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Laos's capital is a low-key, pleasant city thanks to its small size, relative lack of traffic, and navigable layout. The pace here is as slow as the Mekong River, which flows along the edge of town. Aside from the magnificent lotus-shape stupa Pha That Luang, there aren't too many must-sees, but the promenade along the Mekong and the many wats scattered about are great to explore by bicycle.

The abundance of ugly cement-block buildings in urgent need of paint gives Vientiane a superficially run-down appearance, but this only makes the remnants of elegant French colonial architecture stand out all the more. There are also dozens of temples—ornate, historic Buddhist structures that stand amid towering palms and flowering trees. First-time visitors often find Vientiane a drab, joyless city, but you only have to arrive during the weeklong That Luang Festival in November to be reminded that first impressions can be misleading.

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