Vientiane turned out to be one of our favourite places in South East Asia, and a city we could have spent a lot more time in. It’s super chilled out unlike most of the capitals in this corner of the world, is relatively small with an intimate feel to it, and the atmosphere is friendly and welcoming. And yet before we arrived, we didn’t have high expectations of Vientiane.
It’s got something of a naff reputation amongst travellers - “Vientiane at night is really boring”, “Just go for one night and then make your way up to Vang Vieng” and “You’ll be stuck for things to do in Vientiane” are things you’re likely to hear when you speak to people who have been there, or read some of the guff that's written online. Trust us when we say that this is absolute nonsense, there are plenty of awesome things to do in Vientiane, so we’re going to put the record straight.
For all the naysayers, and those of you who might be wondering whether it’s even worth a visit, here are 10 awesome things to do in Vientiane Laos.
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Meditate with Monks at Wat Sok Pa Luang
Wat Sok Pa Luang is a low key temple set in a small wooded area which lies just over a mile from the centre of Vientiane. It’s (relatively) easy to reach by bicycle, or you can catch a tuk tuk or taxi there for a small amount. Though it’s definitely not the most beautiful or impressive temple we’ve visited, it’s still nice to look at, and has numerous red and gold buildings shaded by the surrounding trees.
The best part of it is that every Saturday afternoon, the novice monks of this Wat hold an open meditation session. Primarily aimed at English speaking visitors, it’s like an exchange of services. Starting at 3pm there’s an English conversation session where the young monks brush up on their English by conversing with the visitors in small groups. Following that they run a meditation session where they explain the different forms of meditation and teach you how to do them. There is also a Q&A session afterwards where you’re able to ask them any questions you might have about their way of life, meditation or the Buddhist religion.
Have a Traditional Laos Herbal Sauna and Massage
A favourite pass time for Vientiane residents is a trip to a traditional Laos herbal sauna. At the one we visited, we got chatting to a guy who worked for the Laos Tourism Board, and he explained to us that many people go once or twice a week both to relax and to reap the numerous medicinal benefits. It’s like a normal sauna, but the steam is infused with fragrant herbs to make it an extremely aromatic experience. They’re pretty rustic too, as the steam comes from a fire that's lit underneath the small hut that houses the sauna.
Once you’ve loosened your muscles up in the sauna, it’s time to have a traditional Laos massage. The one that we had was one of the best massages we experienced in Asia, and that's saying something because we had plenty. It involves a lot of stretching out of your limbs and contorting your body into weird and unnatural positions. But we left feeling happy and relaxed, and even got a free cup of tea to go with it.
Go to the COPE Visitor Centre
Even if you are only here for one day, this is an “absolute must” of top things to do in Vientiane. It’s not very widely known that Laos was devastatingly targeted by the US during the Vietnam War. In fact, per capita, it’s the most heavily bombed country in history, with a planeload of bombs being dropped on the country every eight minutes, 24 hours a day for 9 years. It’s estimated that of the 270 million cluster bombs that were dropped on Laos during the war, almost a third of them never detonated. This has essentially turned vast swathes of the country into giant minefields, and since the end of the war thousands of people have been killed or lost limbs through inadvertently triggering an explosion.
COPE is a locally run charity that helps victims by providing them with both prosthetics, and the much needed support required to get them back on track. The visitor centre takes you through the effects of the bombings and gives an overview of the amazing work the centre does to help the victims. It’s free to enter, but you can help by leaving a donation or purchasing something from the onsite shop.
Visit the Laos National Museum
The guidebooks will tell you that the Laos National Museum is run down, poorly kept and has some sketchy information on the history of Laos. But do you know what? These are the exact things that make it such a fascinating place to visit. Laos is one of the world’s few surviving communist states, and the narrative of the museum is told from that perspective which is eye opening in itself.
There are no fancy interactive exhibits, no 4D cinema rooms, and on the day we went there wasn’t even any aircon despite the sweltering 34 degree heat. But the museum is startlingly ambitious nonetheless, as it crams content ranging from prehistoric dinosaur bones through to present day governmental initiatives into quite a small building.
Climb up Patuxai Victory Monument
This intricate war monument was built in memory of those who fought in the long struggle for independence from France. Curiously though, from far away it actually looks extremely similar to Paris’s Arc de Triomphe, and lies at the end of a wide, French feeling avenue. But the closer you get, the more you can see of the ornate, crumbling, distinctly Laotian detail that decorates the arch. The contrast of these two elements is representative of Vientiane itself as a whole.
The story behind Patuxai Victory Monument’s creation is just as peculiar, as it was built with cement gifted by the Americans, intended to be used to construct an airport. The government had other ideas for this donation and used it to build the monument instead, leading to it being nicknamed “The Vertical Runway”. Climbing up the spiral staircases leading to the top of its towers will give you great panoramic views over the surrounding city.
Shop at the Riverside Night Bazaar
Every night at around sunset, the walkway that runs parallel to the Mekong River in the centre of Vientiane turns into a massive marketplace. You won’t miss it as all the stalls are bright red, and huge crowds of both tourists and residents line the riverside.
A lot of what is on offer is souvenirs aimed at the tourist market, but you can pick up anything from trainers to headphones and if you’re in need of any items of clothing then this is the place to go. It’s cheap, but don’t let that stop you from bartering as it’s expected here. There is also some interesting food available if you get peckish.
Get Involved in Open Air Aerobics
The first day we arrived in Vientiane, we took a wander down to the Mekong River as it was just a few minutes walk from the guesthouse we were staying in. We were amused to see dozens of people taking part in what looked like an audition for a part in Michael Jackson’s Thriller video. It was actually one of the open air aerobics classes that takes place each night on the riverfront. Obviously we had to try it.
The instructor is up on a makeshift stage and dance music blares loudly from speakers at either side as she barks instructions into a microphone headset. It’s actually really fun to take part in and you don’t have to be afraid of being the wally who gets all of the dance moves wrong (me) because everyone is really welcoming and non judgmental. We met some lovely people and had great fun. And nobody laughed.
Sample a few Lao Lao Cocktails
One of the main complaints about Vientiane is around its lack of nightlife, but even though it may not have the best nightspots in Asia, there are plenty of bars in Vientiane where you can enjoy a night out. If you’re up for a swill of the local tipple then make sure you try Lao Lao. Produced from rice, Lao Lao is a whisky like spirit that’s so good they named it twice and will definitely leave you seeing double (see what I did there?).
Many of the bars serve two versions of their signature cocktails, the premium ones and the Lao Lao equivalent. We actually developed a taste for the Lao Lao, and were happy to enjoy a couple of nights out on the local cocktails. To buy a bottle of Lao Lao from a shop costs under a quid so it also makes for an extremely cheap night in!
Tuck into the Food at the Ban Anou Night Market in Vientiane
Laotian food in Vientiane can broadly be split into two categories, there’s the traditional dishes, and then there’s the stuff that clearly has a French influence. Both are absolutely stunning, and each really distinct from most of the other cuisines of the region. We knew absolutely nothing about Laos food before we visited, but stuffing your face with all of the delicious goodies on offer is definitely one of the most fun things to do in Vientiane.
Laos dishes tend to be spicy, fragrant, and are often accompanied by sticky rice and lots of fresh herbs and salad leaves. The French influence is most clearly seen in the baguettes and pastries available all over the city as well as the availability of cheese and pate. Ban Anou is probably the best place to indulge your foodie fantasies. Despite not being massive, this colourful night market in Vientiane has hundreds of great dishes on offer at extremely cheap prices.
Watch the Sun Set Over the Mekong
This last one’s for all you romantics out there! If you follow us on Insta then you’ll know that we love nothing better than a good sunset (and if you don’t follow us on Insta then I question your life choices, so click here and put a bit of sunshine in your life). The sunsets that we witnessed over the Mekong River are some of the most memorable and colourful we’ve ever seen.
Purples, pinks, oranges and reds vie with each other to turn the sky into the most outrageously coloured canvas. Most evenings we’d grab some street food snacks, buy a couple of beers from a street seller and settle down to watch the show. It’s totally free and catching one is undoubtedly one of the most unmissable things to do in Vientiane.
So tell me, are you convinced yet? Would you like to visit Vientiane? Which of these things would you make sure to do on your visit? If you’ve been, let me know if there’s anything I’ve missed off. Drop us a note in the comments section below, we’d love to hear from you.