Crouched low over the Mekong within almost a stone’s throw of Thailand, Vientiane has finally shaken off its cobwebs and earnestly joined the 21st century. The city is still one of the most relaxed small capitals on the planet, and while it can’t rival sibling city Luang Prabang for good looks, it has a raffish charm all of its own.
As you wander the cracked streets and riverfront in Vientiane, you’re walking past the ghosts of Siamese invasions, wartime spies and madcap Ravens (American pilots) who were all here at one time or another. Vientiane urbanites are friendly, and in no time you’ll be chatting with a monk, stall-holder or expat, all happy to help you on your way.
With just two days in Laos’ languid capital, make the most of your time through a couple of Vientiane's excellent local tours, enjoying croissant breakfasts, night markets, temples and foot rubs in between.
Vientiane is all about coffee and bakeries; coffee from the lush region of the Bolaven Plateau in the far south, and bakeries harking back to the colonial times of the French, when baguettes and pastries were absorbed into Lao food culture. Start your day early at Le Banneton, a simple little patisserie that turns out the best croissants and tarts. Then at 8.30am meet Tuk Tuk Safari for one of their memorable tours of the city in a comfy tuk-tuk. The 'Lao for One Day' tour takes you far beyond the obvious as you explore a fresh food market, try a sweet snack known as kao larm (sticky rice and coconut roasted in bamboo), then visit a silversmith’s workshop. After this you’ll get behind the scenes in the kitchen of a restaurant that helps train street youth, before taking lunch there. After visiting the COPE Visitor Centre, which gives victims of UXO (unexploded ordnance) all over Laos the chance to walk again with prosthetic limbs and physio, the final stop will be a temple to learn to make a wax flower offering.
After your tour, grab your own tuk-tuk and make for Laos’ most important national monument, Pha That Luang, passing Patuxai, the country’s version of the Arc de Triomphe. Later, consider a visit to Wat Si Saket, before taking an early dinner at the excellent, contemporary Lao Kitchen to feast on delicious laap (chicken or pork mince with mint leaves, lime juice, spring onion and coriander).
As the light turns golden over the Mekong, head to the riverfront and soak up the atmosphere of the night market, wandering past stalls grilling meat and fresh fish. Bor Pennyang has a balcony where you can drink to the sunset. For Indochine-style lodgings for the night, go down a quiet lane beside a temple to Lani’s House by the Ponds. This tranquil art deco house has French chandeliers, roomy bedrooms at affordable prices, and koi carp turning silent arabesques in its ornamental pools.
Grab an early breakfast at JoMa Bakery & Café, where you can feast on fresh fruit, bagels and fresh juices, before meeting Green Discovery (greendiscoverylaos.com), the country’s premiere adventure and ecotour operators. On their one-day kayaking and cycling trip you’ll cycle alongside the Mekong and through rice fields to a fertile chilli-growing island (with a delicious picnic to follow), then float leisurely downstream back to Vientiane by kayak. Alternatively, stay closer to the city with a visit to one or two of Vientiane's museums, such as the Kaysone Phomvhane Memorial and Haw Pha Kaeo; or take a bus or tuk-tuk out to Xieng Khuan, aka Buddha Park, to see the myriad religious and mythological statues.
By now it’s well into the afternoon and you’ve earned the right to shop a little. Make for T’Shop Lai Gallery, arguably the city’s most refined shopping experience. Here you can purchase handmade soaps and perfumes and see the gallery’s latest exhibition. All products are made by the cooperative Les Artisans Lao, which helps disadvantaged women. Fragrances in hand, it’s time to enjoy something Vientiane does very well: massage! The trick is to go where Lao people treat themselves, and, yes, it may look like a hole in the wall but Oasis, near the riverside, is something of a Tardis. Expect sensuous treatments from foot rubs to deep-tissue Swedish massage, in relaxed, cool and very clean surroundings.
Walking on air, and doubtless a beatific grin on your face post-pamper, settle in at one of Vientiane’s famous restaurants. Pimentón boasts the best steak in the city – from rib-eye to chateaubriand – with Argentine beef cooked on their open-range grill; while stylish Le Silapa is known for its authentic French cuisine. If its Lao cuisine you’re after then join the hungry locals at the sizzling aromatic fog that is earthy Ban Anou Night Market. Before turning in, enjoy a glass of something refined and cool at iBeam or The Jazzy Brick Bar. If you want a little more life, make for the city’s oldest falang (foreigner) hangout, Khop Chai Deu, and its South Beach–style rooftop.