Food, soft drinks, alcohol in the bars and fine restaurants of Vientiane & Laos

Vientiane has a great variety of food on offer. Local stalls sell barbecued pork, chicken and duck, sometimes goat, beef (or buffalo); countless roadside stalls and restaurants serve bowls of different varieties of steaming noodles with meat, and other local delicacies are seen everywhere. Food from other ethnic kitchens is in abundance: Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai, Indian, French and Italian and even British cuisine can be found in Laos.

Leading Vientiane hotels and better Lao food restaurants such as Kualao, serve a variety of local and Asian regional dishes, many of which appeal to Western palates, as well as European food. Meat may be locally produced, but more expensive establishments use produce imported from Thailand or further afield such as Australia, New Zealand and the USA.

Recommended foreign-run restaurants in or near central Vientiane include Caves des Châteaux, exceptional Italian Aria, L'Opera, all tastes Kop Chai Deur, Joma (also in Luang Prabang), Swedish Pizza & Baking House and Scandinavian Bakeries. These are all within walking distance or near Nam Phou (Fountain) Square and two blocks from the Mekong River. If you're near the Morning Market and need a quiet, shady spot for lunch, try L'Estaminet on the corner between ANZ and JDB banks. On Samsenthai Road (one-way north) is the Lao Plaza Hotel, Rashmi's  Indian Fusion restaurant and Pizza Company & Swensen. Near Wat Mixay there's a small English pub, the Hare & Hound with typical British tavern food in Rue Francois Nginn, the same street as the still popular Taipan Hotel, now a Best Western. Sadly, Le Central, a popular French restaurant nearby, closed permanently in June 2011.

For a more local and probably cheaper experience, there are many bars and restaurants stretching along the riverside; a couple offer dinner cruises on the Mekong River itself, where you can relax with a beer and eat Lao/Thai style dishes, after watching the sun go down over Nongkhai and Thailand – less than a mile away. The Bor Pen Yang Bar and restaurant is popular among expats and tourists, with elevated views over the river and an ATM outside. See our Lao Banks page for ATM locations and exchange rates for Laos.

Due to its former colonial background, Vientiane has always had a reputation for its good French restaurants, and this legacy has survived (see above). There are also many mostly inexpensive and often excellent eateries of almost every culinary variety except international fast food franchises. No McDonalds, KFC, Pizza Hut, Burger King, Subway and for overrated/overpriced coffee addicts, no Starbucks; only the Thai pizza & ice cream franchise mentioned above, now with two branches, one opposite the Lao Plaza.

Worthy of mention and also near Nam Phou Fountain is Joma Bakery & Restaurant with two other branches in Vientiane and one in Luang Prabang. Here you will find excellent but quite expensive fresh-baked bread, snacks, cakes, light hot meals and salads and coffee, plus WiFi for your laptop. Next door to the main branch is the modern Pimphone Market now with a deli area and a wide range of western (also Japanese) foodstuffs plus cold meats, fresh milk, butter and cheese, imported delicacies and grocery and kitchen products. Probably the best of its type in the city, but higher-than-average prices – aimed at the busy tourist clientele.

Smaller convenience stores called 'mini-marts' such as M-Point Mart are dotted around the tourist and foreign residential areas of Vientiane. These are where you're likely to find many things not used by many Lao shoppers, such as fresh milk (local or Thai), bacon, cold meats and sliced bread (crisp, fresh baguettes are easy to find though), and imported condiments and sauces etc. Some of these things are pricey but you have to consider the limited demand and the cost of import. French or Californian wine is quite cheap, however, and prices sometimes lower than the 'Duty Free' shops at the Friendship Bridge. While these are primarily for travellers to Thailand, anyone in Laos can purchase from them without leaving the country, making the term 'duty free' something of a misnomer!

Apart from traditional Lao eating places, there are Thai, ethnic Chinese and Vietnamese and Korean eating houses catering to the many residents of those groups that make up the diverse population of Vientiane. There are also restaurants serving Japanese, Indian, French, Italian, Scandinavian, and other nations' dishes, tucked away in corners somewhere. Tourist and Western food restaurants in Laos have fast food like sandwiches, burgers and pizza; French fries are common and served in many pubs and places where young Lao people drink too. Excellent bread from local bakeries is available everywhere, a legacy from the days of French rule. Oven-fresh baguettes and sandwiches made from them are eaten daily by Lao people as well as tourists. Fresh fruit and juices are in abundance too, as are all common (and uncommon) vegetables and salads. European bread, baked products and other light meals are available from Scandinavian Bakery and Canadian-owned Joma Cafe (now with several shops in the city).

Lao traditional food

Much of the food seen around Vientiane is similar to Isaan (North East Thailand) food across the Mekong River. This is not surprising, as the people originate from the same ethnic communities. Sticky (glutinous) rice, many styles of noodle, including 'lao spaghetti' and ordinary boiled or fried rice, together with fresh leaf plants and herbs like mint, coriander, basil and parsley usually accompany dishes, as well as sometimes pungent, very spicy or bitter sauces are used as dips for the hand-fashioned balls of sticky rice.

All parts of an animal are edible to the Lao; chicken, duck, goose, pork, beef, buffalo and goat are eaten cooked, or sometimes marinated and eaten raw, and prepared in a variety of ways – barbecued on a charcoal grill, fried in oil, or boiled in stock to form a soup.

Vegetables and fruit abound, and there is a plethora of green or brown leafy plants, many looking like garden clippings of grass and weeds to the uninitiated, and some extremely bitter to the taste. Root vegetables, bulbs, herbs and spices, including hot chillies and garlic, are almost essential ingredients, as the Lao palate prefers hot and sour! However, there are mild and sweet dishes too, probably from the Chinese and Vietnamese influence.

Lao Food

Note that many offerings from roadside restaurants, food stalls and traditional village homes, although in many cases tempting, should be treated with caution, and some avoided altogether. Odd and unpleasant smells and tastes can emanate from these dishes, and cleanliness of preparation and serving utensils is questionable! This becomes less important after one has settled in, and develops immunity to local bugs and bacteria, but an upset stomach is a common occurrence among both locals and foreigners. Often fixed with Imodium or an equivalent, available at the numerous pharmacies, it can still be uncomfortable and debilitating. Packs of 'electrolyte' powders are useful for restoring essential minerals and fluids lost during prolonged attacks of diarrhoea.

Here's a typical kitchen in a village house in the far north of Laos. Several generations of a family may live there, and food preparation is a social affair too, as always is eating it. Most of the actual cooking is done outside on charcoal fires, so the smoke can dissipate. Many Lao villages still have no electricity and therefore no cold storage, so chickens etc. are killed and eaten the same day. The vegetables are all home-grown and fresh from the gardens.

Kitchen in Luang Prabang Province, Lao PDR

Lao Beverages and Drinks

Water from the mains is not recommended for drinking unless previously boiled. Most urban Lao drink and cook with bottled water, usually delivered to houses, restaurants and shops in 20 litre (5 gal) plastic bottles costing 5000 kip (50 cents US). Half and one litre bottles are available cheaply everywhere, the most popular brand being Tiger Head from the BeerLao factory.

Freshly-made fruit juices and bottled sodas are sold in most populated areas. Most popular is the locally produced Pepsi, which has a history in Laos dating back to 1968 when a so-called 'Pepsi bottling plant' was set up in US/Vietnam War days with the assistance of the later-impeached president Richard Nixon. It was apparently an American CIA-run clandestine heroin production facility. Not a single bottle of cola was produced until 1985! Pepsi production was eventually begun by the Lao Soft Drink Co. Ltd. which from 2007 has been 70% owned by Carlsberg A/S of Denmark and 30% by the Lao government. It produces Pepsi, Seven-Up and Mirinda, as well as Effervess plain soda water. The Pepsi bottling complex is near Beerlao on Thadeua Road, between the Friendship Bridge and Vientiane Capital.

M-150 - Thailand's most popular energy booster drinkCoca-Cola, Sprite, Fanta, Diet Coke, M-150 (em-loy-harsip is a popular Thai energy drink which outsells by far the internationally better-known Red Bull), soy milk and other beverages are sold in stores and  restaurants, but are all imported from Thailand, along with many other Thai food and other products.

Alcoholic drinks: beer, wine and spirits in Lao

Spirits, both locally distilled and imported, and wines (French being the most popular for historical reasons), are sold quite cheaply in shops, and at higher prices in hotels and restaurants of course. Magnums of sweet Chinese sparkling wine are popular for celebrations. Due to an extremely low (if any) liquor tax or excise duty, alcohol costs considerably less in Lao than Thailand, and is much more readily available. It seems the government is intent on maintaining its control by keeping the local population, as well as visitors, happy with cheap alcoholic drinks, and it appears to work very well!

The Lao 'National drink"Except for drinking water, the most popular drink in Lao is the famous Beerlao. The Lao Brewery Company Ltd. is a 50/50 joint venture between the Lao Government and Danish brewers Carlsberg A/S, one of the world's largest and who also own the local Pepsi bottling factory (see above).

The beer and bottled drinking water producer is arguably the most successful business in the whole country! A much bigger second factory may already have opened in the south of Lao to cope with increasing consumption and export potential. Lao beer is already exported to eight countries in the local region, the USA, France, Australia, New Zealand and it's possible to order BeerLao online in the United Kingdom.

Although it's also sold in cans and bottles, the 640cl 'pint' bottle is by far the most popular. It seems everybody, young or old (there are no alcohol licensing laws), drinks Beerlao in copious quantities. Locals take it home in yellow crates of 12 bottles, seen stacked at local stores throughout the country, sometimes chilled, often warm from the sun, in which case ice is added to glasses.

Beerlao has a clean, crisp flavour and is affordable by almost everyone. Typically a large BeerLao costs about 7,000 kip (82 US cents) to take home or delivered by the crate, and 8-10,000 kip ($1.20) in Lao pubs and restaurants; it can be considerably more in 'farang'-type bars, more upmarket hotels and nightclubs where small bottles may cost $1.50. Beer Lao is 5% alcohol and very drinkable. About seventy percent of the raw materials used to produce it are imported from France and Germany, with locally-grown jasmine rice making up 30 percent.

BeerLao produces a variety of bottled and canned beverages.Introduced in 2007 were Beerlao Dam (black), a 6.5% stronger brew, and 2.9% alcohol 'Light', followed by Beer Lane Xang – none of them very popular. 2010 saw the introduction of BeerLao Gold, more expensive but the same strength. Carlsberg Lager, also 5% and produced in the same factory, is not as popular as Beerlao and is also a higher price.

One has to question the marketing strategy of a company selling competing varieties when the vast majority of Lao beer drinkers (including me) are perfectly happy with the original product! BeerLao also produces plain and sparkling drinking water and 3.1% alcohol fruit spritzers aimed at 'fashionable' women drinkers. 

Tiger Beer in LaosTiger Beer, also 5%, from the Vientiane factory of Asia Pacific Breweries (Singapore and Malaysia), is quite popular and promoted heavily and sold in many beer shops, bars and restaurants, usually at a slightly lower price than BeerLao. Tiger is slightly sweeter than Beer Lao.

Namkhong beer from LaosIn 2009, APB added two more labels: ABC, a stronger dark beer and Namkhong Beer another 5% alcohol lager very similar in taste to BeerLao and usually sold at the same price as direct competition. The name means Mekong River in Lao and the label depicts the annual racing boat festivals held on it.
 

How beer and spirits are drunk traditionally in Laos

As most drinkers know, beer tastes better and is more refreshing when it's served cold. In the USA (where most brands are indistinguishable and virtually tasteless) beer is served almost freezing, possibly to disguise the lack of flavour! Lao beer tastes good (it's won several international awards), but due to the SE Asian climate, it needs to be chilled. While shops, homes, pubs and restaurants have coolers or refrigerators, most can't cope with the rate of Beerlao consumption, and it's often warm. The solution is adding ice cubes to beer. Out of habit Lao and Thai people tend to do this whether the beer is cold or not. Restaurants used to serving tourists may ask foreigners if they want ice added to their glasses. While almost unheard of outside the region – even seen as sacrilege by some – putting ice in beer does help reduce alcohol intake; not a bad thing when drinking a lot of beer in the tropics.

In ordinary Lao homes, beer shops and restaurants outside the main towns, Lao people traditionally drink from a shared glass. There is a 'ritual' where a 'pourer' chooses how to much to fill the glass and must drink first by saying 'sanur deur!' (me first), then emptying it. Then he or she refills the glass to the same level and hands it to the next person, followed by each one of the group.

Two or more glasses may be used for larger gatherings, so the time between drinks is not too long! After a 'round', someone else acts as pourer and the ritual continues until there is no more beer. Before that happens, someone usually gathers up some 'empties' and gets more from a nearby shop (rarely more than a few hundred yards away).

The glass may be rinsed occasionally but the idea of sharing a single glass seems strange and unhygienic to those who have never experienced drinking this way. Nevertheless as the alcohol starts taking its effect (as it will), reservations and inhibitions are soon forgotten. Drinking with Lao people can be a lot of fun and provides amusing and quite intimate interaction between people, with both eye and hand (not to mention lip) contact 'by proxy' on the glass itself! A foreigner joining the group is usually asked if he or she is comfortable drinking beer like this, and a separate glass can be requested or be offered, without shyness or embarrassment on either side.

Popular more with country folk in the villages is a strong, clear spirit called lao kao. They make it themselves from rice or it can be bought in shops for about 5000 kip (US$0.57) for a big bottle showing 40% or 50% (100° proof) alcohol content and home-made might be a lot higher. Lao khao is a very cheap way to get drunk quickly, but it's not a very pleasant one as the taste can be quite raw. Sometimes it's decanted into a larger container and herbs and other things added for health (and possibly taste) reasons.

Using the same shared glass ritual, lau kau is offered neat and drunk in one swallow; a nearby glass of water is handy as a chaser!

 

Getting drunk or mao in Lao on lau kau can be fun! But if you're drinking with the locals, beware their hospitality and the after-effects of having too many shots!

Learn more about Vientiane nightlife, entertainment and sex in the Lao capital. You can have a good time when you know where to go!
 

Sunset over the Mekong River

Serenity on the Lao side of the Mekong River and sunset over Thailand.

Find and book Lao hotel and guest house accommodation

Banking in Lao and Vientiane

See the menu for more Lao pages.

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