Though often overlooked in favour of Laos’s more beautiful city, Luang Prabang, we have more than a few reasons to love Vientiane. The capital and largest city of Laos sits just along the Mekong and makes an easy spot to explore in just a few days, with its easily navigable streets lined with French colonial villas, blooming bougainvillea and centuries-old temples.
Thankfully for us, Vientiane is a fairly compact city and can easily be explored on foot or bicycle. The heart of the action lies in the roughly grid-like downtown area around Rue Samsenthai and the Mekong River, with loads of guesthouses and hostels on Rue Francois Ngin. Start your day by taking a bike out to Pha That Luang, a 16th century stupa covered in gold-leaf and now Laos’s most revered religious site. Get there early enough and avoid the crowds of Lao tourists, then head back downtown where you can visit Wat Si Saket - the oldest existing temple in Vientiane -, the Lao National Museum, and the iconic French-style Victory Gate, known as Patuxai. All are within walking distance of each other, though if it’s too hot out, tuk tuks can be hired for cheap.
Once you’ve seen the biggest historical sites, head over to the COPE Visitor Centre for a dose of modern history - and tragedy. COPE, or the Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise, is an equally heartbreaking and inspiring centre where you can learn about the many unexploded ordnances (UXOs) that still remain in Laos after it was heavily bombed during the Vietnam War, and their effect on Laos today. COPE not only provides education on the danger of these bombs, but also provides prosthetic and rehabilitation services for those who have lost limbs to UXO accidents. Some survivors even act as volunteers at the Centre, happy to share their stories with international visitors. Watch a documentary, talk to a volunteer, and grab an ice-cream at the cafe, where proceeds go to COPE’s programmes.
As the sun begins to set, make sure you head over to the banks of the Mekong, where you can join local aerobics classes en plein air with all the local housewives, and dance your way to fitness. A night market opens up here after sundown, with much less of a touristy feel than the market in Luang Prabang, and the small streets leading off from the market between Quai Fa Ngum and Rue Setthathilath are where lights from the bars and restaurants will be glowing til late. To get a meal for a good cause, head to Makphet near Wat Ong Teu, which serves delicious Lao dishes and provides hospitality and culinary training for disadvantaged youth. Beer Lao flows in abundance at all the sidewalk cafes, so grab a few bottles with your friends and watch the Vientiane nightlife flow past - though if you’re craving something a bit more high-so, the Spirit House Bar serves delicious cocktails at its location on the river, and Le Silapa Restaurant has one of the best wine lists in town. You might just find Vientiane inspiring you to stick around for a few more days.