Often passed over for Luang Prabang or other destinations in Laos, Vientiane—perhaps the most languid capital in Southeast Asia—more than merits a couple days’ exploration. From its Mekong riverfront and golden temples to its narrow streets where art and handicraft shops rub shoulders with chic cafés, the city has plenty to see and do. Here’s how to take in the best of it in just 48 hours.
Rise at the small and chic Ansara Hotel (Quai Fa Ngum; 856-21/213-514; doubles from US$148) for an early walk up Lane Xang Avenue to the Patuxai independence monument, Laos’ answer to the Arc de Triomphe. A winding stone staircase leads up to its central tower for panoramic views over the city. From here, it’s a short tuk-tuk drive east to the golden stupa of Pha That Luang, the city’s most treasured Buddhist site. Dotted with orange-robed monks and worshippers, the stupa’s immaculate grounds are peaceful despite the busy location. Lunch awaits a few streets south at the colorful Lao café Doi Ka Noi (424 Sisangvong Rd.; 856-20/5589-8959), where chef-owner Noi serves up a daily-changing menu from her tiny kitchen. The sai oua gop—frog stuffed with pork and herbs—is a standout.
Catch a tuk-tuk to COPE (Khouvieng Rd.; 856-21/241-972), a nonprofit organization that provides prostheses to victims of unexploded ordnance. At its informative visitor’s center, you’ll learn that Laos has the tragic distinction of being the most heavily bombed place on earth—between 1964 and 1973, the United States dropped around two million tons of ordnance on the country, of which 30 percent failed to immediately detonate—and that unexploded munitions continue to account for as many as 300 casualties a year.
Across the road, stop for a Lao foot massage at the Green Park Boutique Hotel (856-21/264-097) before heading off again toward Wat Si Muang, where women sell offerings such as parcels of sticky rice, bananas, marigolds, and twittering sparrows in bamboo cages. On the other side of the temple, stop into The Little House (Manthatourat Rd.; 856-20/5540-6036), a Japanese teahouse with delectable homemade cakes, scones, and iced organic coffee. Around the corner is the I:cat Gallery (231 Setthathirath Rd.; 856-20/7783-9674), a contemporary exhibition space for local painters, sculptors, photographers, and other artists.
Unwind with sundowners at downtown bar I-Beam (88 Setthathirath Rd.; 856-21/ 254-528), which also comes with an extensive wine list and tapas plates including the popular spiced pork belly. For a quieter and more leisurely meal, head upstairs to French fine-dining restaurant Le Silapa (856-21/219-689).
You won’t find better latte art in Vientiane than at Naked Espresso 2 (Manthatourath Rd.; 856-30/538-3392); add a fresh-pressed apple-and-ginger juice and an avocado toastie to your order and you’re set till lunch. A block to the west, Nokeokoummane Road is home to Lao Textiles (856-21/212-123) and Mulberries (856-21/241-217) both excellent stops for ethical, artisan-made handicrafts including colorful silk wall hangings, scarves, and shawls. For fair-trade bamboo products and spoons made from recycled bomb casings, head to nearby Saoban (97/1 Chao Anou Rd.; 856-21/241-835). Around the corner, T’Shop Lai Gallery (Inpeng Rd.; 856-21/223-178) stocks soaps, body creams, wooden homewares, and other items from a disadvantaged women’s cooperative called Les Artisans Lao. Break for another cup of superb Lao coffee at boutique roaster Le Trio (Setthathirath Rd., near Nam Phu; 856-20/2255-3552). Upstairs is the Ock Pop Tok pop-up shop, a must-see for the brand’s award-winning Luang Prabang textiles.
For lunch, sit by the bar at Spanish-style steakhouse Pimenton (5 Nokeokoumane Rd.; 856-21/215-506), where steaks, ribs, and burgers are cooked to perfection on a giant open-fire grill. Back at the Ansara, wafts of cinnamon and jasmine may entice you to cross the street for an afternoon spa treatment at the gloriously chilled Tangerine Garden (856-21/251-452). Let them.
As the sun starts to set, follow it toward the Mekong. Upstream from the riverside night market area, grab an outdoor table at the Spirit House (Quai Fa Ngum; 856-21/243-795) and order a pickled ginger martini or an ice-cold Beer Lao accompanied by moreish tapas plates of sinsavanh (beef jerky), pumpkin-and–blue cheese arancini, and kai hin (sesame-encrusted riverweed). When the crowds start to pick up, retrace your steps and join the throngs of locals milling through the Night Market. Try sweetened sticky rice in bamboo or grilled bananas from one of the many roadside carts for a sweet finish to your stay.
This article originally appeared in the April/May print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Lao or Never”).