With a population of only half a million people, Vientiane is a relatively compact capital, so most districts that are of interest to visitors are fairly close to each other and easily accessible by foot or bicycle. For longer journeys tuk-tuks or taxis are the way to go, or the more intrepid traveler can hire a motorcycle. In terms of orientation, Vientiane is divided into villages, or bans, the names of which can be useful to know when trying to direct a tuk-tuk driver.
Around Talat Sao The two-story, covered Morning Market (Talat Sao) is the true center of Vientiane, with the main post office, bus station and tourist information office nearby, as well as a number of banks and government offices on the surrounding streets. While the market itself is a shopper's paradise, plenty of other buying opportunities are worth checking out in this area. Opposite the southern side of the Talat Sao and next to the post office is the Ethnic Handicraft Market, featuring goods from every province in the country. On the eastern side of Talat Sao is the central bus station for travelers heading north, south or west, and next to it stands Talat Khuadin. The covered part of this market sells dry goods very similar to those offered in Talat Sao, but often at a slightly cheaper price. For a truly local experience, venture to the uncovered back section. There you will find rickety stalls planted on the dirt floor selling local produce--everything from fruits and vegetables to freshly slaughtered pigs, heads included.
Opposite the western side of Talat Sao are a number of banks and the immigration office should you need to extend your visa. The Royal Dokmaideng Hotel is also located here. Lovers of history and architecture will enjoy the French colonial buildings of the area, as well as the Presidential Palace . The oldest surviving temple in Vientiane, Wat Sisakhet , and Ho Phrakeo , a former royal temple which now operates as a museum, are of particular interest.
Ban Mixay and Ban Sisaket These two districts lie next to each other west of Talat Sao and contain three of the main arteries of Vientiane--Samsenthai Road, Setthathirat Road and Fa Ngum Road, which run parallel to each other. This area is also where most tourists eat, sleep, drink, and spend money, and it is thus filled with restaurants, guesthouses, shops and Internet cafes.
Samsenthai Road is home to the high end Lao Plaza Hotel , as well as less fancy accommodation options including the Asia Pavilion and Lao-Paris Hotel , and numerous budget guesthouses. It is also something of a cultural hub with the National Stadium , Lao National Museum and the Lao National Culture Hall all standing within a stone's throw of each other.
Connecting Samsenthai and Setthathirat Roads are a number of side streets, the busiest of which is Pangkham Street, lined with tailor shops and terminating at Nam Phu Fountain . Around and near the fountain are a number of good eateries, including Le Provencal , L'Opera , the Scandinavian Bakery , Khop Chai Deu and the Gourmet Mediterranean Delicatessan. On Setthathirat Road you will also find the National Library , Satri Lao Silk , more restaurants, pubs, guesthouses, cyber cafes and a number of temples.
Fa Ngum Road sits on the bank of the Mekong River. Many small streets that connect with it reward exploration with some great souvenir and handicraft shops, including Mandalay Furniture and Camacrafts . Fa Ngum Road is home to the Lane Xang Hotel , as well as numerous restaurants. Very enjoyable are the open-air eateries with terraces overlooking the river, serving local beer and food, as well as a variety of foreign cuisines.
Chinatown This small area of roughly half a dozen streets is best seen at night, when it comes alive with a myriad of food stalls lining the pavement. On one street you will find cakes and pastries, on another fresh fruit and on a third a selection of savory treats and fresh soymilk. This is also the place to come for a cheap dim sum lunch or a Japanese feast at Kitchen Tokyo. On a more mundane note, it is also where most of the laundry and dry cleaning services in Vientiane are to be found.
That Luang The northern part of the city is centered around That Luang , the most important and sacred temple in the country. Aside from the temple itself, the main points of interest for visitors are That Luang Market , the That Luang Dok Mai Plant Market and Patuxai Monument .
KM4 The rest of the city consists mainly of residential areas, holding little interest to the visitor, with the exception of KM4. This is, literally, four kilometers from the city center along Tha Deua Road. During the day it is a good place to shop for cane and rattan ware, including furniture. At night there are a number of restaurants and entertainment venues clustered close to each other, including the KM4 Restaurant , Watchnaraporn , Lao Bowling Centre , and Queen Bee and Meena nightclubs.
All in all, the minuscule size of this capital city makes it very easy to navigate. The curious will be able to explore intricacies of the different neighborhoods with ease. The less adventurous, though, need only to find his or her way to the Mekong by sunset, pull up a seat and watch the sun return to the depths of the river.
Lao people love eating out. Whether slurping a bowl of hot noodle soup for breakfast, popping out for spring rolls for lunch or settling into a substantial evening meal, eating and drinking is a social occasion. Visitors to Vientiane can enjoy the atmosphere, as well as local and international cuisine, in a wide range of eating spots. Street-side stalls and cafes offer a splendid Mekong River sunset view, while exquisite restaurants impress customers with immaculate decor. Vientiane caters, at reasonable prices, to most tastes in food and drink.
French culinary influence lingers in Lao in the smell of freshly baked crusty baguettes. First thing in the morning, street vendors serve them, Lao-style, with a drizzle of condensed milk, or as part of a cafe breakfast. The Sabaidee Restaurant , in the historic quarter, serves a substantial “Lao/American Breakfast” in a shady courtyard setting. The nearby Healthy & Fresh Bakery offers tempting breakfast choices including waffles, muesli and fruit juice, not forgetting blueberry pancakes.
A good spot to watch Vientiane waking up is along the Mekong waterfront. Cafes serving Lao breakfasts and all day meals line the street. Pick a corner spot at Nok Noy Noodle Shop , and try khao pirsen, chunky rice noodles smothered in a delicious broth, or wake up swiftly with a cup of strong Lao coffee (grown in the southern highlands) sweetened with condensed milk.
Baguettes stuffed with pate and vegetables, sold at stalls near Talat Sao (Morning Market) from early until late, are another legacy of French cuisine, but the addition of chili sauce can shock the palate. Making the best filled baguettes in town, as well as some tasty Vietnamese options, PVO Cafe on Thanon Samsenthai is open all day for takeaway or eat-in meals.
Lunch in central Vientiane is international. Italian sandwiches can be savored at the Gourmet Mediterranean Delicatessan on Thanon Setthathirat. Specials include Parma ham with mustard, and vegetarian grilled aubergine salad with soft cheese, sandwiched inside genuine foccacia or ciabatta bread. Across Nam Phu Square, the Scandinavian Bakery offers cheese and ham platters with a choice of bread and tempting sweet pastries. At Nazim Restaurant along the Mekong waterfront, you can lunch on Indian vegetarian and meat dishes and at Uncle Fred's eat American style fast food. Kitchen Tokyo serves Japanese set meals at bargain prices, and at the Cave des Chateaux in Nam Phu Square you can go French. For seafood buffs, the Hong Kong Restaurant is a great setting for business lunches. Vegetarians can relax at Just For Fun , where local specialties are guaranteed meat-free. To eat with the locals, sit down at the food stalls in the Talat Sao .
By sunset, thoughts turn to dinner. As the sun goes down over the Mekong, you can dine outdoors with a river view in the wooden Lao-style Anousone , featuring a wide range of reasonably priced food. For a quiet drink and snack, the nearby Sala Sunset Bar is an ideal scenic spot.
Traditional Lao style dining is communal—guests share a bamboo basket of sticky rice with fish, meat and vegetable dishes. Needless to say, Lao food is widely available, but a couple of venues stand out. The Khop Chai Deu Food Garden features a relaxed courtyard restaurant bar popular with locals, tourists and expatriates. It serves a tasty laap—minced meat or fish seasoned with aromatic herbs with classic Lao sticky rice (khao niaow). Kualao Restaurant , on Thanon Samsenthai, offers traditional cuisine in an elegant colonial building accompanied by live folk music
Nearby, classically European restaurants surround the Nam Phu Fountain . L'Opera is distinguished, Italian, and perfect for a candlelit dinner. Restaurant-Bar Nam Phou offers a mostly business clientèle imported Australian steaks and Lao specialties. Le Provencal is relaxed and French, with a delicious dessert menu. At all these restaurants you can enjoy good wine, liquors and spirits.
Vientiane is usually quiet by midnight, but if you can be here during festival time, wandering the streets with crowds of people late into the night can be both entertaining and can work up an appetite. When people converge on the city for the Boat Racing Festival (October) or the That Luang Festival(November), the streets are lined with low rattan stalls, each lit by a single candle or oil lamp. Here women sell skewers of barbecued chicken (ping kai) and reed cylinders filled with sticky rice.
What is there to drink? As the advertising slogan says here, "When in Lao, drink Beerlao!" You will notice that locals are happy to drink this local brew (with a Czech recipe) from breakfast onwards. If this seems a bit early, there is always a stall or cafe serving Pepsi or Mirinda, perhaps to take away in a bag poured over refreshing crushed ice. Stalls everywhere sell Lao Coffee (hot or iced), soy and coconut milk, as well as bottled water. Wine is readily available (that French influence again), but expensive when drunk by the glass; an impressive collection is offered by Vinotheque La Cave.
In general, before the dark of night takes this sleepy town into full unconsciousness, all tastes can be satisfied. Lao specialties abound, while a lot of the rest of Asia is represented and the selection of Western options is impressive. While all beverage preferences are also catered for, one drink seems to be the general choice to accompany any entree or none at all, good old Beerlao.
Despite its status as a capital city, the sleepy metropolis of Vientiane feels more like a small town, and most points of interest are easily accessed by foot--especially as the city is almost completely flat. Alternatively, there are many places that hire out bicycles, and this is also a pleasant way to see the sights. If you decide to walk and find yourself getting weary, just grab one of the many tuk-tuks that continually cruise the streets. The following suggestions for walking tours are all centered around small areas that border each other and could be combined if you feel particularly energetic.
Morning Market Walk Start where Lane Xang Avenue, the main street of Vientiane, meets Thanon Setthathirat. Here you will find the grand Presidential Palace . As you look at the palace, on the left is Ho Phrakeo . This quiet and beautiful temple, set in pleasant gardens, was once used solely by Lao royalty. It is now a museum housing an interesting collection of Buddhist images. On the corner of Lane Xang Avenue, opposite Ho Phrakeo, is another important temple, Wat Sisaket . This is the oldest surviving temple in Vientiane, dating from 1818, and within its walls you will find a gracious, shady haven. The cloisters surrounding the main temple contain thousands of Buddhist statues, and there are beautiful, though decaying, murals of the life of Buddha on the interior walls of the main ordination hall.
Continuing down Lane Xang Avenue for two blocks, past some fine examples of French colonial architecture, brings you to the Morning Market . You could easily spend hours browsing amongst the jewelry and textiles alone here, the biggest market in Vientiane. From there continue up Lane Xang to Patuxai , a gray monument resembling the Arc de Triomphe. The Lao version celebrates the victory of the Lao revolution in 1975. It was reportedly built from cement donated by the United States intended for use at the airport, hence earning it the nickname "the vertical runway." Climb to the top for some great views of the city.
Three roads branch out from Patuxai--take the right hand one, and it will lead you to That Luang . As the most important temple in the country, it is a fitting end to this tour. It is impossible to miss the golden spire of the main stupa, a national symbol that is ubiquitous in Laos. This is also the site of That Luang Festival, the biggest annual event in the Vientiane calendar.
Riverside Walk Start at the Lane Xang Hotel and head west along Fa Ngum Road for a leisurely walk with plenty of diversions. You might like to stop at Mixay Massage for a foot massage to get you in the mood before strolling along the banks of the Mekong, with the odd foray into a side street or two. The first of these is just a block past Mixay Massage. Turn right just after Nazim Restaurant and you will find Mandalay Furniture , where browsing among the exquisitely hand-carved items is almost as satisfying as buying. Go back to Fa Ngum Road and keep heading west until you come to Khounbouloum Street. Turn right there to check out handicrafts and artwork at Couleur d'Asie . On the same street you will find Wat Inpeng and behind it Wat Ong Teu , an important temple with an impressively large bronze Buddha. Down a side street next to Wat Inpeng is T'Shop Lai , a gallery filled with local and foreign artwork, furniture and handicrafts.
Retrace your steps to Fa Ngum Road and keep heading west. The road soon changes from paved to dirt, but the trade-off is that it is much shadier. Stop at any of the simple wooden terrace restaurants lining the riverbank for a refreshing drink or a bite to eat. If you continue all the way up the road until it turns away from the river you will find the Sala Sunset Bar . Time your walk to arrive for a drink just as the sun sinks slowly over the Mekong. Unforgettable.
Samsenthai Road Take this short walk for a combination of culture and shopping. Begin at That Dam , the Black Stupa. According to local legend, this is the home of a seven-headed dragon that sleeps coiled beneath its spire and will come to life to protect Vientiane citizens in times of need. From there walk roughly a hundred meters south, which will bring you out on Samsenthai Road. Turning right will bring you into a block lined with interesting shops. Stop at Bari Jewelry or Saigon Bijoux for fine jewelry and check out Mandarina or Lao Development Cotton and Silk for original clothing and accessories. For souvenirs and handicrafts, try Maevana.
The next corner brings you to Pangkham Street. Turn right for a look at the impeccably restored French colonial mansion that is now the Settha Palace Hotel , or turn left for more souvenir and tailors shops. The latter course will also lead you to Nam Phu Fountain , which is a nice place to stop for a cool drink. Heading back to Samsenthai Road, continue west past the Lao Plaza Hotel —where you may want to stop for a swim--to the Lao National Museum . A stroll around its exhibits will give you greater insight into Lao history and culture. Across the street is the Lao National Cultural Hall , an impressive edifice recently built with money donated by China. A nice way to end your walk would be to return to where you first entered Samsenthai Road. On a corner there you will find Kualao Restaurant , which serves excellent Lao food to the accompaniment of live traditional music and dancing.
Of course, do not be afraid to improvise your own routes. There is much to see and the Lao are always happy to see a new face.