a weekender's guide to Vientiane, Laos : how to see the best of the Laotian capital in 48 hours

I’m going to say something that, as an advocate of slow and thorough travel, I normally would not say: 48 hours in Vientiane is probably all you really need. You can, obviously, spend more time there, but it is entirely possible to see the major tourist highlights over the span of a weekend and still have some spare time on your hands.

Let’s address the elephant in the room, shall we. Why would someone who promotes elongated travel encourage you to only spend two measly days somewhere? Simply put, it isn’t my favourite destination in Laos and it’s not incredibly “traveler-friendly”. The city’s layout is not made with walkers in mind, and some of the most famous attractions are much too far out of the city center to get to by foot or pedal bike. I found the budget accommodation in Vientiane lacking comparatively, and I’m always a little turned off by paying to visit temples when there are so many in Luang Prabang that are free {though I do always pay and, yes, I know the money goes towards restoration}. But! If you love a place, I always suggest spending more time there to get to know it and I fully believe that longer visits create more well-rounded experiences.

Despite me not falling head-over-heels-in-love with the capital of Laos, it still has much to offer weekend visitors, including diverse dining options, pretty parks, and important national landmarks.


READ ON FOR MY GUIDE TO VIENTIANE IN 48 HOURS


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HOW TO GET TO VIENTIANE

From outside of laos-

From outside of Laos, the easiest way to get to Vientiane is to fly. There are budget airlines available for those looking to pinch pennies. You may also chose to utilize the bus options from Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. The buses offered are anything but comfortable and take a large chunk of your travel time up.

From within laos -

From within Laos, I suggest taking the bus for budget travelers who have time to play with and don’t mind an adventurous journey {read: less than luxurious}. You can buy bus tickets directly from the bus stations in the city you are traveling from. For mid-to-high-budget travelers, flights are available for as little as USD $100 roundtrip from Luang Prabang on barebones airlines like Lao Skyway.

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WHERE TO STAY

I stayed at Ali Hotel. I only recommend places I’ve stayed to the readers of this blog but, unfortunately, I do not recommend Ali Hotel {which is very much a hostel, do not let the name fool you}. I don’t spend much time in my accommodation when I am traveling, but I still like feeling comfortable, welcome, and in a safe and clean environment. I never really felt any of those things while at Ali’s.

The hostel was in a prime location near tourist attractions and a plethora of café and dining options. My room also had air-conditioning, which is always a luxury in the unforgiving Lao heat. However, Ali’s staff were unwelcoming and unhelpful. The room itself was completely basic, which is absolutely fine, but the price didn’t seem to match the amenities {nearly USD $14 for a private room with a shared bathroom}. I rented a motorbike from the hostel, then panicked when it wasn’t in the parking lot. Turns out, a staff member rented it with a second key to someone else while I had gone upstairs. Ten minutes later, once I had come down for lunch, my bike was gone, even though I had paid for 24 hours and hadn’t been told where the bike was. The hotel staff let me use another bike to finish my rental period, but the hassle and stress was unnecessary. I thought it had been stolen and nearly had a heart attack thinking I’d be responsible for the missing motorbike. Also, when I showed up to check-in, it was as if my booking hadn’t been registered with the hostel and that too was concerning despite my messages with the hostel staff confirming my stay, dates, and anticipated arrival time. The breakfast, which is included in the price of the accommodation, was not vegetarian-friendly unless you like hot french fries/chips early in the morning. It’s also served at 8 AM, making early risers and those wanting to hit the trails to take photos without the heat and the crowds impossible if you also want to eat {unless you circle around and make your way back to the hostel after a few morning activities}. Overall, I’d only give Ali Hostel 2 out of 5 stars.

My suggestion is to find somewhere in a similar location to Ali’s, which is near the night market, temples, and loads of restaurants, so that it’s easier for you to get around. Which brings me to…

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HOW TO GET AROUND VIENTIANE

Vientiane is not a walkable city and tuk-tuks can add up since the city is a bit spread out. It’s also quite hot during the day, so I’m not sure I advise cycling or walking in the heat for long durations. The very best way to get around is to rent a motorbike. Renting a motorbike in Vientiane is affordable and can be done at almost every guesthouse. For 24 hours, I spent less than USD $10 on my motorbike, which came with free helmet use. Getting to places like Buddha Park, which are outside of the city center, are nearly impossible without a motorbike unless you have the cash to spend on a tuk-tuk or are with a group that can split the cost. I’d advise motorbike rental to those who have experience driving a motorbike if you plan on driving around Vientiane. Driving laws are nearly non-existent and traffic can be chaotic. You can use the city bus, but even getting to the bus station can be a pain in the ass and language barriers make it a bit

I don’t recommend using Maps.Me here. I did to navigate my way to Buddha Park and it took me nearly double the time to get there and the app lead me down a dirt road filled with giant gaps, potholes, and bumps. I switched to Google Maps after this incident and never had another problem.

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WHERE TO EAT + WHAT TO ORDER

COMMON GROUNDS Café

The absolute best café I went to in Vientiane was Common Grounds Café. Not only is their socially conscious mission something that makes me happy to spend my money there but the meal portions, price point, and taste of the food were all superb. I was disappointed that my lemonade came with a plastic straw, given the cafés strong commitment to bettering the community. The falafel pita was divine and super filling— two massive thumbs up from me.

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BAR 2 BROS

Bar 2 Bros is a tiny little café that sits away from the main coffee street in Vientiane, but it’s worth a visit if you are wanting to try a unique beverage or artisan coffee. I tried their signature drink, the Butterfly Pea Latte. I’m not a massive dairy fan and the latte tasted very milk-like to me. It was also incredibly sweet. I’m a black coffee kinda gal, so this was a truly shocking way to start the morning. I didn’t try any of the delicious looking food on the Bar 2 Bros menu, but it all looked mouth-watering.

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VEGETARIAN IN THE GOLDEN AGE

I went to Vegetarian in the Golden Age for their famous vegetarian lunchtime buffet, however, the buffet isn’t available on Sunday. Instead, I ordered a meal off their regular menu. My disappointments about not getting to partake in the USD $3.50 all-you-can-eat veggie feast were non-existent as soon as my food arrived to my table. It was delicious, cheap, and filling. The establishment is run by Vietnamese nuns, which makes it a unique spot! I had the vegetarian egg rolls without the egg and my travel partner order the vermicelli noodles with “pork”, lettuce, and spicy sauce. I was served jasmine tea {free of charge} upon being seated and highly recommend this place to those looking for veggie food on a budget in Vientiane.

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COCO + CO. Vegan Café

Coco + Co. Vegan Café was a recommendation of the Lola of Miss Filatelista and it did not disappoint. I thought it would be an ideal place to escape the heat and reward myself with a busy morning of explorations with some vegan goodies. I kicked off my shoes, grabbed a slice of their vegan cheesecake, and waited until the sun went a little lower in the sky before braving the pavement again. The prices are a bit inflated for the portion sizes, but it was a really lovely space with lots of seating, making it an ideal place for those needing to work with reliable WiFi and access to food and drinks.

JAMIL ZAHID INDIAN + PAKISTANI FOOD

By far, the best value for money meal I had in Vientiane was the Indian and Pakistani cuisine at Jamil Zahid’s “restaurant.” I use quotation marks because it’s anything but a traditional restaurant setting. Located in a sort of garage sitting down a nearly deserted alleyway next to graffiti-ed parking lots, you can’t really blame people for thinking it might be sketchy. When I showed up, I was immediately thanked by the owner for trying his restaurant— before I had even ordered! My food came with an unexpected fresh salad and my beer was served with an entire bucket of ice on the side {you always drink your beer in a cup with ice in Laos}. Jamil Zahid’s really hit it out of the ball park and served heaping portions for a tiny price tag. The reviews of this place are unkind about its aesthetics, but I find that the very best food is often found in the least visually appealing places. I didn’t bring my camera with me to dinner when I ate at Jamil Zahid’s Indian and Pakistani Food, but those who follow my Instagram stories know the massive portions and ridiculously low price put a big smile on my face. Please don’t let the exterior of the restaurant turn you off— the food and service were outrageously good, guys.

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POMODORO PIZZERIA

My travel companion found Pomodoro Pizzeria on Tripadvisor claiming it was the best pizza in Vientiane. I knew if it was anything like Pizza Pomodoro in Wellington, New Zealand, where I’d been on a cute wee date night, that it would be a winning pick. While I try to opt for the local, inexpensive options, my travel bud and I felt like treating ourselves to heavy Western food. I ordered the vegetarian calzone, and it was AMAZING. Eggplant, capsicum, cheese, sauce, chilis, and onion in what is essentially a folded pizza. The 1980s soundtrack created a fun atmosphere and the proximity of the restaurant to my hostel made it easy to get to in a city that is not easy to get around in.

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WHAT TO SEE + DO

EDUCATE YOURSELF AT THE COPE CENTER

Laos is the most bombed country in the world. More than Afghanistan, Germany, and even Syria. The U.S. dropped the equivalent of one planeload of bombs on Laos every 8 minutes, 24-hours a day, for 9 years. Most visitors don’t know this, and that’s why the COPE Center is a highly important stop no one should miss on their Vientiane itinerary. The COPE Center works with thousands of people who have mobility disabilities, particularly UXO survivors. The COPE Center educates visitors with films, photos, and realia displays about the dangers that unexploded ordinances present to the health of local communities and their economic development.

ADMISSION: free, but donations are welcomed

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HEAD TO VICTORY GATE MONUMENT- PAToUXAY

This is going to be an unpopular opinion, but the Victory Gate is probably my favourite spot in Vientiane. I know, it’s basically a concrete gateway and is actually unfinished, but the place was beautiful around golden hour and the photo opportunities were limitless. The fountains at the monument and the long road leading up to it really did remind me of Paris. I don’t know why I liked it so much, guys. I guess the place was just beautiful to me and it broke up the temples and stupas a bit. It was also free to hang around, although you can pay to walk up to the top, but you have to do so before 5 PM, when the stairwells close.

ADMISSION: free

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GET SPIRITUAL AT PHA THAT LUANG

That Luang reminded me of the Shwedagon Pagoda in Myanmar on a teeny, tiny, itsy-bitsy scale. Pha That Luang is a gold-covered stupa in the centre Vientiane. It is believed to have first been constructed in the 3rd century. Since then, it has undergone many reconstructions due to war and invasions. Today, it remains a holy site for Buddhist locals. Many people in Laos make pilgrimages to Pha That Luang during ceremonies and religious ceremonies.

ADMISSION: 10,000 kip for foreigners

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VISIT THE CITY’S TEMPLES

There are plenty of beautiful temples in Vientiane. Some of the more well-known temples do charge a small entrance fee, though it is rarely more than a USD $1. Bring cash in case there is a fee, and know that they will check your ticket if an admission ticket is required for entry. Some of my favourite temples from my time in Vientiane are:

  • Wat Sisaket

  • Wat Phra Kaew

  • Wat Inpeng

ADMISSION: smaller temples are free, larger temples are typically 10,000 kip for foreigners

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CHECK OUT THAT DAM

That Dam is simply a large stupa. The ancient folklore that surrounds it, however, makes it a cultural landmark of the city. Many locals believe that the stupa is protected by a 7-headed naga, which watched over the stupa when the city was invaded in 1827 by the Siamese army. Oddly enough, this historic landmark is now basically a large round-about that is surrounded by wine houses and noodle restaurants.

ADMISSION: free

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explore Buddha Park

Buddha Park is a public park that sits 25 kilometers outside of the city along the Mekong River. This park is not a temple, but it contains numerous religious statues. While a dress code isn’t enforced, anytime you are in front of an image of the Buddha, it’s expected that you are dressed appropriately according to Laotian custom. I saw plenty of tourists wearing tank tops and shorts, but I went ahead and came covered. I suppose, at the end of the day, it’s up to you and what you feel is respectful.

ADMISSION: 15,000 kip for foreigners


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the weekender's guide to Vientiane, Laos