses.
Of course, there are always tuk-tuks to get around, but they can be a little expensive and in many cases a rip-off for unsuspecting tourists. You might not think twice about spending 2,000-3,000 Kip for a tuk-tuk to get from say Wat Si Saket to That Louang (you could walk there in under an hour if you wanted at a nice leisurely stroll) but it’s still a little pricey. Most of the rates are already fixed so there’s no negotiation.
That’s why one is better off walking or renting bicycles. You are really not that far from most places—the farthest place being That Louang if you are walking from Fa Ngum Road or Setthathilat Road (which runs parallel to Fa Ngum Road).
And no trip or stay in Vientiane would be complete without having at least one or two baguette sandwiches, which are sold throughout the city—from sidewalk vendors and cafés. Without question, it’s some of the finest bread you’ll ever taste in your travels in Southeast Asia.
After you have had your fill of Vientiane—whether it is visiting it’s stunning landmarks, enjoying its tasty baguettes, or strolling along the Mekong at night—and it’s time to move on to your next destination, you just might find yourself missing this quaint, historical and charming city along the banks of the Mekong.