Vientiane, Laos: How to Turn Your Visa Run into a Mini Vacation
Visa runs don’t have to suck. Sure, the smelly minibus ride is torture, but that’s why god invented Valium. Here are some tips to keep things simple: Make sure you have several passport photos, your Thai departure card and at least three blank pages in your passport prior to crossing the Friendship Bridge (that Lao visa is a real space hog), and bring both Thai baht and American dollars for the best exchange rate – the Lao visa costs 1,400 baht but only $35 USD, and the Thai Embassy only takes baht. Arrive at the Embassy early, but not ridiculously early. The ideal time is probably right around 8:30 a.m., when the doors open _ that way the standing line moves quickly and you’re still in with the early birds to grab a shady seat inside. Better yet, bring a book and a picnic blanket, sprawl out in the lawn under the palm trees, and voila! Your mini vacation has already begun.
Once your visa is squared away (remember you’ll need at least two days to do this, since the morning drop-off must be followed by a considerably quicker afternoon pick-up on the following day) it’s time to enjoy the sights, sounds and tastes of Vientiane. Sure, it’s not the world’s most exciting city, but do not discount this pretty little French-influenced metropolis on the banks of the Mekong. From baguettes to bars to Buddha parks, there is plenty to appreciate (before everything closes at 11 p.m.), and we’ve got a handy guide to get you started.
Where to Eat:
Makphet Restaurant: Come early or make a reservation – this tiny eatery has a reputation and fills up fast. As part of a global alliance of self-sustaining social programmes, Makphet is staffed by former street kids, and serves up a selection of excellent Lao fusion food. Check out the attached gift shop for a variety of handcrafted items made by local families.
Nazim Restaurant: While the restaurant’s interior leaves something to be desired, the service is great and the authentic Indian Halal and Malaysian fare is dependably tasty and refreshingly cheap, with plenty of vegetarian options. Don’t miss the tomato curry!
Common Grounds: This air-conditioned café and bakery provides a welcome sense of Western familiarity and a great place to chill out after a long hot day waiting around at the Embassy. There’s even a playground for the kids! Yummy Mexican fare, delicious homemade baked goods, fresh juices and plenty of local coffee come at reasonable prices, and the free Wifi makes it a great place to get some work done, if you must.
Le Silapa: This authentic French restaurant, located just above the popular I-Beam Tapas Bar, features an elegant ambiance and a variety of wine, beer and cocktails to wash down their delightful modern French cuisine.
Aria Mixai: In a city full of French food, la buona cucina is hard to find, but Aria Mixai has it covered, and then some, with arguably the best high-end Italian victuals in Vientiane. From authentic wood-fired Neopolitan pizza to fresh handmade pasta, everything here is made with care by famous Italian Chef Gerardo Dereviziis.
L’adresse de Tinay: This casual chic bistro is one of the most beloved providers of traditional French cooking in town, specialising in Southern fare from Nice and Tolouse, with a hip and modern atmosphere featuring exposed brick accent walls and stylish chandeliers.
Amphone: This lovely restaurant features a large open wooden deck with candlelit tables and hanging greenery – the perfect place for a leisurely dinner on a warm evening in Vientiane. Taste some of the best authentic Laotian cuisine in the city.
Where to Drink:
Chokdee Café: Remember the adventures of Tintin and his loyal terrier Milou or Snowy for those of us who don’t read French? If so, this lovingly themed Belgian beer bar will provide a dose of nostalgic charm. But even if you’ve never heard of the guy, it’s a cosy spot to settle in for excellent pub frites and a fantastic selection of Euro brews, from Rochefort to Duvel to Leffe.
Spirit House: Some of the most delicious and creative cocktails in town are served in this elegant wood panelled haven on the banks of the Mekong. Sit in the shaded beer garden and watch the big orange sun set over the river while sipping on a Pomelo Collins or a Boatman’s Rum Swizzle. Tasty breakfast, lunch and dinner is also served.
Jazzy Brick: Still holding court as the only jazz lounge in town, Jazzy Brick is a sophisticated spot to stop in for some good old-fashioned ear candy and cocktails. House rules: no shorts, singlets or bare feet. Happy Hour is nightly with 50% off cocktails from 6 – 8 p.m. and Wednesdays are Ladies Nights.
Bor Pen Nyang: With one of the best locations in town, this spacious rooftop bar and restaurant is always packed with a mix of locals and travellers alike – you’re almost guaranteed to spot some familiar faces, looking significantly more relaxed than they did on the Friendship Bridge at 6 a.m. Shoot a round of pool or settle down and enjoy the view to an eclectic soundtrack of well-chosen tunes.
Lunar 36: Most bars and restaurants in Vientiane close before midnight. If you want to keep the party going, you’ll have to relocate to a nightclub like Lunar 36. Embrace the flashing lights, blasting techno and drunken youngsters, or croon alone in a private karaoke room.
LeSen Wine & Cocktail Bar: Small but cosy, this little watering hole is ideal for a drink or two before or after dinner. Located just opposite Aria Mixai and walking distance to other bars and restaurants.
Where to Sleep:
Hotel Khamvongsa: One of the most charming hotels you’ll ever stay in, steps away from the city centre, this place oozes Lao French flair, from its breezy courtyard to its black and white tiled floors to its dark wood interior. Enjoy the modern conveniences of lightning-speed Wifi and a selection of excellent free breakfasts.
Ansara Hotel: This small boutique hotel is ideally located in the heart of Vientiane, within walking distance to the markets and plenty of excellent bars and restaurants. Sleep soundly inside the beautiful colonial villa serviced by a friendly staff and equipped with all the modern amenities.
Green Park Boutique Hotel: Considered by locals to be one of the finest examples of Lao contemporary architecture in the city, this boutique hotel provides luxury resort-style comforts in the heart of Vientiane.
Dreamtime Eco-Resort: For those willing to forgo modern comforts (i.e. electricity) and save some serious coin in the process, these rustic bungalows are a bit out of the way, but reachable by tuk tuk. Also, it’s a jungle paradise where you can unplug and enjoy the simple pleasures of nature, good food and friendly people.
Settha Palace Hotel: For old world charm, French colonial architecture, and one of the few swimming pools in the city (which may be the only place you can handle after a day of visa complications), this luxury hotel is an old Vientiane standby.
Where to Visit:
COPE Visitor Centre: Beat the heat and spend a few potentially life-changing hours learning about the horrific plight of cluster bombs in Laos at this excellent interactive facility. Entry is free but make sure you buy some homemade ice cream or a souvenir from the gift shop to help support this wonderful organisation, which provides free prosthetic limbs for those in need.
Buddha Park (Xieng Khuan): Instagram aficionados, take heed! About 30 kilometres outside Vientiane lies this bizarre surrealist wonderland of eerie-looking Buddhist and Hindu cement sculptures, designed in the 1960s by Thai-Lao rogue mystic Luang Pu Bunleua Sulalit.
Houey Hong Vocational Training Centre for Women: Spend a day exploring the lush gardens and learning the ancient local art of weaving and dyeing silk at this unique training centre for disadvantaged Lao women. No prior experience is required and you get to keep everything you make!
Mekong River: Rent a bicycle or take a stroll along the banks of the Mekong River in the cool early morning, and watch the sunrise over the legendary Mekong. There is a playground for kids and a well-equipped workout park for adults. If you’re not an early riser, sunset will do just fine.
Where to Shop:
The Night Market: For a wide variety of cheap souvenirs – from t-shirts to jewellery to food to bottles of Lao whisky with scorpions inside _ in a picturesque setting on the banks of the Mekong, check out the Vientiane Night Market. Just look for the red awnings near the river.
Saoban: For souvenirs with soul, visit this well-organised fair trade shop, named after the Lao word for ‘village’. A social business that works with traditional artisans to support local handicrafts, Saoban sells everything from handmade silk scarves to bamboo coasters to bracelets fashioned out of cluster bomb shells.
Ministry of Silk: As one of the most prestigious Lao fashion brands, this stylish clothier offers a variety of unique, locally produced silk clothing and international fashion accessories for women and men. If you don’t find exactly what you’re looking for, items can be altered or made to order.
Carol Cassidy: This workshop and gallery is the home base of American designer Carol Cassidy, who works with local artisans to produce world-renowned wall hangings, scarves, shawls and custom furnishing fabrics using traditional Lao textile weaving techniques with eye-catching patterns and motifs. Quality is high but prices aren’t cheap!
Oot Ni Gallery: Vientiane is full of intriguing shops filled with dusty Southeast Asian antiques. One of the best is Oot Ni Gallery, located near the National Culture Hall and specialising in an eclectic mix of antiques, silver ornaments, handicrafts and paintings.
021 214 359
Caruso Lao: Browse a variety of high quality home crafts all designed and produced locally in Laos, located in a lovely little colonial house overlooking the Mekong.
Pany Saignavongs is the publisher of Society Lifestyle Magazine, one of Laos’ most prestigious fashion and lifestyle publications, printed in both Lao and English. As the reigning expert of what is hot in Vientiane, we asked Pany to help us select some great places to eat, drink, sleep and shop throughout the city. Look for the flower icon above to denote Pany’s Picks.