After three months in Southern Thailand, we needed to leave the country to renew our visas. So, we decided doing an overland visa run would be fun. We chose Laos for several reasons. First, it would be a fun, overland journey from Thailand. Secondly, it is a cheap country (we were low on funds). Thirdly, we wanted to see what had happened to the untouched, authentic country we had fallen in love with 20 years earlier. We had treasured our visit 20 years earlier and had found many interesting things to do in Vientiane, Laos. Please keep reading our Vientiane blog to discover our favourite things to do in Vientiane and find the best attractions for you to visit.
Updated: 3rd September, 2023.
We took an overnight bus from Bangkok to Vientiane, the capital city, via the Friendship Bridge crossing. It was an easy journey from Bangkok by overnight VIP bus (though our bus had radiator problems and the driver kept stopping to fill up the radiator with water. But that’s another story!) While there are plenty of buses travelling to Vientiane from Bangkok and other cities in Asia, many people fly in.
This post is about our favourite things to do in Vientiane. If you would like to know what we found in Laos after returning 20 years after our first trip there in 1999, please read Our Travels in Laos – A Return Road Trip 20 Years On
In the last few years, Laos has run promotions to increase tourism with their “Visit Laos” campaigns. Consequently, we found the city thriving with tourists. Thai tourism was lively, there were Asian tour groups, and independent tourists were plentiful. They had all come to Laos with the lure of seeing a country rich in natural wonders that was relatively untouched and not touristy.
We spent six days in Vientiane, mostly because we are slow travellers and we like to sit around absorbing the local culture. We had plenty of time to do our favourite thing: walk around the streets aimlessly and explore different neighbourhoods. Despite apparent development, increasing population and mass tourism, we found the city to have a small country town feel. We found the locals friendly and remarkably laid-back. We found many fun and exciting things to do in Vientiane.
We enjoyed our time in Vientiane and would recommend it whether you visit for an overnight visa run from Thailand or travel to Laos to explore a new city. Vientiane is a chilled city and a welcoming respite from busier cities like Bangkok and Hanoi.
We have written this article with the fact in mind that most tourists will visit Vientiane Laos for just 2 or 3 nights. So here is the list of our best things to do in Vientiane that you can easily do in that time.
Our Favourite Things To Do in Vientiane
Table of Contents for Things To Do in Vientiane
1. Self-guided Walking Tour of Vientiane
To us, travel is about exploring the local area and observing the people and how they live their lives. The first thing we like to do when we arrive in a new place is to sit down for a few hours in a sidewalk cafe. We love feeling the ambience and people-watching while reading our Lonely Planet and travel blogs about the area. We then handpick a few tourist attractions we want to visit.
If you’re short on time, there are several tours you can take in Vientiane. Get Your Guide offers an 8-hour tour that covers all the major highlights of Vientiane. It’s a comprehensive and popular option for those who want to see as much as possible in a limited amount of time.
Additionally, there is the option to rent a bicycle or scooter.
However, a leisurely self-guided walking tour also allows you to explore, observe and see tourist attractions along the way.
During our self-guided 4-km walking tour, we passed some of the most interesting attractions and architecture. We started from Wat Inpeng, headed along Rue Samsenthai to Wat Ong Teu, Wat Mixai and made our way to Patuxai Arch.
The walk passes craft & souvenir shops, bakeries and restaurants. We passed the must-see sights of The Presidential Palace, Wat Sisaket & That Dam. Here we stopped for a late afternoon drink from one of the wine cellars surrounding That Dam. From Patuxai Arch, we chose to take a tuk-tuk taxi (for just a few dollars) to make it in time for sunset on the Mekong River.
2. Sunset on the Mekong River
One of the reasons we travel is to see the beauty in the world. Wherever we are, we always try to catch the sunset. There is nothing more thrilling than relaxing and meditating upon the sun, and watching the sunset on the Mekong River with food and drinks is one of our favourite things to do in Vientiane. There are bars and restaurants with views of the sunset and plenty of stalls serving Lao food.
We loved taking a stroll from Chao Anouvong Park along the promenade to the night markets. At the edge of the park, overlooking the Mekong River, stands the 6-metre-high towering statue of King Anouvong. The area near the park was full of local families enjoying the Mekong Riverside and attractions such as fresh food markets and food stalls.
Plus, there was open-air aerobics on the promenade every night. We found it very entertaining, with hundreds of people participating and loud music blaring. The atmosphere was circus-like, and there was even a small dinosaur park and jumping castle.
Mekong River Night Market is one of the most popular things to do in Vientiane for both tourists and locals. You can get all sorts of clothing, electronics and tourist merchandise. While shopping was not particularly interesting to us, we liked the Mekong River Night Market, as it contributed to the ambience.
If you’re wondering what to do in Vientiane at night, start with sunset drinks, walk around the night market and then indulge at one of the nearby restaurants on the riverfront.
3. Eat Lao Food
Another one of the reasons we travel is to indulge in diverse foods and drinks all over the world.
The food in Laos is exceptional, whether we eat local or Western cuisine. Which incidentally is extremely good. Gourmet burger bars, Italian-owned pizza parlours, and cafes served high-quality food and coffee.
Additionally, the French influence remains since the colonial period of the late 19th century. There were a plethora of French patisseries and French restaurants. OK, so we couldn’t resist eating croissants and drinking home-grown coffee!
But we came for the Lao food. We love eating Asian food like spicy rice and noodle dishes, and grills. The Lao cuisine included that, and to top it off, we found Lao beer tasty and refreshing in the heat.
Eating in the local restaurants is one of our top things to do in Vientiane.
One of our favourite dishes is the national dish Laab (spicy minced meat salad) with sticky rice. We found the herbs and spices (chilli, mint, lime, fish sauce) added an incredible zesty flavour.
We especially loved the spicy green papaya salad and grilled chicken marinated in a combination of spices, including lemongrass, garlic, pepper, fish sauce & lime juice. Also, we enjoyed rice paper spring rolls, Lao curries, stir-fried water spinach and fish steamed in banana leaf.
If these feasts were not enough for dessert or snacks, we indulged in some of the beloved sweets we usually ate in Thailand. These included mango and sticky rice, Khao Lam (sweet sticky rice roasted in bamboo with coconut milk and red beans) and Khanom Kok (tasty coconut dumplings).
4. Visit Wat Si Saket & the Temples of Vientiane
When we travel, we love visiting temples. The city is abundant with beautiful temples, and it is one of our favourite things to do in Vientiane.
We spent a day on a self-guided walking tour around the temples including some of our other preferred choices – Wat Inpeng, Wat Phra Kaew and Wat Si Muang.
Wat Si Saket is one of the temples we loved the most. This impressive early 19th-century Buddhist temple is home to thousands of Buddha statues and images nestled in the walls. Made from varying materials, including stone, bronze, wood, silver and ceramic, most are between 100-400 years old.
It is the oldest temple in Vientiane and the only one that survived the Siamese occupation. Being in the Siamese style possibly saved it from being destroyed by the Siamese army.
The charming temple grounds include ornate pagodas, verandas and the drum tower. The premises have shady fruit trees, a museum, a library and the monk’s quarters.
We were there in the late afternoon with no other tourists. A monk approached us, and we had an authentic conversation. He said he was happy to have the chance to practise English. We were happy to chat with a monk.
In the mornings, locals go to pray and make merit by bringing offerings of food to the monks. The daily ceremony is open to the public. However, we didn’t attend as we recently attended one in Myanmar. At the time, we had felt quite horrified, as it felt like a circus with all the people jostling for position as if they were paparazzi.
5. Visit the Patuaxi Arch for top sights Vientiane
One of the most popular Vientiane tourist attractions, the Patuaxi Arch, is a dominating structure unofficially named Vientiane’s Arc de Triomphe due to its similarity in style to the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Though, this replica is ornamental with Lao imagery and design. Decorations adorn the Laos-style towers with beautiful flowers and designs, including traditional Lao motifs and Buddhist symbols.
The arches ceilings feature Laos designs and embellishments of gods and characters from folklore, including mythological creatures. Its ornate towers and grand appearance make it an impressive monument in Vientiane.
The landmark memorialises the Lao who died in wars serving their country. Interestingly, the construction of Patuaxi Arch was done with cement donated by the USA and designated for the development of an airport.
A stairway leads through several floors filled with souvenir shops and snacks to an observation deck offering an outstanding panorama of Vientiane and the Mekong River.
To us, travel is about the views, the monuments and absorbing the local atmosphere. Patuxai Park is a popular place for locals to get together in the late afternoons and stroll around the fountain and park. The views and ambience at the pretty Patuxai Park below make it a priceless place to visit. Many travellers consider a visit to Patuaxi Arch one of the top things to do in Vientiane.
6. That Dam (Black Stupa)
Most people will say the most impressive stupa in Vientiane is Pha That Luang. Indeed, it’s the most impressive one in Laos. And no doubt you will not miss this golden spectacle. But this list is about our favourites, and we love That Dam for its unstated class.
We visited That Damn in the late afternoon. There were no tourists or traffic. We sat across the road in a cafe for a cold drink while contemplating its history.
That Dam was, once upon a time, covered in gold. The legend told is the Siamese army pillaged all the gold. Meanwhile, a dormant seven-headed serpent came to life and protected the Lao from harm.
For Vientianians, That Dam is a symbol of their city. They regard it as the city’s guardian spirit, believing the serpent still lives in That Dam.
There’s one thing that we love most about this Black Stupa. Imagine this! You are strolling around the city street, and suddenly, you turn the corner and behold this giant landmark before you on a roundabout.
That, dear readers, is the kind of experience we travel for!
If you have only one day in Vientiane, you can see everything we have listed above. However, you need to start early as it will be a long and busy day, and catch an occasional tuk-tuk or taxi.
7. Buddha Park
Buddha Park, Xieng Khuan, was a fun tourist attraction to visit and if you’re after unique things to do in Vientiane, this is it! We had an interesting trip on a scooter through the semi-urban area. It is 25 km out-of-town, so if you are short on time and only have two days to tour Vientiane, you may find you are very rushed.
The park is a sculpture park containing 200 Hindu and Buddhist statues. It is an entertaining couple of hours viewing the sculptures, sometimes surreal and macabre animals and demons, and elegant statues of Buddha and folklore characters.
Even though the statues look centuries old, a priest built the park in the 50s. The most interesting sculpture in the park was the giant pumpkin. With entry through the mouth of a demon, you climb through three floors as you take a bizarre journey through the various floors representing hell, earth and heaven. The views at the top, over the park, are excellent. Other highlights of Buddha Park are the 40-metre reclining Buddha.
Buddha Park is on the banks of the Mekong River. There are stalls selling snacks and a restaurant serving Lao cuisine. While sitting in a lush setting looking over to Thailand, the views are outstanding.
If you want to visit Buddha Park, check out our post Visiting Quirky Buddha Park in Vientiane, Laos. It is one of our favourite attractions in Vientiane, and we consider it one of the best things to do in Vientiane. Actually, it’s one of our top things to do in Laos!
Other Attractions and Unique Things To Do in Vientiane
There are many other various and interesting things to do in Vientiane. These are just some of the things that we love. Other activities that you may appreciate and places to visit in Vientiane, Laos are:
If you love galleries & museums
- Go to COPE Visitor Centre.
- Drop by the Lao Textile Museum.
- Visit Lao National Museum.
For outdoor lovers
- Go tubing down the river at Tad Moun Waterfall. This off the beaten path Laos destination is in a national park, and you may find if you go on a weekday, you are one of only a handful of people there.
- Visit a rice farm with a local NGO.
- Eat fresh fish while floating down the river at Tha Ngon Floating Restaurants.
If you love food and culture
- Do a food tour and/or Lao cooking class.
- Learn traditional arts at the Lao Disabled Women’s Development Centre.
For natural therapies
- Visit a herbal steam room.
- Get a traditional massage.
Where To Stay
Vientiane has a variety of accommodation options, from backpacker hostels to 3-star hotels. Newly built 4-star and 5-star hotels are entering the market to house the mass tourists arriving in Laos.
Backpackers Hostel – Nana Backpacker Hostel
Nana Hostel has a 9/10 ranking on booking.com by over 500 guests. We love it because of the choices of the various accommodations to suit every budget, ranging from dorms to doubles with shared facilities or motel-style rooms. Additionally, they have a garden, river views and (most notably in the summertime) a pool. Plus, the central location makes it a winner for those on a budget who like staying where they can quickly meet other travellers.
Budget to Mid-range – Le Charme Vientiane Hotel
This Best Western Hotel oozes charm and is the preferred choice for those who want comfort and an excellent location near restaurants. Right in the city centre, Le Charme Vientiane Hotel has a luxurious feel with an outdoor swimming pool, outdoor loungers, fitness room and gorgeous decor that makes you feel like you are in a resort. Rooms offer air-conditioned, satellite TV & a fridge.
4-star – Salana Boutique Hotel
Salana Boutique is the perfect choice for those who are looking for quality and luxury accommodation. With its central location, stylish rooms, modern facilities, and elegant charm, Salana Boutique offers an experience that is unparalleled in the region. Despite its five-star amenities, the hotel comes at an affordable price that is comparable to many two-star hotels in the west.
5-star – Crowne Plaza Vientiane
For a slightly higher price, you can upgrade to a truly 5-star experience. The standout feature of this spectacular resort is its infinity pool, which offers stunning views. Additionally, they serve one of the best breakfasts we’ve had in Asia. The hotel offers a fitness room and a day spa, a restaurant serving international dishes, and a lounge for drinks. The Crowne Plaza Vientiane provides the ultimate experience, making it perfect for couples or business travellers.
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