Vientiane

Broad tree-lined avenues, the mix of French colonial and Lao architecture, and a peaceful atmosphere make Vientiane one of the most pleasant Asian cities. 

Broad tree-lined avenues, the mingling of French colonial and Lao architectural styles, and a general air of tranquillity combine to make Vientiane one of the most pleasant cities in Asia.

For a capital city, Vientiane is remarkably quiet, laid-back and, above all, petite – the population of the entire metropolitan area is fewer than 750,000 (although it is still comfortably the largest city in Laos). Indeed, the visitor familiar with the bustle of Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur or Singapore, or the free-wheeling chaos of Vientiane's sister heritage cities, Saigon and Phnom Penh, could be mistaken for thinking that they have stepped out of contemporary Asia.

Vientiane has been controlled at various times by the Vietnamese, the Siamese, the Burmese and the Khmers – and, more recently, the French. A positive result of all this outside intervention is that the streets are a compelling mélange of Lao, Thai, Chinese, Vietnamese, French and even Russian influences in architecture, cuisine and culture. It is home to a little over 10 percent of the country’s population, but a far larger share of its wealth.

A quiet timelessness pervades the city, where even the markets seem spacious and well ordered. Yet beneath the demure facade, Vientiane is lively, both culturally and socially, and much awaits those with time to explore, from beautiful temples and stark Soviet architecture to excellent dining venues.

 

When to go

Vientiane is a fine place to visit all year round, but especially good during the cool season between December and February. March and April can be very hot and hazy.

Visa requirements

Singaporeans and citizens of other ASEAN member states can visit Laos for 30 days without a visa. Make sure your passport is valid for at least six months and that you have a return or onward ticket. Visitors from many other countries can get a 30-day visa on arrival at Wattay International Airport in Vientiane for between US$30 and US$45, depending on what passport you are holding.

Money

Currency is the Lao kip. There are ATMs and currency exchange facilities at the airport. Banks in the city centre also have ATMs accepting international credit and debit cards, and can change foreign currency including Singapore dollars.

Transport

Taxis and tuk-tuks make the 15-minute journey from Wattay International Airport into town, but there is no airport bus service or other public transport. For short trips in and around Vientiane, stick to tuk-tuks and jumbos (a larger version of the tuk-tuk); the pedicab (samlo) has virtually disappeared with the increase in motorcycle and car traffic.

Health and safety tips

Although Vientiane is the capital city it's still only a medium-sized town; nevertheless watch out for motorbikes as you cross the busy streets. Petty crime is almost non-existent in Laos, although over the last few years the number of tourists reporting thefts has risen. Most crimes are easily avoided - don't flaunt your money and other valuables and always keep a lock on your suitcases. Be particularly careful of water and ice; only consume water that comes from sealed containers or has been boiled thoroughly. 

Emergency details

Singapore Embassy:

Km 3, Thadeua Road, Ban Wat Nak, Vientiane (www.mfa.gov.sg/vientiane, tel: (856) 21 353 939).
 

Police:

The tourist police are in an office next to the Tourist Information Centre on Lane Xang Avenue (tel: (856) 21 251 128).

Basic greetings
English Laotian
Hello Sabai dee
How are you? Sabai dee baw
Fine, thanks Sabai dee
Nice to meet you Nyin dee tee hu chak
Goodbye (person leaving) La gon
Goodbye (person staying) Sok dee
Excuse-me Kho thoht
Thank you Kop chai
You're welcome Baw pen nyang
What's your name? Chao seu nyang?
My name is… Koy seu…
Where are you from? Chao ma tae sai?
I come from… Koy ma tae…
Where is…? You sai…?
Bus station Satanee lotmeh
Tourist office Hong kan tong teeow
Hotel Hong haem
Restaurant Han ahan
Toilet Hong nam
How much is…? Tow dai…?

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Wat Si Muang

Convergence of Setthathirat and Samsenthai roads

Wat Si Muang is the location of the city's sacred pillar and the dwelling place of its guardian spirit. The temple dates back to the 1560s, and was built to affirm King Setthathirat's choice of Vientiane as the capital of Lan Xang. Sages chose the site, and a hole was dug to receive the massive stone pillar. Before the pillar could be lowered into the hole, a human sacrifice to the city's guardian spirit was required. Eventually a pregnant woman rushed forward and jumped in the hole. The ropes supporting the pillar were released, and the city's safety was assured.

Wat Si Saket

Setthathirat Road (opposite the Presidential Palace)

Wat Si Saket, built in 1818, was the only temple not destroyed by the Siamese when they razed the city in 1827. The ordination hall (sim) sits on a raised terrace, in a style inspired by the temples of Bangkok. Niches in the walls of the cloister and sim hold most of the temple's 6,840 silver, bronze, wood, stone and clay Buddha images. The sim also contains jataka murals depicting tales from the lives of the Buddha. Some of these have not been restored since they were originally painted in the 1820s; others were restored at the beginning of the 20th century.

Haw Pha Kaew

Setthathirat Road (next to the Presidential Palace)

Haw Pha Kaew was formerly the temple of the Lan Xang and Lao monarchy but is now a museum. King Setthathirat built the temple in 1565 to house the venerated Pha Kaew (popularly known as the Emerald Buddha) image. The Siamese looted the image in 1779 (it now resides in Wat Phra Kaew in Bangkok), and later razed the temple in the 1827–8 sacking of Vientiane. The current structure dates back to the 1940s when it was rebuilt, purportedly to the original plans. Of most interest are the Buddhist sculptures around the terrace and the gilded throne and wooden carvings in the ordination hall.

Lao Revolutionary Museum

Samsenthai Road

The Lao Revolutionary Museum was originally the residence of the French Governor. The museum displays historical photographs and artefacts relating mainly to the rise of the Pathet Lao to power. The principal rooms cover the French colonial era, the struggle for independence (1945–54), the American Resistance movement (1954–63) and the 1975 Communist victory. A few of the exhibits are captioned in English and their Communist rhetoric provides an interesting Marxist propaganda view of history, sometimes amusing to those uninitiated in the jargon. Peripheral rooms contain some Khmer sculptures.

Patuxai

Lan Xang Avenue

Vientiane's very own Arc de Triomphe, the Patuxai (Victory Gate) sits in the centre of the traffic island at the northern end of Lan Xang Avenue. Built during the 1960s, the large grey arch is sometimes called the 'vertical runway' as it was finished with concrete purchased by the USA to build a new airport runway. The monument commemorates the Lao who died in wars before the Revolution. While from a distance it resembles its Parisian counterpart, the bas-reliefs make it, on closer inspection, wholly Lao. Good views can be had from the top across the whole city.

Pha That Luang

That Luang Road, 4km (2.5 miles) northeast of the town centre

Pha That Luang is Vientiane's most sacred site, and an emblem of the Lao nation. The name means 'Great Stupa'. The current stupa dates back to King Setthathirat's reign in the 16th century. The structure suffered great damage in the 18th and 19th centuries at the hands of invading Burmese and Siamese armies and marauding Chin Haw (Chinese Muslim) gangs who stole many of the treasures inside. The French restored the stupa in 1900, but by all accounts made a bad job of it. The current spire dates to another French restoration in the 1930s based on the architect Louis Delaporte's drawings from the 1860s.

Shop

CAMAcrafts

Nokeo Khumman Road

CAMAcrafts is a non-profit store that markets Hmong and Lao handicrafts made by village women across Laos. CAMA stands for the Compassion and Mercy Associates. Their huge and attractive range includes products for the bedroom, such as duvets and pillowcases, items for the kitchen, such as oven mitts and potholders, and smaller items like bags and purses. Well worth a visit.

Budget $$

Carol Cassidy Lao Textiles

84–86 Nokeo Khumman Road

Since founding Lao Textiles in 1990, the American Carol Cassidy has played a huge role in bringing Lao arts and crafts to the attention of the world. Her shop sells beautiful silk fabrics using a mixture of tapestry, brocade and ikat techniques, all hand-dyed with natural dyes. Housed in a French colonial mansion, Carol uses Lao textile patterns combined with her own contemporary designs. Many pieces are relatively expensive, as some end up in museums and galleries overseas. The dyeing, spinning and weaving process can be seen in the workshop behind the shop.

Budget $$$

Mulberries

Nokeo Khumman Road

Sharing the same shop space as CAMAcrafts, Mulberries is a not-for-profit boutique specialising in the handmade production of naturally dyed, traditional Lao silk. The shop also offers a collection of silk clothing, scarves, shawls and other products for sale, as well as Mulberry food products and mulberry green and red tea. The company does its own silk farming, weaving and dyeing in Phonsavan in Xieng Khuang Province.

Budget $$

Talaat Sao (Morning Market)

Lan Xang Avenue

Talaat Sao is a market with just about everything and, despite its name, is open all day from 6am to 6pm. It's certainly worth visiting for textiles, clothing and electronic goods, and there are great bargains on watches, but be aware they're probably counterfeit. Bargaining is essential. The walkways between the stalls are narrow and can feel a little claustrophobic especially in the hot season. Check out the food court on the top floor, where you'll find plenty of tasty snacks at the food stalls.

Budget $

Treasures of Asia

86/08 Setthathirat Road, opposite Wat Ong Teu

Treasures of Asia, a treasure trove of contemporary Lao art, founded in 2004, represents the finest local artists and students from the National Faculty of Fine Arts. Watercolours, oils and sculpture are all on view, with styles varying from Surrealism and Cubism to classical Lao Buddhist panoramas. The shop provides a great platform for some very talented artists, and they will ship anywhere you want.

Budget $$$

Vientiane Night Market

Quai Fa Ngum, next to the Mekong River

The buzzing Night Market that springs up each evening alongside the Mekong River is a mix of cheap clothes stalls, street food vendors, mobile phone covers and the odd handicraft outlet. Although there is nothing of great quality here, it is possible to find the odd quirky souvenir. If you fancy a portrait or even a caricature of yourself there are a number of very good artists dotted around the market.

Budget $

Dine

Bistro 22

22 Samsenthai Road

Slowly but surely, Bistro 22 has built a reputation over the years for fine French cuisine. Definitely a pricey place for Vientiane, but the food is superb. A wide selection of starters, including pumpkin and blue cheese soup, accompany excellent steaks, salads and even a rabbit terrine for mains. The cheese platter is a wonderful variety of French cheeses and nuts. Vientiane is surprisingly well placed for French restaurants, a hangover from colonial times, and Bistro 22 is certainly one of the best.    

Budget $$$

Khop Chai Deu Restaurant

54 Setthathirat Road

The Khop Chai Deu, an attractive outdoor food garden in the grounds of an illuminated (and pleasantly dilapidated) two-storey French mansion, always seems to be a buzz of activity with its highly attentive staff. There's a wide range of food, including barbecue dishes, soups and salads, an international menu, ice creams and desserts, as well as an economical lunch buffet. The Lao food is a little toned down for non-Lao palates, but it's still remarkably tasty. A live band plays most evenings after 9pm.

Budget $$

Kualao Restaurant

134 Samsenthai Road

For those interested in the mysteries of Lao cuisine Kualao, an upmarket Lao restaurant in a lovely old colonial villa, is the place to experiment. It serves classic dishes such as grilled chicken wrapped in pandanus leaves, and tam som, a spicy salad made of sliced green papaya mixed with chilli peppers, garlic, tomatoes, ground peanuts, lime juice and fish sauce. There is also an evening music and traditional dance performance to accompany your dinner at no extra cost.

Budget $$

Lao Kitchen

Hengboun Road, opposite the KP Hotel

The Lao Kitchen serves authentic Lao food at great prices. The Mekong grilled fish with a plate of Lao sausages, a spicy salad and sticky rice perfectly sums up all that's good about Lao cuisine. Try one of their delicious laap dishes, either duck, catfish, pork or chicken. Laap is a spicy dish usually made from minced meat, poultry or fish and mixed with lime juice, garlic, chilli pepper, onion and mint. Vegetarians are catered for too.

Budget $

Le Banneton

46 Nokeo Khumman Road

Vientiane has a good selection of bakeries and cafés and Le Banneton ranks very highly with locals and expats. Breakfast bagels, baguettes, French pastries and perhaps the best selection of coffees in town, coupled with some excellent choices for lunch, make Le Banneton a welcome addition to Vientiane’s café scene. Their café latte, brewed with local Lao coffee beans, taken with a freshly baked pain au chocolat, is a great way to begin the day.

Budget $

Le Silapa

88 Setthathirat Road

Considered by resident expats as the best place for Western food in Vientiane, Le Silapa serves high-quality French food from an often-changing menu. Linen tablecloths, silver cutlery and a friendly, helpful staff make this a pleasant night out. The restaurant is situated above the I Beam Wine Bar, a good place to take your aperitif before climbing the stairs.

Budget $$$

Stay

Ansara Hotel

Off Fa Ngum Road, between Wat Chan and Wat Ong Teu

The beautiful Ansara Hotel, an old French colonial building, is located in a quiet lane close to the Mekong River. With great views, and an ambience often enhanced by the chanting monks at the temple nearby, it's the perfect place to relax in Vientiane. All rooms are a mix of traditional Lao and contemporary Asian design with an attention to detail rarely found in many Lao hotels. The restaurant has a fine selection of excellent wines.

Budget $$$

Auberge Sala Inpeng

63/6 Inpeng Road, Ban Wat Chan

The Auberge Sala Inpeng, with its comfortable traditional Lao bungalows set in a lovely leafy garden close to the Mekong River, offers the option of breakfast served on your own private balcony. Rooms are all decorated in Lao style with free Wi-fi available and the staff are efficient, friendly and unobtrusive. It's truly an oasis and so handy for many of the best sights and restaurants Vientiane has to offer.

Budget $

Chanthapanya Hotel

138 Nokeo Khumman Road

The Chanthapanya Hotel is a friendly, family-run establishment with 31 air-conditioned rooms, a swimming pool, spa and gym. The rooms, the corridors and the lobby are full of charming Lao arts and crafts. It's close to the river and also an easy walk to the town's bustling night market. As with so many places in Vientiane it feels like it's tucked well away, but in fact it's right in the heart of the town.

Budget $$

Green Park Hotel

12 Khu Vieng Road

The Green Park Hotel is quiet despite being located only a few minutes from the heart of bustling Vientiane. A local family have developed this beautifully designed boutique hotel with its flawless landscaping. Exquisite two-storey buildings surround a central courtyard and swimming pool. Lao-style rooms and fittings, free Wi-fi and the Champa Lao Spa plus the Sala Nong Chan Restaurant make this an excellent choice.

Budget $$$

Lao Orchid Hotel

Chao Anouo Road, near Wat Chan

Slightly set back from the river and within walking distance of some of Vientiane's more interesting temples, the Lao Orchid provides large, comfortable rooms, all air-conditioned and with satellite TV. The friendly staff are prepared to go that extra mile when helping. Try asking for a room overlooking the neighbouring temple, Wat Chan, as observing life in the temple from the balcony can be fascinating.

Budget $$

Villa Sisavad

117/12 Ban Sisavad Neua

Villa Sisavad, a friendly family-run guesthouse, is located some distance from the downtown area, not far from the Patuxai (Victory Gate), but it is well placed for a visit to Vientiane's premier attraction, Pha That Luang, Laos' most important national monument. The guesthouse has its own swimming pool and a delightful tropical garden. Rooms are adequate with cable TV, air-con and en suite bathroom. Good value considering the price.

Budget $

Boun Bang Fai (Rocket Festival)

May

Villages compete to produce the highest-flying homemade bamboo rockets, fired into the sky to celebrate fertility and call for the rains. The festival is filled with traditional music, dance, folk theatre performances and processions.


Boun Ok Pansa

October, November

Marks the end of the monks’ three-month retreat during the rainy season. On the first day offerings are made at temples; in the evening, candlelight processions are held at temples and hundreds of colourful floats are set adrift on the Mekong.


Boun Pi Mai Lao (Lao New Year)

14 April - 16 April

The entire country grinds to a halt and a three-day party begins. Buddha images are removed from temples and cleaned with scented water before citizens take to the streets to dowse one another with water.


Lao National Day

2 December

Commemorates the 1975 Communist victory in Laos and is marked by military parades, official speeches and streets festooned with flags and banners.


That Luang Temple Festival

November

A three-day religious festival held at That Luang stupa, where hundreds of monks gather to accept alms. The festival includes a candlelit procession circling That Luang, a grand fireworks display, and an international trade fair near the temple.


Vientiane Boat Race Festival

October

Held around the same time as Boun Ok Pansa, these dragon boat races on the Mekong are highly competitive and involve teams from all over Laos.


Culture

Vientiane has a number of beautiful architectural sites and they tend to be clustered in a small section of the city near the river. Start your cultural tour at the Nam Phu, the central fountain at the heart of downtown Vientiane. Walking east along Setthathirat Road you will pass the National Library, an attractive old French colonial building. Continuing on past a series of restored French colonial villas, you soon arrive at the Presidential Palace, originally built as the French colonial governor’s residence. Unfortunately the building is not open to the public.

Across Setthathirat Road from the Palace is Wat Si Saket, probably the oldest temple in Vientiane. Today it is home to the head of the Lao sangha, the order of Buddhist monks. Next door to the Presidential Palace is the former royal temple of the Lao monarchy, Haw Phra Kaew. No longer used as a temple, Haw Phra Kaew now serves as a museum; its garden is a peaceful retreat from the dust and heat.

Continuing southeast along Setthathirat Road you will pass the French Embassy on your left and a residential complex including the Roman Catholic Cathedral. From here it’s a short walk to one of the city’s most active temples, Wat Si Muang. The temple is filled with Buddha images, at least one of which dates from the 1828 Siamese invasion. Worshippers believe the image holds the power to grant wishes, and offerings are brought to the temple when a wish is fulfilled.

Places to visit:
Nam Phu, National Library, Presidential Palace, Wat Si Saket, Haw Phra Kaew, Wat Si Muang.

Foodie

It’s a surprise arriving in Vientiane and realising the depth of French cultural influence still apparent in the city. It is also a pleasure to be able to breakfast on croissants and café au lait, and there’s no better place to do this than at Le Banneton on Nokeo Khumman Road. Alternatively you might fancy a freshly baked baguette with pâté available from any number of street stalls around the town.

Lunch poses a number of agreeable alternatives, especially if you fancy something spicy as Lao food is famed for its fiery qualities. The Lao Kitchen on Hengboun Road, near the Lao National Museum, serves an excellent laap ped, a minced duck salad with fresh vegetables and sticky rice. If you don’t want it too spicy just say mai phet. If you're more in favour of a steaming bowl of noodles, make a beeline for the Noodle House. Also on Hengboun Road, it does a wonderful selection including Vietnamese-style pho, Chinese yellow noodles and the local Lao speciality khao poon, also known as Lao laksa.

After dark Vientiane’s food scene steps into overdrive. Incredible French restaurants abound, all offering exceptional value. One of the very best, Bistro 22 on Samsenthai Road, has a very refined and inventive menu. It’s a dining experience that would not be out of place in any of France’s larger cities. It’s not always on the menu, but if it is try the foie gras and finish with a crêpe au chocolat.

Places to visit:
Le Banneton, Lao Kitchen, Noodle House, Bistro 22.

Kids-friendly

Keeping the kids interested in Vientiane is difficult as most of the sights in town tend to be cultural, but if you’re prepared to spend a day travelling beyond the city limits then things can get quite rewarding. Hire a taxi and head north on Route 13 for 25km (16 miles), where the Nam Tok Tat Son waterfall lies just off the main road. The waterfall is a set of modest rapids and is a great place to splash about and have a swim.

Continuing north along Route 13 you’ll come to Talaat Lak Haa-Sip Sawng (Km 52 Market), a large daily market, and from here on to Vang Sang or 'Elephant Place', an old Mon sanctuary featuring 10 sculptures of the Buddha on cliffs. The name refers to an elephant graveyard found nearby.

Still on Route 13, head to the town of Phon Hong and turn off east to Ang Nam Ngum, a large reservoir. At the main pier in Na Keun take a boat cruise around the large lake and view the beautiful scenery. Restaurants on the waterfront offer tasty fish lunches.

From Na Keun head south towards Vientiane to the town of Ban Keun. Just before the town lies the Thulakhom Zoo also known as the Lao Zoo. The zoo has tigers, macaques, sun bears, a white elephant and plenty of other animals and birds to keep the kids happy. From the zoo it’s a 60km (37-mile) trip back to Vientiane along Route 10.

Places to visit:
Nam Tok Tat Son , Talaat Lak Haa-Sip Sawng , Vang Sang, Ang Nam Ngum , Thulakhom Zoo.