A Vientiane Visitor Guide

Our Favorites + Top Tips for Visitors
from Living + Working in Vientiane


About this Visitor Guide


Lori and I have attempted to put together a guide for visitors to Vientiane based on our own experiences in this unique city. We’ve recently had a string of visitors, with more on the way in the next couple of weeks, which has resulted in the bringing together of a lot of information that we’d like to share with you. We hope this guide helps answer questions of what to do in Vientiane, where to eat and drink, where to stay, and how best to approach this often overlooked corner of Southeast Asia.

We think we have a unique perspective to lend, given that we’re not only living (and working) here, but visited as backpackers four years prior. Compared to other foreigners we’ve met living here, it also appears we may be a bit more curious and more willing to explore than a lot of folks, even with a baby in tow.

This isn’t intended to be a comprehensive travel guide, but rather a modest list of our favorite Vientiane experiences, along with some helpful tips.


Contents



Approaching Vientiane


We’ve yet to come across another the city for which travelers have such divergent opinions. How you interact, as a visitor, with Vientiane, and your ultimate perception of this place very much depend on your own experience and perspective.

In this way, your opinion on Vientiane may have much more to do with you, personally, than the city, itself.

Lori and I first approached Vientiane via a long bus ride from Luang Prabang, and we approached Laos, in general, on the heels of four months of budget backpacking through China, India and Thailand. For us, the laid back and friendly nature of the Laos people and culture was a breath of fresh air after struggling for months with aggressive peddlers, aggravating taxi/tuk-tuk drivers, and relentless hustlers.

Of the six national capitals we traveled through during that time, Vientiane was the only one we new absolutely nothing about, and at just over half a million inhabitants, by the far the smallest.

We literally had zero expectations and found Vientiane a most agreeable place.

For you, Vientiane may represent a relaxing foodie paradise a world apart from the materialism and go-go-go of better known Southeast Asian capital cities, or it may represent nothing more than a boring cultural backwater, depending on your point of view.

If you visit expecting to find French-colonial charm and evocative Buddhist temples on par with Luang Prabang, you may well be disappointed.

If you come expecting to find a fast-paced, maddening, cosmopolitan mega-city comparable to Bangkok or Ho Chi Minh City, you’ll also likely find yourself disappointed.

If, however, you come to Vientiane with few preconceptions, an open mind, and an adventurous spirit, you will likely find yourself well-rewarded for your efforts.

For general background information on Vientiane, visit: wikipedia.org/wiki/Vientiane.


Map of Vientiane


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DOs & DON’Ts


  • DON’T wait until the last minute to book inbound flights, particularly from Europe or the Americas.
  • DON’T be afraid to visit in the rainy/low season — guesthouses will often offer a discount and booking ahead generally won’t be necessary.
  • DO book ahead in high season (December-February) if you don’t have flexibility of time, cost or location.
  • DO take a tuk-tuk or songteau around the city center.
  • DO check business hours ahead of time — many shops, restaurants and museums are closed on Mondays.
  • DON’T bargain too hard — Laotian vendors are generally fair and honest and don’t mark up their wares for tourists like neighboring countries.
  • DO use the calculator on your phone to agree on a price — If you learn a few numbers in Lao ahead of time, even better.
  • DO stay as close to the city center as possible or budget for transport.
  • DO try and speak some Lao while in Vientiane.
  • DO treat the monks with the utmost respect — ladies, avoid situations that might place you in accidental contact.
  • DON’T worry about flushing toilet paper or placing in receptacle — if there is an obvious receptacle, use it, but Vientiane’s plumbing is surprisingly forgiving.
  • DON’T flush anything but toilet paper — You will live to regret it.
  • DON’T drink the tap water — Brushing teeth and showering in the tap water is perfectly fine. You can generally bet on water and ice cubes served at restaurants being filtered and good to drink.
  • DO eat street food — But be cautious of food (particularly meat) that is not hot and/or has been sitting out for a while. Food hot off the grill/wok is generally fine.
  • DO consider a probiotic regimen before visiting Vientiane if you have concerns about eating local/street food or have experienced issues in the past.
  • DO visit a local fresh market.
  • DO catch at least one Mekong sunset during your stay here — they are pretty amazing.
  • DON’T forget to smile and be polite — Laotians, in general, put enormous value on friendliness and politeness.


What to See + Do in Vientiane?


If you’re staying downtown, you have the lion’s share of Vientiane’s best eateries footsteps away.

You also have a half dozen interesting and historic Buddhist temples to wander through, along with opportunities to commune with the locals and the Mother of Waters, the Mekong River.

Unfortunately for visitors, however, Vientiane’s main attractions are spread over many miles across the city.

While it is possible to walk, there are better ways to see all of the sights, particularly when things really start to heat up from March to October. For more info on getting around, see Vientiane Transport Tips below.

Here’s a list of top sights in Vientiane worth seeing, along with some of our lesser-known favorites.

Top Attractions

Other Worthwhile Attractions

Far From City Centre


Where to Eat + Drink in Vientiane?


There are way too many great restaurants and bars to list here, so Lori and I are only giving you our favorites (so far).

Most of these places are budget to mid-range. We know there are a lot of fancier, more expensive options in Vientiane now, but we don’t tend to go to those places, so we can’t recommend them.

On the other side of the spectrum, there are a lot of local/ street food eateries we really enjoy, particularly in our neighborhood, which are challenging to describe here as they don’t have English/pinyin names and are far from the typical tourist destinations. However, we’re hoping to devote a future post mapping our favorites.

Our Go-To Places for Short-term Visitors

  • Makphet  downtown  Lao food & outdoor garden atmosphere (we go for dinner).
  • Kong View  on Mekong near airport  Lao food, outdoor atmosphere & Mekong sunset views (we go for dinner).
  • Kualao  downtown  Lao food and traditional music & dance performances (dinner).
  • Khop Chai Deu  downtown  Lao food & outdoor ambience (we go for dinner).
  • Lao Kitchen  downtown  Lao food (we go for dinner).
  • PVO  near Wat Si Muang  awesome Vietnamese food (lunch).
  • Kung’s Cafe  near Wat Si Muang  Lao food (we go for breakfast/brunch).
  • Ray’s Capitol Grille  downtown  for international cuisine & city views (we go for breakfast/brunch & dinner).
  • Côté Jardin  Sisattanak District  for French food & funky outdoor garden atmosphere (we go for dinner).
  • Kheg  near Patuxay  Lao food & outdoor garden atmosphere (we go for lunch).
  • Doi Ka Noi  near That Luang  Lao food & outdoor garden atmosphere (we go for lunch/ dinner on weekends).
  • Koon Duck  various locations/ M-Point Mart  Lao & Thai street food (dinner).

Our Go-To Places for International Eats

  • Ban Gai  Sisattanak  for Tex-Mex (but they do have Indian food as well).
  • The Koki  Phontan village  for Korean food with too many sides to count (we go for dinner).
  • Urdu Cafe  That Luang  for Pakistani food and homey atmosphere(dinner).
  • Taj Mahal Halal  downtown  for delicious Indian Muslim food (dinner)
  • Sputnik Burger  downtown  for great burgers! (dinner)
  • Flavours & Spices  Sisattanak  for flavorful Indian food (dosas!)
  • Soul Kitchen  Sisattanak  Superb Italian/Pizza (dinner).
  • La Cave Des Chateau  downtown  Classic French bistro tucked in a quiet corner (dinner).
  • Fohn’s Pizza  Sisattanak  Pizza. Great pizza (we go for dinner).
  • Senglao Cafe  Saysettha  Lao and International cuisine in a hollywood-themed garden setting.

Our Favorite Watering Holes:

  • Mekong Zone  downtown/waterfront  Nearly a quarter mile of local bars and eateries fronting the Mekong.
  • The Jazzy Brick  downtown  Cozy atmosphere with superb cocktails.
  • Khop Chai Deu  downtown  Multiple levels of outdoor drinking opportunities.
  • Ban Lao Beer Garden  downtown  Funkiest and most laid back beer garden in town.
  • Chokdee Belgian Beer Bar  downtown  Enjoy one of dozens of Belgian beers on the upper outdoor balcony.
  • Bor Pen Yang  downtown/waterfront  A bit of a hike up to the fourth level, but worth it for the Mekong sunset views!
  • The Beer House  downtown  Belgian beers galore, in a cozy, garden atmosphere.
  • Spirit House  downtown/waterfront  The premiere watering hole on the Mekong with one of the largest drink menus in town.
  • Suntara  downtown/waterfront  Newly opened in the Vientiane New World complex. Mekong views from a large deck.
  • O’Grady’s Irish Bar  Sisattanak  More expat hangout than hardcore Irish Pub, serving Rock Brew, the only local craft brews on tap in Vientiane.
  • Mekong Beach  Don Chan (island)  BYOB and hang out on the Mekong’s sandy beach in the dry season.

Our Favorite Coffee Shops/Cafes

  • Little House Cafe  near Wat Si Muang  superb coffee, amazing pastries and desserts, and nice outdoor garden area (try their double-strength iced coffee and rich chocolate truffle balls).
  • Le Trio Coffee  downtown  superb coffee, roasted in-house — this is where I get my coffee beans for home brewing (they’ve got good cold brew served in a whiskey bottle).
  • The Coffee Bar at Lao Derm  downtown  not cheap, but very unique and worth a visit (check out there crazy brewing processes).
  • Common Grounds  downtown  comfortable cafe with Western cafe offerings (+kid play area).
  • JOMA  downtown   Phontan Village   That Luang  North American style coffee shop with Western cafe offerings (try their smoked salmon bagel sandwich & Signature Lao Iced Coffee) (+kid play area at Phontan location).
  • Once Upon a Time  Phontan Village  good food, coffee & comfy tropical-industrial ambience.
  • Le Banneton  downtown  longstanding French bakery (their croque monsieur & pastries are awesome).
  • Cafe Vanille  Saphangmore Village  apparently where expats go to see and be seen. Carbon-copy menu of Le Banneton (I’ve enjoyed the baguette and cheese plate).
  • Cafe Sinouk  various locations  great local coffee chain.

Where to Stay in Vientiane?


We live here, of course! So we haven’t had a lot of need for lodging away from our home. Be that as it may, we’ve done a lot of research and walking about town in the off chance our guests didn’t want to stay with us (which hasn’t happened yet).

Here is our list of places we’d recommended to our own family and friends visiting from out of town.

There are a few swanky international brand hotels, but Lori and I prefer independently owned and operated guest houses, so that’s what you’re going to find here.

Budget

  • Lao Silk Hotel  downtown  Hard to beat the location of this one for the price. Good reviews, great nightly rates, right in the heart of things. More Info
  • Sinnakhone Hotel  downtown  Another bargain for the location. More Info

Midrange/Upmarket

  • Salana Boutique Hotel  downtown  Great location, exceptional views, good value for the money. More Info
  • Ansara Hotel  downtown  A large urban retreat between two Buddhist temples in a lovely garden setting in the heart of  downtown. More Info


Vientiane Transport Tips


To/From Vientiane

  • Vientiane is NOT a major travel hub and can be costly to fly into. Many carriers, however, offer deep discounts 90 days or more prior to departure date.
  • Think twice before booking a flight to Bangkok or Udon Thani (Thailand) with the intention of taking land transport the rest of the way to Vientiane. If you have plenty of time and want to go this route for the experience, by all means, do it! If you’re short on time and want to go this route simply to save money, it may very well end up costing you more money than flying into Vientiane, not to mention costing you valuable time.
  • As of February 2017, getting a visa on arrival at Wattay International Airport is quick and painless for most nationalities. For U.S. citizens, you just need to bring your passport, a passport size photograph, the paperwork you receive on your incoming flight, and the visa fee in U.S. currency (USD). Currently the fee is US$35 for U.S. citizens.
  • There are regularly scheduled overnight trains from Bangkok to Nong Khai, Thailand (just over the Friendship Bridge from Laos), from which you can catch a shuttle train over the bridge/Mekong/Laos-Thai border to Thanaleng Station in Laos. Unfortunately, Thanaleng Station is 14 miles from downtown Vientiane — but, there are shared minivans at the station to take you the rest of the way. We’ve found the Thai sleeper cars to be very comfortable and a good value for the money.
  • Vientiane has three major bus stations. For destinations in Vientiane Prefecture (such as Buddha Park) most buses currently leave from behind the old Kua Din bus station (near Talat Sao / Morning Market). Northbound intercity buses (Veng Viang, Luang Prabang, etc.) leave from the Northern Bus Station just north of the Wattay International Airport. Southbound intercity buses (Thakhek, Savannakhet, etc.) leave from the Southern Bus Station, about 7 mi. northeast of town, naturally.
  • Currently, only a handful of carriers have regularly scheduled international non-stop service to Wattay International Airport. Cities with nonstop service include Bangkok (Thailand), Hanoi & Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam), Kunming & Nanning (China), Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia), Seoul (South Korea), Siem Reap & Phnom Penh (Cambodia).
  • The primary airline companies that operate out of Wattay International are Lao Airlines, Lao Skyway, Thai Airways, AirAsia, Bangkok Airways, Cambodia Angkor Air, China Eastern Airlines, Jin Air, Sky Wings Asia Airlines, T’way Airlines and Vietnam Airlines.
  • Transport to/from the airport and bus stations is straightforward. At the airport, visit the Taxi desk near the front doors to arrange an official taxi to any place in town. In terms of getting to the airport or any of the bus stations, your guesthouse can easily arrange a pick-up, or you can flag down a tuk-tuk or songteau at any of a number of points downtown.
  • Oddly, we’ve consistently had to pay more for tuk-tuks and songteaus than taxis, so keep in mind that a taxi may be the cheapest option for a private hire.

 

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Getting Around Vientiane

  • If you’re only in Vientiane for a few days and staying downtown, you won’t need to worry much about transportation. The majority of the city’s best eats are concentrated downtown in a four-block corridor along the Mekong. Some of the cities more major attractions, such as Wat Si Saket, That Dam and the Lao National Museum, can also be easily accessed on foot.
  • Vientiane is one of the few major cities in Southeast Asia that doesn’t yet have a comprehensive public transit system. With the exception of taking the #14 bus from Kua Din station to the Lao-Thai Friendship Bridge or Buddha Park, the public bus and songteau routes that do exist are not easy to figure out for those with minimal Lao language skills. However, there are still several options for getting around outside the city center.
  • For seeing sights further afield, tuk-tuks and songteaus are common throughout the downtown area, but are far more costly than Thai cities, and individual trips can quickly add up if you are trying to see a lot outside of the city center. A smarter idea may be to hire a taxi or tuk-tuk through your guesthouse for a set number of hours if you plan to be moving around a lot. Renting a bicycle is also a great option for getting around downtown, and bicycles can be rented from a number of guesthouses in the city center. Bicycling can also be a great way to see farther off sights, such as Patuxay and That Luang, but many visitors may feel uncomfortable riding in Vientiane traffic, particularly around rush hour. Sundays are generally a great day for bicycling throughout the city. Depending on your plans during and after your visit to Vientiane, renting a car may be a better choice. A few major rental car companies have offices at Wattay International Airport. We’ve found that Budget generally has the best rates.
  • If you’d rather have your transport planned out and see as much as possible in a short amount of time, there are opportunities to join a group or private city tour (see the section below for more details). We’ve heard good things about Tuk Tuk Safari, but have never utilized their services, ourselves. There are also rumors of a new Hop-On-Hop-Off bus, but details are sketchy at present. Check back for updates!
  • Transport to/from the airport and bus stations is straightforward. At the airport, visit the Taxi desk near the front doors to arrange an official taxi to any place in town. In terms of getting to the airport or any of the bus stations, your guesthouse can easily arrange a pick-up, or you can flag down a tuk-tuk or songteau at any of a number of points downtown.
  • As mentioned above, we’ve consistently had to pay more for tuk-tuks and songteaus than taxis, so keep in mind that a taxi may be the cheapest option for a private hire.

Want to Go With a Group Instead? Or Maybe Book a Day Tour?



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Practical Information


Language

The most widely spoken language in Laos is Lao, which bears some semblance to Thai. While a former French colony, you may not hear French widely spoken in Vientiane today. English is becoming increasingly more common, particularly among those under the age of 40.

Time Zone

Vientiane time is GMT/UTC+7.

Simple time zone conversion online resource: thetimezoneconverter.com

Electricity

The most common outlets accommodate 230-volt, 2-prong Euro or North American-style electrical plug (see photo below). Any U.S. 2-prong plug device that’s rated for 230v (e.g. most home electronics chargers which are generally 110v-240v) will work perfectly here. 3-prong (grounded) plugs will need an adapter. Most standard 2-prong Euro-style plugs should work fine (though we’ve found some have a tendency to have a problem staying seated firmly in the socket).

Public Restrooms

Public restrooms cost between 1000-2000 Kip, so keep a few small bills on you in case the spirit catches you.

Tropical Diseases & Prevention

Yes! Vientiane is in the tropics and does have the occasional outbreak of mosquito-borne infectious diseases. It also harbors its fair share of food-borne illness.

Visit a reputable travel clinic, preferably staffed with providers with knowledge and experience of Southeast Asia, well before your departure date.

To find a travel clinic near you, visit the International Society of Travel Medicine’s Online Clinic Directory.


More AwayGoWe.com Vientiane Posts


Vientiane – 4 Years Ago

Vientiane – 4 Years Later

More about Vientiane from AwayGoWe.com…


Our Photo Gear


Lori and I use a combination of my Canon 6D and our unlocked GSM iPhones to capture our travels for ourselves, family & friends, and the world.

I’ve used a number of cameras over the years and have no plans to give up my Canon 6D any time soon, even three years on.

Lori and I are still rocking our iPhone 5 and 5s, and find them incredibly convenient for all the times we just don’t want to take a full-size camera around. We’ve been pleased with the image quality of these older phones, but they really can’t compare to the stunning quality of the iPhone 7, iPhone 6s or even the slimmer iPhone SE.

Use Your Unlocked GSM Phone Overseas

If you’re planning to use your phone for international travel, make sure that it is a factory unlocked, GSM phone! Most of the world uses inexpensive GSM SIM cards that can be “topped up” for far less than international roaming fees. Plus, many of these SIMs allow data, so you can stay connected via 3G and LTE for cheap!

If you live in the U.S. (as of February 2017) unlocked GSM phones are compatible with AT&T, T-Mobile and a handful of smaller companies such as Cricket. Your current phone from AT&T and T-Mobile may even be eligible for unlocking at no additional charge (contact your carrier for more details).

GSM phones are not compatible with CDMA networks such as Verizon and Sprint. As most of the world uses GSM, CDMA won’t get you very far outside of the U.S., unless you’re comfortable with potentially expensive international roaming fees. Check with your carrier for roaming rates before you travel!


Don’t Forget Travel Insurance!


For independent travel, Lori and I always get a travel insurance policy, and for short-term trips (<1 year) we’ve always used World Nomads.

We often find ourselves in countries with limited infrastructure and health care services, and while basic health care costs in many of these places are far lower than North America or Western Europe, anything serious often requires an airlift to a better equipped medical facility in a neighboring country, and medevac (medical evacuation) can be ridiculously expensive. Even if you have health care coverage from your home country, many policies won’t cover global travel or medevac.

In addition to medical and medevac coverage, World Nomads plans also cover the basics such as delays and cancellations, lost luggage and theft.

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Recommended Travel Guides for Visiting Vientiane


Guide Book of Choice: Lonely Planet Laos

(Tip: This is by far the best guide out there right now…BUT…if you’re not traveling until after June, LP’s releasing a brand new edition on June 20, 2017. Pre-Order the new version now.)

Culture Shock! Laos by Robert Cooper


Disclosure: Some of the links in this post are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers.

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