Is Vientiane worth visiting? This is not a contentious question—most travelers dislike Vientiane—but maybe it should be.
Prior to coming back for a second time, my reservations about Vientiane were visceral: My first trip to the Lao capital, in 2010, saw me narrowly escape near-death food poisoning. The only attraction I visited was Mahosot Hospital; the only notable experience I had was telling the nurse she absolutely wasn’t going to insert the unwrapped needle she brought out into my arm.
I recently had to cross back over the Mekong into Laos in order to get the education visa that’s going to enable me to live in Thailand. I’m happy to report not only that I made significantly wiser dining choices this time around, but that Vientiane is not such a terrible place, at least not if you maintain realistic expectations.
Where to Stay in Vientiane
You’ll need to spend a minimum of one night in Vientiane in order to do a visa run from Thailand, but regardless of how long you spend in Vientiane, don’t expect much from the accommodation here. The city’s few luxury hotels are extraordinarily expensive (more on that in a second), while most of the so-called “boutique” properties are similar in quality to budget guest houses across the border in Thailand.
I stayed at Khampiane Boutique Hotel, but I can’t go so far as to recommend it. The good news is that Vientiane has a fair number of Airbnb properties, which are affordable and convenient, even if most don’t appear to be especially stylish or unique.
Things to Do in Vientiane
Find a travel buddy
As I was exiting the Thai Consulate, I made the acquaintance of a young New Zealander who was also in Vientiane to do a visa run. We spent the rainy morning sharing stories (mine about the illness I’d endured the last time I was in Vientiane; hers the questionable experience she’d had with her school in Thailand), then decided to take in Vientiane’s sights together once the sky cleared.
Walk the temple trail
We spent the afternoon visiting the trio of temples that sat just to the south of our hotel: Wat Inpeng, Wat Ong Teu and Wat Haysoke. Then, we passed That Dam “black stupa” en route to the riverfront Chao Anouvong Park, before walking up Avenue Lane Xang to Patuxay, Laos’ national monument, heading back to the hotel to get a bird’s eye view of the sunset from its terrace.
Do some extracurricular activities
The next morning, I headed alone to the strange (but not impressively so) Buddha Park, although I decided against adding a stop at the iconic Pha That Luang because it would’ve doubled the price of my already exorbitant taxi ride. Anecdotally, I do feel like more people would find Vientiane worth visiting if it wasn’t so expensive, relatively speaking, for the quality of what you get here.
Why is Vientiane So Expensive?
Unfortunately, taxis and hotels aren’t the only expensive things in Vientiane. I found that the meals and beverages of my day in Vientiane were generally 25-50% more expensive than Bangkok (yes, central Bangkok!) prices, and most tuk-tuks seemed to charge a minimum of 25,000 Laotian kip (about 100 Thai baht or 3 USD), with journeys further than a few blocks commanding a price double or even triple that amount.
And why is Vientiane so expensive? It’s hard to say, being that I’m not an economist, although I would imagine it’s a combination of Laos’ weak currency, anemic industrial sector and declining year-over-year GDP growth. It’s unfortunate, too, because I probably wouldn’t have focused on how mediocre Vientiane was had I not been made to pay through the nose to spend a day there.
How to Do a Visa Run from Thailand
My journey back to Vientiane began with an overnight train from Bangkok to the border town of Nong Khai, Thailand, then a local train over the Mekong to Thanaleng, Laos, where I paid for my Lao visa on arrival before piling into a van bound for the Thai Consulate.
There, I waited in line from about 8-10 a.m., at which point I received a chit I’d need to present the next afternoon to receive my passport, in time to cross the so-called “Friendship Bridge” by foot and take another overnight train back to Bangkok. I personally decided to travel back entirely by train, although many travelers cross back over to Nong Khai and then on to Udon Thani, where they board a low-cost flight back to Bangkok.
Other FAQ About Visiting Vientiane
Is Vientiane boring?
I’ll be honest: Vientiane is not the most exciting city in Southeast Asia. At the same time, there’s plenty to occupy your time if you only plan to stay here for a day or two, such as on a visa run from Thailand.
How many days do you need in Vientiane?
Even if you aren’t traveling to Vientiane on a visa run from Thailand, I probably wouldn’t recommend spending longer than a night or two here. For example, if you’re flying in from Pakse and Don Det/4,000 islands, you could simply spend a night and morning in Vientiane before heading north to Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang.
Should I visit Vientiane or Luang Prabang?
Luang Prabang is historic, scenic, charming and small—I wouldn’t use most of these words to describe Vientiane. At the same time, if you have time in your Laos itinerary and you want to compare these cities for yourself, it can’t hurt to visit both.
The Bottom Line
Is Vientiane worth visiting? A day here on a visa run will neither bore you to tears nor delight you more than superficially. The city’s spate of charming (but not extraordinary) attractions isn’t commensurate with the relatively high cost of traveling there, and while Vientiane is enjoyable enough considered on it own, it really does pale in comparison to every other capital in Southeast Asia. The surest way to enjoy a day in Vientiane is to visit the city as a means to an end, be it in transit to or from Laos, or on a visa run from Thailand.