best things to do in vientiane

The 8 Best Things to do in Vientiane

Vientiane is pretty laid back for the capital city of Laos.  It’s here in Vientiane that you’ll find a monument to the Laotian people who lost their life in pre-revolutionary times.  In Vientiane, you’ll find the most important symbol of the country of Laos and her most important religious icon.   Our guide on Vientiane itineraries includes what to do in Vientiane in 2 days and what to do if you only have one day in Vientiane.   This is NOT a capital city where you need to race around and run in and out of cultural museums and must-dos. Vientiane is laid back, and your approach to seeing the best things to do in Vientiane should be the same.  Come to the capital, relax a little, and explore some of the psyches of Laos.




Take a City Tour of Vientiane

You’ll get to see Vientiane’s famous landmarks on this guided full day tour, from the That Luang Stupa to Wat Si Saket, this is a fabulous way to explore the Laos capital.

The Best 8 Things to Do in Vientiane

You might decide after reading this, and other content on Vientiane that you’re not going to visit, and that’s understandable.  While many capital cities around the world have a host of informative museums, world-class restaurants, and incredible tours to take, Vientiane is a little more, heck, a lot more laid back than that.

I’d say you should come to Vientiane to visit COPE if nothing else.  I firmly believe that you can’t understand a lot of the country without understanding more about how a war that finished in 1975 impacted and continues to seriously impact the people and children of this country.  For me, the best thing to do in Vientiane was to come and visit COPE.

1. Visit COPE in Vientiane

For me, the highlight of Vientiane was COPE – government-run unexploded ordnance (UXO) rehabilitation center.  COPE stands for The Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise.  It is a charity organization providing treatment and rehab for Laotian people with disabilities.  Many of these disabilities have been caused by unexploded ordnance (UXO) left over from the Vietnam war, which ended in 1975. There’s more on the major sites of the Vietnam War to visit in our guide here.

Laos is the most heavily bombed country in the world per capita.   More than 580,000 bombing missions were conducted over Laos. That’s one bombing mission every 8 minutes. 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. For NINE years. Between 1964 and 1974, during the Vietnam War, more than 2 million tonnes of ordnance were dropped on Laos. 270 million these “bombies”.

There’s a small exhibition area to walk around, which provides some interesting signage and displays, including a mountain of old artificial legs, but for me, the best part of visiting COPE was the small movie theatre that they have here.

We watch “Bomb Harvest”, which follows the work of the Mines Advisory Group – MAG – and Laith Stevens, an Australian bomb disposal technician with a great gallows sense of humor. There’s a host of documentaries to watch there, where admission is by donation, which goes to support the victims of UXO injuries.

If you come to Vientiane and indeed Laos and don’t visit at least one of the UXO-related centers, then I fear you’re missing much of the story of Laos.  If you want to experience more, there is a UXO museum in Luang Prabang, and the Plain of Jars area is still littered with UXO and has a great museum to visit.

Your visit to COPE will help support the 5 rehab centers in the eight provinces of Laos and you can visit COPE from 0900 to 1800 every day.  Your visit is free, but your donation is incredibly important to help support the work of COPE.  Most of those coping with disabilities are children.

2. Get The Best Views of Vientiane from Patuxai

Patuxai – which stands for Victory Gates is a huge concrete arch found on Lang Xang Avenue in Vientiane.  There are gates on all sides of the monument and its style is somewhat unique, it does, however, resembles the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, France.  The concrete that was used to build Patuxai came from the Americans and was originally designated for a new airport, but made its way into this monument that is also a roundabout or traffic island.  Patuxai is a monument to those Laos people who died in pre-revolutionary wars.

Patuxai monument victory gates vientiane

The monument has 5 towers and is decorated with Buddhist symbols and Hindu deities as well as scenes from the Ramayana (that we recognize from India) on the ceiling to the night market and temples.

inside Patuxai Vientiane

There are internal staircases, and it costs 5,000 kip to climb to the top to get one of the best views of the city (depending on the time of year and the time of day – sunset is said to be particularly good).  It was somewhat gloomy when we visited.

view from Patuxai Vientiane

Patuxai is open from Monday to Friday from 0800 until 1630 and on weekends from 0800 until 1700.

There are markets and stalls on most of the floors as you walk up and the intricate décor is interesting.

3. Eat Banh Mi in Vientiane

The night market in Vientiane might have some great places to eat, but the best Banh Mi we found outside of Saigon, Vietnam was down by the river.  It’s called Khao Jee here in Laos.  Found near the river, with a lady who doesn’t speak English, but sells the most wonderful HUGE spicy stuffed pork sandwiches for 7,000 Kip each.

banh mi in vientiane

4. Visit the Buddha Park in Vientiane – Xieng Khuang

You’ll need to go out of the city to visit Xieng Khuang.  This is the infamous Buddha Park and it is somewhat bizarre.  Catch the green and white number 14 bus from the bus station (it goes every 40 minutes or so)  – well a road near the Talat Sao station near the market paying 6,000 kip each way per person.  The Buddha Park is 25 kilometers (15.5 miles) from Vientiane.

Virtually all tourists who take this bus are going to one of two places (or both), Buddha Park and the BeerLao brewery.

The Buddha Park is literally a park with lots of statues of Buddha and a strange demon’s mouth through which you walk into a giant pumpkin to descend to the depths of hell.  You’ll also find David Beckham here (kind of).

pumpkin heaven earth and hell buddha park vientiane

The Buddha Park is also known as Xieng Khuang, this is a sculpture park.  It was started in 1958 by monk and sculpture artist, Bunleua Sulila. and contains more than 200 statues and Hindu and Buddhist sculptures.

It costs us 5,000 kip each to enter the park.

The biggest sculpture in the park looks like a giant pumpkin.  There are three levels – Hell, Earth, and Heaven.

inside hell buddha park vientiane

We enter through the demon’s mouth.  And make our way through the levels for a view of the park – in Heaven.  And then, of course, there are the statues of Buddha with the strange David Beckham-like faces, and no we weren’t able to find out why.

david beckham buddha park vientiane

5. Visit the BeerLao factory near Vientiane

Just because we screwed up and didn’t get to go to the BeerLao factory nearby, their tours ran the day before we headed to the Buddha Park, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go. The Number 14 bus runs straight past it!  Find out more about taking tours at the BeerLao factory and brewery here

6. Visit Phra That Luang in Vientiane

Phra That Luang – the Great Stupa is the National Symbol of Laos and the most important cultural monument in Laos.    Phra That Luang was built in 1566, at the time that Vientiane was confirmed as the capital of Laos.

Phra That Luang is believed to contain the breastbone of the Buddha and is a gold-covered Buddhist Stupa.   It was looking a little tired when we visited.  While Phra That Luang is open from 0800 until 1600 every day, it is closed for lunch from 1200 until 1300.

phra that luang vientiane

Phra That Luang is 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) from the center of Vientiane, easily reachable on foot, by rented bicycle, or tuk-tuk.

This symbol of Buddhism and the ancient royalties of Laos can be found on the Laos currency and on all government logos.  This current stupa was built in the 1500s, although there has been a temple here since the 3rd century BC.  If you’re visiting Phra That Luang you should dress and behave modestly.

7. Visit the Vientiane Night Market

Alongside the Mekong River here in Vientiane you’ll find the Vientiane Night Market.  Here you’ll find all the usual touristy stuff – handicrafts, t-shirts and the like.  We loved the night market in Vientiane, though for the food stalls. Excellent barbecued meat, and good Laos salads.  Cold BeerLao.  You’ll find the night market open from dusk until about 2200.

vientiane night market

8. Take a Laos cooking class in Vientiane

There’s no better way to understand the culture of a country than by understanding its food.  Taking a Laos cooking class in Vientiane is a fabulous way to learn traditional Laos recipes, understand local vegetables, herbs, and spices, and be able to make dishes when you get home.   This tour includes visiting markets, cooking and eating – check your options here.

Best Vientiane Itinerary For your Time

It’s possible to arrive in Vientiane on an overnight bus, from say Pakse (and either the Bolaven Plateau or 4000 Islands), see the city in a day, and then head out that night.  Many travelers do this.  Check out our recommendations for Vientiane itineraries depending on how long you want to spend in the city.

How to See Vientiane in One Day

If you have just one day in Vientiane, then you’ll want to first head out to the Buddha Park.  This seriously quirky park is about 25 kilometers (15.5  miles) from Vientiane – and you can access it on a public bus.  You’ll spend most likely an hour tops there and then head back into the city.

Next head to COPE – it’s an incredible experience and will give you a fabulous understanding of the impact that the unexploded ordnance from the Vietnam War had and continues to have on the countryside.

You’ll want to go to Phra That Luang after your visit to COPE and find a little peace.  This is Laos’ most important symbol and you’ll be seeing it everywhere.

Alternatively, you make it easy on yourself and book a full tour of the city complete with accommodation and a visit to the Buddha Park – check it out here.

End your day at the top of Patuxai to catch a sunset.  The Victory Gates monument has some of the best views of Vientiane, especially at sunset.  Once you’ve got your important sunset photos head towards the night market, where you can pick up some great Laos food and a cold BeerLao or two before heading you’re your bus and your trip onwards… (book onward transport from Vientiane here)

What To Do In 2 Days in Vientiane

You can fit a whole lot into a 2-day itinerary in Vientiane.  Choose to slow down the pace of our recommend 1 day Vientiane itinerary or try this.

Day 1 in Vientiane

  1. Go to the Buddha Park when it opens at 0900.
  2. On the way back – remember you’re taking the public bus number 14, which goes every 40 minutes or so so it’s cheap and convenient, stop off at the BeerLao brewery for a tour and a taste.
  3. Arrive back in Vientiane early afternoon and head to the COPE center to learn about the after-effects of the Vietnam War.
  4. Still got energy? Save it for tomorrow and treat yourself to a cold BeerLao or two at the night market.

Day 2 in Vientiane

  1. Start the day by visiting Phra That Luang – Lao’s most important religious symbol.  You’ll want to get here early, as the light is much better for photos then. The stupa opens at 0800.
  2. After Phra That Luang, you’ll head on a tuk-tuk tour of Vientiane, where you’ll get to visit markets and eat and drink with a lot of local flavors. See what else is involved here.
  3. End your day at the top of Patuxai, where you hopefully get to see a stunning sunset over the city of Vientiane.

However long you decide to spend in Vientiane you’ll find something to do with your time.  The food is good here, life is laid back and the city is friendly.  Explore a little and see something of Laos’s capital city during your visit to the country.

Arriving in Vientiane

Vientiane’s bus station isn’t central.  Depending on where you’ve arrived from (we came from Pakse to Vientiane) you’ll arrive at either the northern or the southern bus station.  We arrived at the southern bus station.

That’s something that you’ll find a lot of in Laos.  Each town and city here in Laos has multiple bus stations – depending on where you’re coming from.  None of it is very clear, but what is patently obvious is that these bus stations are not located for the benefit of anyone traveling to them. I do believe that the town planners were in league with the tuk-tuk drivers. Everywhere we’ve visited in Laos has a bus station (or multiple bus stations) up to 10km out of town for no apparent reason other than revenue maximization.

And so our overnight bus, which drove us nearly 700km cost us 170,000 kip. (you can book the Pakse to Vientiane bus online now or read our guide on how to travel the route between Vientiane and Pakse here).  The shared tuk-tuk that we take into the center costs 30,000 kip each.  I’m sure we can all do the maths here.  If you want to make money in Laos.  Buy a tuk-tuk, not a bus.

Where to Stay in Vientiane

There are a host of places to stay in Vientiane – here’s our pick of the luxury places to stay in Vientiane, mid-range places to stay in Vientiane, and budget accommodation in Vientiane.

La Seine Hotel, Vientiane: The La Seine Hotel is a hotel located in downtown Vientiane next to the Mekong River. This five-star hotel’s 37 rooms all have their own private bathroom with bathrobes and hair dryer, LCD satellite TVs, free WiFi, air-conditioning, a mini-bar, and an in-room espresso machine; although different rooms offer different views, its either the view of the Mekong River or the view of Vientiane. La Seine Hotel also offers a great wine and dining experience at the Red Rose Restaurant, which can be reached through the lobby. This top-rated hotel in Vientiane is perfect for wine-lovers and nature-lovers with its chill atmosphere and quality services. Check out La Seine Hotel’s rooms and rates here.

Bloom Boutique Hotel and Café, Vientiane: The Bloom Boutique Hotel and Café is a three-star hotel located 1.1 km from Vientiane City Pillar Shrine, one of the capital city’s key shrines, and is near the Riverfront. This 16-room hotel offers a private bathroom with a shower, flat-screen TV, and complimentary WiFi, and some units have a dining area, a coffee maker, and a work desk. The Bloom Boutique Hotel and Café also includes breakfast at the hotel’s restaurant, views of the garden, and laundry room service. This popular accommodation is a great place to stay when visiting Vientiane. Rooms at the Bloom Boutique Hotel are popular, so book early here.

Vientiane Garden Villa Hotel, Vientiane: The Vientiane Garden Villa Hotel is located 2 km away from the center of Vientiane. This three-star rated hotel features rooms with air-conditioning, flat-screen TV, a refrigerator, and a private bathroom with a hot and cold shower. The Vientiane Garden Villa also sports an outdoor pool with views of the garden and the outdoor space, and Lao and Vietnamese cuisines are served at their Garden Restaurant. This well-rated hotel also offers free WiFi throughout the accommodation. This hotel is a fabulous place to stay in Vientiane. Check room availability here.

Leaving Vientiane

We left Vientiane and headed for Vang Vieng (check out our post on what to do in Vang Vieng here  – and here are details of how to do that – or you can book a bus here.  Many travelers leave Vientiane and head to Pakse (details here) and then go onto the Bolaven Plateau (seriously cool) or Lao’s 4000 Islands (massively chilled out. 

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Our route to Vang Vieng was easy, and it was part of our plan to end up in Huay Xai in order to take on the absolutely sublime Gibbon Experience – read our review here.

Where else to visit in Laos

Here are some of the other amazing places to visit in Laos on your trip.

Travel Tips for Exploring Laos

Final Words on the 8 Best Things to Do in Vientiane

This is a pretty laidback capital city. As well as the National symbol of Laos, there are several attractions of interest and some great food options too here. You can easily explore the city in two days, or take a single day and go on a city tour before you head on.

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