The bijoux Laos capital may be small but its serenely Buddhist atmosphere is beguiling and sleepy Vientiane is full of charming surprises. Scattered with gleaming golden stupas and the faded elegance of French colonial architecture, Vientiane holidays have a relaxed sense of timelessness.
Wander the tree-lined avenues of Vientiane, Laos, where French colonial architecture lends a graceful charm. Situated at the heart of Indochina, Laos was an economic and cultural hub for many centuries and was once known as the Kingdom of Million Elephants Under the White Parasol.
Basking in the sunshine on a wide bend of the Mekong River, Vientiane is a city with many layers of history and has been an important administrative centre for hundreds of years. The colonial era left its mark, with elegant public buildings and wide boulevards, but this is a distinctly Laotian place and proud of its rich culture.
The Paris of the East
From the top of the Patuxai Victory Gate you can see the straight avenues stretching into the distance, surrounded by a sea of roofs and palm fronds. This monument to the fallen in various wars of independence may be inspired by the Arc de Triomphe in Paris but it is covered with Buddhist elements such as lotus flowers and sacred nagas.
To learn more about Laos history visit the Lao National Museum for informative and eye-opening records, especially of struggle against invaders and oppressors.
Highlights of Vientiane
Vientiane is ideal for exploring by tuk tuk, so if you’ve only got a short time hire a friendly driver for the day and see the sights.
- Visit Vientiane’s beautiful temples, including the gleaming gold-covered That Luang stupa.
- Climb the Patuxai Victory Gate – inspired by the Arc de Triomphe in Paris – for views over the pretty Laos capital.
- Plunge into the bustling Talat Sao morning market for authentic crafts and Vangthong evening market for street food.
- Wander through the Xieng Khuan sculpture park in its bucolic riverside setting 15 miles from Vientiane, Laos.
Eating out in Vientiane
Dining options in Vientiane are deliciously cosmopolitan. In the evening, street carts peddle sizzling barbecue meat, Khao piak noodles and Laap to homegoing workers.
Visit Doi Ka Noi, an authentic and unmissable Lao restaurant near That Luang – it’s is guaranteed to spice up your life. The menu changes daily and focuses on homestyle recipes and seasonal ingredients. Sample dishes include fish curry with hummingbird-tree flowers and bamboo curry with mushrooms. Co-owned by a photographer, there are some stunning food shots adorning the walls.
A drink or a meal at sunset at one of the restaurants and restaurant-boats that line the Mekong River in Vientiane is a lovely experience.
Food to try in Laos
Lao cuisine is known for its fresh and subtle flavours with simple ingredients and many regional variations. The French didn’t just leave architecture behind, try the locally-grown coffee served with sweet condensed milk and buttery croissants. In Vientiane you can still see the colonial French influence with baguette sandwiches for lunch.
Sticky rice is a Laos staple, flavoured with meat, herbs and spices, wrapped in banana leaves and served with jeow dipping sauce.
The nutty deliciousness of Laap minced meat salad has made it the unofficial national dish of Laos. Fresh lime, garlic, fish sauce and mint add more flavour to Laap salad, capped off with ground toasted rice.
Green papaya salad or tan maak hoong is found throughout south-east Asia but the people of Laos claim it as their own. Shredded unripe papaya is mixed with chillies, carrot and spices for a gloriously fresh taste.
Events & Festivals in Vientiane
During the purification Buddhist festival of Pi Mai Lao in April, Laotians clean their homes and splash each other and statues of the Buddha with scented water to cleanse their souls.
The end of the Buddhist ‘Lent’ and the rainy season is marked in October with candlelit processions and floating baskets on the Mekong River during the Boun Ok Phansa festival.
The day after Boun Ok Phansa in Vientiane, Champasak and Savannakhet province a popular boat racing competition is held on, and to celebrate, the Mekong River.
Onwards from Vientiane
Take advantage of the beautiful natural surrounds of Vientiane by spending a day wild orchid trekking in Phou Khao Kway National Park or relaxing at the serene Nam Ngum lake just outside the city.
From the Laos capital, head northwards to refined Luang Prabang or southwards to explore the moss-covered temples of Champasek. Combine your time in Laos with travel in neighbouring Vietnam or Thailand.