Although Laos is becoming an increasingly popular destination for travellers, many of them only pass through the capital, Vientiane, in their eagerness to get to other parts of the country such as Vang Vieng, Luang Prabang or Si Phan Done. While it’s true that Vientiane doesn’t offer much in the way of sights – plenty of temples if you’re into that, but Luang Prabang has better ones – one thing it has in abundance is great food, and it’s definitely worth spending a few days here to chill out, enjoy a few cheap massages, and sample the culinary delights that are available; especially if you’ve been on the road for a while and have had a gutful (pardon the pun) of travellers’ fare.
Lao food is delicious, cheap and healthy and there are definitely worse ways to spend an hour or two than watching the sun set over the Mekong while sitting at a rickety table consuming grilled river fish, sticky rice and papaya salad washed down with a couple of bottles of Beer Lao. But what many travellers don’t realise is that there are plenty of excellent Western restaurants in Vientiane, many of which are great value and offer everything from casual bistro style to fine dining for a fraction of what the equivalent would cost back home.
Whether you’re celebrating a special occasion or just want to treat yourself to some familiar food, there is likely to be a restaurant to satisfy your cravings. At the upper end of the scale Le Silapa and Bistro 22 are the best of several French restaurants; Aria and La Scala offer great Italian food; and Fujiwara and No’s Sushi Bar are just two of the many excellent Japanese restaurants. If you’re travelling on a budget and are worried that these restaurants might be out of your price range, my advice is to go for lunch. Almost all foreign restaurants in Vientiane offer great lunch deals: either set menus of two or three courses from US$7-20, or all-you-can-eat buffets that usually run somewhere between US$7-10. A good example is Aria, which at lunchtime offers all the pizza, pasta and salad you can eat (pasta made fresh to order) for US$7.
Then there are the more casual cafés and bistros such as Sticky Fingers (full disclosure: owned by the writer) that offer hearty servings of old favourites (think bangers and mash or fish and chips) at a very reasonable price. The pick of the many local bakeries is Le Banneton. Their breads and pastries are the best in town and they also have great salads and sandwiches. Joma is a popular bakery chain – the Lao Starbucks – which has several branches in Laos and has recently expanded into Vietnam. There’s also a Scandinavian Bakery and Tyna, a French crêperie, for those with a sweet tooth.
Let’s not forget the drinks though! Wine is comparatively cheap in Laos due to minimal tax and there is a very good selection available, running the gamut from rough Vin de Pays to Taittinger champagne. In recent years the choice has expanded hugely, with many Australian, New Zealand, Chilean, South African and Argentinian wines jostling for shelf space with the standard French and Italian varieties. If you’d rather sip on a martini or a margarita there are a number of cocktail bars around, most of which have happy hours.
Whatever type of food takes your fancy you’re likely to find it in Vientiane somewhere. As well as the French, Italian and Japanese places there are also Turkish, German and Korean restaurants; the newly-opened I-Beam wine and tapas bar; Chinese and Indian eateries, and many more. Marnie McDonald