From its sleepy tuk-tuk drivers to its location on the right bank of the lumbering, lazy Mekong, this former French trading post is languid to say the least. Indeed, despite being the capital and largest city of the Lao People's Democratic Republic, there's not a whole lot to do in Vientiane (ວຽງຈັນ). But that is also, quite honestly, its selling point.
For the traveller happy with a couple of low-key sights and lots of contemplative river watching while sipping on Beerlao, or hopping from cafe to cafe, Vientiane excels. And best of all, these pleasures are available to all budgets, be it via the city's low-cost digs and street markets, or its upscale boutique accommodation and foreign restaurants.
Even though in Vientiane the days blend into one another, once you leave you’ll miss this place more than you expected.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Vientiane.
The most frequently used grounds in Vientiane are those of Wat Si Muang, the site of the lák méuang (city pillar), which is considered the home of the guardian spirit of Vientiane. The large sǐm (ordination hall; destroyed in 1828 and rebuilt in 1915) was constructed around the lák méuang, and consists of two halls.
Laos has the dubious distinction of being the most bombed country on earth, and although the American War in neighbouring Vietnam ended more than 40 years ago, unexploded ordnance (UXO) continues to wound and kill people. COPE (Cooperative Orthotic & Prosthetic Enterprise) is the main source of artificial limbs, walking aids and wheelchairs in Laos. Its excellent Visitor Centre, part of the organisation's National Rehabilitation Centre, offers myriad interesting and informative multimedia exhibits about prosthetics and the UXO that sadly makes them necessary.
Svelte and golden Pha That Luang, located about 4km northeast of the city centre, is the most important national monument in Laos – a symbol of Buddhist religion and Lao sovereignty. Legend has it that Ashokan missionaries from India erected a tâht (stupa) here to enclose a piece of Buddha's breastbone as early as the 3rd century BC.
Located 25km southeast of central Vientiane, eccentric Xieng Khuan, aka Buddha Park, thrills with other-worldly Buddhist and Hindu sculptures, and was designed and built in 1958 by Luang Pu, a yogi-priest-shaman who merged Hindu and Buddhist philosophy, mythology and iconography into a cryptic whole. It's a bizarre, delightfully dilapidated compound that's great for a wander and a photo op. Bus 14 (8000K, one hour) leaves Talat Sao Bus Station every 20 minutes for Xieng Khuan. Alternatively, charter a tuk-tuk (250,000K return).
The former home of Kaysone Phomvihane, the first leader of an independent Laos, has been made into this quirky but worthwhile museum. The house is inside the former USAID/CIA compound, known as 'Six Klicks City' because of its location 6km from central Vientiane. It once featured bars, restaurants, tennis courts, swimming pools, a commissary and assorted offices from where the Secret War was orchestrated. During the 1975 takeover of Vientiane, Pathet Lao forces ejected the Americans and occupied the compound. Kaysone lived here until his death in 1992.
Built between 1819 and 1824 by Chao Anou, the last monarch of the Kingdom of Vientiane, Wat Si Saket is believed to be the city's oldest surviving wat. And it is starting to show, as this beautiful temple is in need of a facelift. Along the western side of the cloister is a pile of Buddhas that were damaged during the 1828 Lao Rebellion.
Vientiane's Arc de Triomphe replica is a slightly incongruous sight, dominating the commercial district around Rue Lan Xang. Officially called 'Victory Gate' and commemorating the Lao who died in prerevolutionary wars, it was built in the 1960s with cement donated by the USA intended for the construction of a new airport. Climb to the summit for panoramic views over Vientiane.
Opened in 1995 to celebrate the late president's 75th birthday, the Kaysone Phomvihane Museum serves as a tribute to Indochina's most pragmatic communist leader. The museum is a vast Vietnamese-style celebration of the cult of Kaysone, a cult he himself never encouraged.
What began as a private museum, established by the family that runs Kanchana Boutique, has subsequently become something of a Lao cultural centre. The emphasis at this leafy compound, spread across several local-style wooden buildings, is on textiles. There is a house filled with looms and antique Lao textiles representing several ethnic groups, and at other stops you can see various stages of weaving and dyeing in action.