Located on a curve of the Mekong River, Vientiane Capital has a recorded history that stretches back to around 1,000 AD. The area was originally settled because of the fertility of the surrounding alluvial plains, and Vientiane became the capital city of Laos around the mid-16th century.
Vientiane Capital is the home to the most significant national monument in Laos: That Luang (Great Stupa), which is the symbol of Lao and an icon of Buddhism in Laos. Of the many beautiful Wats in Vientiane, a visit to Wat Sisaket is a must; built in 1818, this is one of the oldest temples in Vientiane.
Other Buddhist holy places are Wat Ong Teu Mahavihan, known for its 16th century bronze Buddha sheltered by a carved wooden masterpiece, and Wat Si Meuang, the site of the Lak Meuang or pillar-stone of Vientiane. Wat Si Meuang is also home to the guardian spirit of the city.Hor Phakeo, across the street from Wat Sisaket houses a beautiful collection of Buddha statues, including traditional Lao style of the "Calling for Rain" and "Offering Protection".
Spend a morning in the Lao National Museum, which displays an interesting mixture of revolutionary and contemporary exhibitions. The main sights in Vientiane are only a short walk or bicycle ride from most hotels. Wat Xieng Khouan, better known as theBuddha Park should not be missed: take a tuk-tuk to this unique park that includes Buddhist and Hindu. Shopping for handicrafts is easy in Vientiane Capital; visit Talat Sao (morning market) for a wide range of colourful textiles including silks, wall-hangings and other decorative pieces.
For very fine handicrafts, try one of the many upscale galleries in the city center. Keep your eyes open for traditional wood carvings, mulberry paper and a variety of basketry made from bamboo and rattan. When you get hungry try the nation’s signature dish, tam mak-hung (spicy green papaya salad). laap (spicy minced meat salad) and ping kai(fried chicken). For its size, Vientiane Capital is surprisingly multicultural and has excellent French, Indian, Thai, Chinese and Vietnamese restaurants that serve both Lao and specialty dishes.
Quench your thirst with a refreshing Beer Lao or fresh fruit shake from one of the many small restaurants found along almost every street in town. At dusk, find a spot along the Mekong promenade to enjoy an amazing view of the sunset over the river.
The largest fair, Boun Pha That Luang, is held in Vientiane Capital around mid-November each year. Celebrations begin at Wat Si Muang followed by a procession to That Luang. Festivities last a full week, ending in fireworks on the last night, which coincides with the full moon. In mid-October, the riverbank overflows with spectators watching the annual boat races.
Boun Ok Phansa or the last day of Buddhist Lent precedes the boat races by one day. In the evening of Boun Ok Phansa, Lao people prepare small banana leaf boats called heua fai and set them afloat on the Mekong illuminated by candles and incense in a charming ceremony meant to bring good luck and prosperity.
Vientiane’s vibrant and diverse culinary scene is booming, meaning that even the most adventurous of appetites can easily be satisfied. The abundance of fine French and European restaurants is a reminder of the country’s past colonisation, whilst neighbouring Thailand and Vietnam have also had an obvious impact on the Laotian cuisine.
Though diminutive in size, this quaint little capital city boasts a huge variety of eating options. Take a short walk around town and you’ll find everything from swanky establishments presenting dishes looking more like works of art, to local vendors serving up $US1 bowls of noodles by the riverfront - and pretty much everything in between.
1. Kualao Restaurant
Kualao is a long established restaurant in the centre of Vientiane, famous for both the quality of its food as well as its stunning appearance. Set in a classic yellow-washed colonial mansion, Kualao is one of the most easily recognisable restaurants in the capital.
The quintessentially Laotian theme hasn’t been spared for the exterior; everything from the attire of the servers to the decor – as well as a daily performance from the National Dance Troupe – all makes Kualao feel a bit like a Laos tourism promo-op. The menu is full of big flavours and exotic colours, with the likes of Som Tam (papaya salad), deep-fried Mekong River fish, spring rolls, and handmade Laotian sausage all topping the list of recommendations. Try to arrive early or call in advance (and ask to be seated near the dance show) to avoid disappointment.
2. Vangthong Evening Food Market
Vangthong Food Market provides the perfect chance to sample some authentic everyday Laotian food that is both cheap and delicious.
Whilst the capital’s status as foodie hotspot has been growing in recent years with fancy new European restaurants popping up on a regular basis, Vangthong Food Market brings things back to basics. After sunset, the market becomes a hive of activity with its vast variety of food being cooked in a whole manner of ways - providing as much a photo-op as a chance for a tasty dinner. Those not fluent in Laotian can get away with the universal language of hand gestures and smiles, all adding to the overall experience
3. Joma Bakery
Joma Bakery does some of the best freshly made sandwiches in town, and proves to be a popular spot for locals and expats craving that morning cup of coffee alongside a freshly prepared snack – all with free Wi-Fi of course.
Cafés serving up tasty, reasonably priced food and quality coffee are certainly not unique to Vientiane. What sets aside Joma from the rest, however, is its conscious and genuine effort to use sustainable ingredients and support the local environment. They use fair-trade organic coffee beans that are locally sourced whilst also providing employment opportunities to disadvantaged people and victims of human rights. If that’s not enough to appease even the greenest of planet lovers, Joma Bakery donates 2% of every sale (before profit) to local charities.
I-Beam Bar is swanky two-level restaurant near the centre of Vientiane, specialising in Spanish-style Tapas and European wine. Arrive in the evening and you’ll usually find a buzzing atmosphere - conversation in full flow around the various plates of tapas and bottles of wine on each table. The tapas itself is delicately prepared and presented, using only the finest imported ingredients such as Palma Ham, Kalamata olives and salami. It’s reasonably priced too, with small dishes starting at $US2-3.
Management at I-Beam have clearly realised that during the day, hungry visitors need more than a few bite sized portions to nibble on. Their solution lies upstairs in the form of a bright and spacious dining area that serves more substantial Mediterranean meals and set lunches.
5. Kong View Restaurant
Kong View Restaurant provides a great setting to enjoy some stunning views of the Mekong River and boasts an excellent mix of Laotian, Thai and Western food.
Popular with both locals and tourists, the restaurant is decked out with wooden fixtures and tasteful mood lighting all adding to that chilled-out ambiance and welcoming feel. Half of the restaurant is set outside in a garden overlooking the river, and those who don’t mind sacrificing those stunning river views can enjoy the comfort of air conditioning inside the main old house building instead.
Located a few kilometres upstream from the centre of town, Kong View Restaurant sits next to the riverside; if you walk along the river bank you can’t fail to miss it. Alternatively, you can take a tuk-tuk which will get you there in only a few minutes and is a fun prelude to an evening meal.
Address: 183 Souphanouvong Rd., Hom 1 Ban Nongpanay, Sikottabong District, Vientiane.
6. Aria Italian Restaurant
Aria’s claim to have the ‘best pizzas in town’ is by no means an exaggeration; their stone-baked pizzas are prepared by a genuine Italian chef, come loaded with imported cheese and have a large variety of fresh toppings to choose from.
As good as their pizzas are, this restaurant is no one trick pony. The rest of their menu, which includes pastas, lasagna and various vegetarian starters, really epitomises the quality and authenticity of the European food that can be found all over Vientiane. Along with its tip-top service, pristine table presentation and the mammoth wine list, Aria restaurant wouldn’t seem too out of place – dare we say it - in Rome.
Address: 8 Rue Francois Ngin, Ban Mixai
7. Le Provencal French Restaurant
Le Provencal is a longstanding restaurant in Vientiane specialising in traditional French cuisine. In a relaxed farmhouse setting, guests can enjoy favourites such as escargot, ratatouille and steak tartar from the elaborate bistro-style menu. The reasonably priced daily plat-du-jour is also a good option if you want to try a range of flavours across the board. Their extensive list of white, red and sparkling wines from all over the world is sure to satisfy even the connoisseurs out there. You can find Le Provence conveniently located at the popular Nam Pu Square, a cute little spot home to an iconic fountain and several other surrounding bars and eateries creating a pleasant evening atmosphere.
8. Scandinavian Bakery Shop
The Scandinavian Bakery serves up one of the best breakfasts in town; if you’re missing those home comforts of eggs, bacon, and a freshly ground coffee in the morning then this is the perfect place to come. Alongside the more calorific dishes, this popular little café and bakery has a good choice of healthy options too, including muesli and salads. Its name doesn’t disappoint either; as soon as you enter you’ll be greeted by the pleasant waft of freshly baked Scandinavian treats like doughnuts, Danish pastries, sweet bread and cakes – all in the $US2-4 price bracket.
Address: 74/1 Rue Pangkham, Vientiane
9. That Dam Wine House
That Dam Wine House is only a few of steps away from the iconic That Dam (black stupa), making this is one of the romantic restaurants in Vientiane – particularly at night when the massive stupa becomes illuminated with spotlights.
Against this impressive backdrop, you can choose from a large menu that caters for different tastes and budgets. Prices for the basic Laotian dishes (such as fried rice and red curry) start at $US3, whilst a T-bone steak or lamb tenderloin will set you back around $US15 – particularly good value considering the high quality and stunning location.
Location: That Dam Stupa roundabout, Rue Chanthakoumanne, Vientiane
10. Vieng Sawan Vietnamese Restaurant
Vieng Sawan throws the fancy furnishings, overly-polite service and air-conditioning (that so many higher-end restaurants in the capital rely on) completely out of the window. Instead, it substitutes these modern conveniences with delicious, bold Vietnamese flavours and ridiculously cheap prices.
At first glance, this Vieng Sawang seems like more of a local spot; the crowd that fills the assortment of flimsy plastic chairs isn’t exactly of the backpacker variety and the menus are mostly in Laotian and Vietnamese. However, don’t let this put you off. The menus double as huge food photo albums, allowing you to select and just point at whatever takes your fancy. We recommended the fried spring rolls, juicy pork meatballs and traditional Vietnamese beef hotpot.