What & Where to Eat in Vientiane

Just as we did in Savannakhet, part of the reason we stayed as long as we did in Vientiane is because of the food. Six days in this city is probably unthinkable to most people, but when we weren’t trying to better ourselves through the MANY historical/spiritual buildings on offer, we were trying to do...

Just as we did in Savannakhet, part of the reason we stayed as long as we did in Vientiane is because of the food. Six days in this city is probably unthinkable to most people, but when we weren’t trying to better ourselves through the MANY historical/spiritual buildings on offer, we were trying to do so through food.

As I’ve said before, prior to arriving in Laos, we had not heard very encouraging things about the local food.

I have reached a point in our travels where I have not just accepted that I am a food traveler, but I’ve really embraced the fact that exploring places through the local cuisine is one of the things that excites me most about traveling and never fails to bring me pleasure.

To that end, I made a promise to myself that one area I would definitely not skimp on our budget—for the remainder of our trip, but especially in Laos—was on food; if street food wasn’t widely available or not especially appealing and we needed to pay a little more in order to experience Lao cooking through slightly more upscale restaurants aimed at educating tourists, so be it.

Reports from fellow travelers assured us that we would get our fill of western food in the form of baguettes/pizzas/burgers during our travels through the country, and although I was certainly looking forward to a few international indulgences, I really hoped that the capital city of the country would also advance our Laotian food education.

Consequently, I spent a lot of time researching online, trying to find out which restaurants in Vientiane served up the best/most authentic Lao food. Unfortunately, as seems to be the case with most of our plans these days, many of the restaurants that I flagged for investigation were mysteriously closed whenever we decided to check them out. Instead, we wound up finding two restaurants we liked quite a lot and just stuck to those. We referred to them as “fancy place” and “cheap place”, but you might choose to refer to them by their proper names, Pha Khao Lao and Saengthip Larb Sam Neua 2 Restaurant.

Lao Options

Pha Khao Lao

Pha Khao Lao was probably our favorite restaurant in Vientiane, and if it weren’t a wee bit pricey, we likely would have elected to eat here every night. Not only was the food wonderful, but the atmosphere was fantastic—tucked away in the a pretty little garden adorned with lanterns and lush greenery, you really felt you were dining somewhere very special. During the several meals we ate at Pha Khao Lao, we enjoyed:

Duck Laab
A duck larb (essentially a minced meat salad served lukewarm and packed with herbs and toasted rice powder)
Tamarind Fish
A tamarind & chili fish (which we ordered twice, and is worth ordering the large portion)
Stir-fried beef salad
A stirfried beef & traditional herb salad, a bit like a larb, but a bit “saucier”
Sweet and sour tofu
A sweet & sour tofu.

Everything was phenomenal, with the exception of the sweet & sour tofu, which was merely average and not very memorable. Pretty much if you stick to anything off of the “Recommended/Specialties” Page at the front of the menu, you are guaranteed a winner. Dishes start around 40,000LAK (~$5US), so it’s certainly on the pricier side for Laos, but well worth it. If you are indecisive or don’t know where to start when it comes to Lao food, they also offer a set menu for 2 people at 160,000LAK (~$20US) that was very enticing and that we almost ordered each time we visited; the only thing that stopped us was the lack of the tamarind chili fish that was just SO GOOD we couldn’t abide missing it.

Pha Khao Lao is located on the alley between Wat Ong Teu and Fa Ngum road

There is no shortage of budget restaurants aimed at western backpackers in Vientiane flogging food at $2-3US per dish, but one of the things that set Saengthip Larb Sam Neua 2 Restaurant apart from its brethren is that its incredibly extensive menu was limited to Thai and Lao dishes rather than adding in pizza, kebabs and all and sundry “junk foods” into the mix. I always approach exceedingly international menus with caution and prefer to focus on places that seem concerned with cooking a certain style of food well.

Not everything that we tried at Larb Sam Neua was a home run—I tried a local soup that falls into the school of flavorless broths I (and Lindsey Bluth) term “hot ham water”, and Tony ordered a chili pork dish that, while tasty, was also on the meager side—but the prices were low enough that we felt encouraged to keep trying until we hit upon some winners. They too offered a fried tamarind fish that was really more like a fried fish slathered in sweet Thai chili sauce, but no matter: it was delicious and that’s what is really important. We also tried two different larbs—a special “Vientiane-style” larb and a duck larb—that were each excellent (even if it was unclear how the Vientiane larb differed from the other larbs we had tried). Their som tam (papaya salad), was crisp and fresh, with an undertone of funkiness owing to the liberal seasoning from fermented fish sauce that is a hallmark of the Lao version of this dish. It added an earthy chewiness to the dish, and I found that it gave it an extra flavor layer that the Thai version (though still delicious!) lacks. We also ordered ginger-poached chicken one evening when we both were feeling mildly queasy and it was just the right combination of fiery and soothing.

Som tam
Som tam
Vientiane style laarb
Vientiane style larb
"Tamarind" fish
“Tamarind” fish
Ginger chicken
Ginger chicken
Saengthip Larb Sam Neu 2 is located at the corner of Thannon Setthathirat and Thanon Kieng Nyeun

Cheap Street Eats

Thai food stall, Vientiane

Although there are plenty of dodgy street food options of the mystery grilled meat variety available around the main tourist streets of Vientiane, when we were looking for a truly cheap meal, we headed to this Thai food stand down on the riverside road, Fa Ngum. Located right in front of a convenience store, this stall whips up just a few different dishes all at 15,000LAK (~$2US). We did spicy seafood noodles one night and they were legitimately awesome, but our favorite came to be the Pad Thai, which was chewy but not gloopy and definitely on par with the best versions we tried in Thailand proper. The food coming out of this stall was fresh, hot, cheap and delicious… so even if it’s not quintessentially Lao, what more can you really ask for? (Also, as a bonus there are TWO Bubble Tea stalls right next door!)

Thai food, Vientiane
The Thai Food Stall sets up in front of a convenience store on Fa Ngum Road near the corner of Francois Ngin

Fantastic Foreign Food

Given the abundant western food choices on offer in Vientiane, we decided to take a break from the local food on a few notable occasions, and both were totally worth it. If you find yourself craving something other than sticky rice, I’d recommend you check the following places out.

Moules frites may not be the first food you think of when you think of Vientiane, but a visit to Chokdee Café will definitely change that. We wandered by and were intrigued by the proliferation of Tin Tin merch—upon closer inspection, we discovered this was a true-blue Belgian joint, complete with over 100 different imported beers and weekend mussel & fries specials featuring 20 different preparations! Once I got the notion of moules frites into my head, I couldn’t shake it so we decided to give them a try.

We started with a plate of mini burgers, which were not just adorable, but delicious too. Bonus points for each one coming with a REAL pickle! Then we split a pot of mussels cooked in cream, garlic, celery, and parsley. For about $10US, we got a kilo of mussels plus an order of fries and it was HEAVEN! Of course we also had to wash it all down with some fancy beer (a nice change of pace from the ubiquitous bottles of Beer Lao elsewhere), and thoroughly savored our bottles of Stassen pear cider and Bacchus raspberry ale. Our two drinks were about the same price as the mussels, but they were the perfect complements to the meal and worth the splurge.

Chokdee is located on Fa Ngum between Thannon Manthatulat and Thannon Pang Kham

There are no shortages of burgers to be found in Asia, but finding a GOOD burger is an entirely different matter. We’ve found precious few places that have managed to do right by this American classic, but Ray’s Grille Burgers certainly made up for our months of deprivation. Run by an American, we knew we would eat well before we even set foot in the restaurant; two cooks were set up at a barbecue out front, grilling burgers and caramelizing some onions. The smell was out of this world and when we saw they offer up Philly Cheese Steaks, we almost caved and got one of those instead. But remembering our mission, I went with the blue cheese burger (because BLUE CHEESE!) and Tony went with a chorizo burger. Made with imported Aussie beef, these burgers are juicy and every mouthful was brimming with flavor. If you’ve spent some time in Asia and are looking for a REAL burger, this is a mandatory stop.

Ray’s Grille is located at the intersection where Thannon Settathirat turns into Thannon Sihom across from the gas station.
Dumplings, VIentiane
Dumplings, VIentiane

One thing I find myself routinely craving is dumplings, so when I read that Vientiane has some of the most authentic Chinese food outside of China, I knew we had to go on a field trip and find out. Navigating the warren of alleys in search of Dongbei Dumpling Restaurant felt like one of those needle-in-a-haystack challenges they so love on The Amazing Race, but eventually our persistence (and Tony’s pattern recognition skills) paid off and we pulled up to the right restaurant. Hopping off the bike, we were greeted with a hearty “Ni Hao!” which triggered flashbacks to ordering stonewalls in Beijing made me momentarily worry. Thanks to some pictures on our phone and a few scraps of remembered Mandarin, we managed to successfully order 2 plates of fried dumplings and even 2 glasses of cold tea. It felt like such a triumph for the owner to not just understand our request but to be genuinely welcoming to us. As we scarfed down these incredible dumplings (just $2.50 a plate!), a group of ladies rolled out more dumplings at the next table over. When we were done, one of them patted her stomach while saying something unintelligible that we took to be a question as to whether they had been tasty. I would have thought that the fact we devoured food meant for twice the number of people in about 10 minutes would have made that clear, but nevertheless, an enthusiastic round of thumbs ups assured her we were very happy foodies.

Check out the CNN article linked to above for directions on how to reach Vientiane’s “Little China” and then, if using your own transport, be prepared to get lost.

Dumplings, VIentiane
Dumplings, VIentiane
Braised eggplant and pork

Without a set of wheels, Dongbei is a bit out of the way, so we sated a second dumpling craving over at Chinese Liaoning Dumpling Restaurant on Fa Ngum road. The lamb & chive and pork & cabbage dumplings were really good; even if they were not quite as expertly prepared as at Dongbei, they still scratched our dumpling itch. We also ordered a plate of grilled eggplant with minced pork that was unexpectedly massive but also very tasty.

Chinese Liaoning Dumpling Restaurant is located on Fa Ngum Rd near Thannon Chao Anou

This is not a comprehensive rundown of the Vientiane dining scene by any means, and it doesn’t feature as many Lao joints as I would have liked (I really wanted to check out Amphone and Tamnak Laos, but Amphone closed for month-long renovations the day we arrived and Tamnak Laos was always closed as well whenever we thought to check it out) but it did provide enough variety and good eats to keep us happily stuffed for our week in the city. As no one else seems to spend this much time in Vientiane, I’d wager this is enough to keep most people busy, but if you’ve made it to Vientiane and have a favorite restaurant that we didn’t make it to that you think deserves a little bit of love, please share it with us down in the comments!

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27 comments Leave a comment

  1. Oooh, I’m starting to think I’m a food traveller too! My husband and I had the calendar out today and were locking in all the things we want to do here in Budapest in the next six weeks. When he asked if I’d found many interesting things, I said yes. Then I had to explain that 90% were restaurants. They’re going to have to roll me out of Hungary.

    Apr. 16 2014 @ 12:45 pm
    1. Louisa author

      Ha! That sounds like us for every place we have visited, ever! We actually found our original “goals for this trip” list we made waaaaaay back when we were first starting to think about traveling long-term and what we hoped to get out of it, and seriously about 65% of that list is food-related. I think the proportion would be way higher now if we wrote it! 😀

      Apr. 17 2014 @ 8:43 pm
  2. Pear cider and raspberry ale? Yum.

    Cheap dumplings? Double yum.

    Tamarind fish? (Flashback to When Harry Met Sally…)

    I’ll have what you guys are having…

    Apr. 16 2014 @ 1:35 pm
    1. James author

      How did we not have more food adventures together when we were in HCMC?!? HOW IS THAT POSSIBLE?

      Apr. 17 2014 @ 8:45 pm
  3. Looks like you were able to enjoy so much yummy food there! I saw that you posted the tofu dish (that you said was just average) – did they have lots of vegetarian stuff on the menu? Did you recall seeing any vegetarian restaurants there?

    Apr. 16 2014 @ 5:46 pm
    1. Lauren author

      Although we weren’t specifically looking for veg food while in Laos, it’s really not too hard to find. In Vientiane, I think there are a few tourist-oriented places that are vegetarian only, but really, pretty much everywhere has a vegetarian (or vegetable) section on the menu. Of the places we listed above, the only places that I don’t recall having vegetarian options were the dumpling place (you can get them, but you have to order veg dumplings in advance which, unless you speak Mandarin, good luck with that) and the burger place (I wouldn’t be surprised if they had some veggie option like grilled cheese or the like, but we were focused on just one thing!). Most street food tends to be of the carnivorous variety, but if you go into a restaurant with a menu, 95% of them will have something vegetarian.

      Apr. 17 2014 @ 8:58 pm
  4. Ya know, I wasn’t hungry a few seconds ago…. I nearly laughed out loud at the “fancy place” and “cheap place”, I swear we would do the exact same thing! You had me at the first few food porn shots… but then those dumplings, the crispy-bottomed ones, I started to drool.

    Apr. 16 2014 @ 6:59 pm
    1. Katie author

      We have developed a pretty quick shorthand for places these days, and so long as we both know what we’re referring to (sometimes we just refer to a specific dish if it was especially memorable), we rarely bother to learn/remember real names of places… I had to write them all down this time so I could name them on the blog!

      Apr. 17 2014 @ 9:03 pm
  5. Ooh yum! Apart from the sweet and sour tofu, what were the vegetarian options like in all the places you went to?

    Apr. 16 2014 @ 9:43 pm
    1. Karyn @ Not Done Travelling

      lol, I didn’t even see that Lauren had already asked this question. Sorry to double up.

      Apr. 16 2014 @ 9:45 pm
    2. Karyn @ Not Done Travelling author

      I answered this above, but for the most part, getting vegetarian food is generally not a problem in Laos. The street food and super local places might make that harder, but if you’re eating at a place that tends to cater towards foreigners (and really, most of them seem to since they all have English menus) then you will be able to find a few choices to select between. There were also plenty of middle Eastern and Indian places to choose from, which are always a good option if you want to go meat free. Generally the fancier/more expensive the place, the easier it is to get veg versions of local dishes (e.g., tofu larb), but even in the lower-end establishments you should be able to find a few options!

      Apr. 17 2014 @ 9:08 pm
  6. This is so detailed, I can see that you’ve obviously put a lot of thought into this, to make it useful for travellers. So thank you – I’ll use it when I get to Vientiane (one day!!) 🙂 I’m also salivating over those pictures of the foreign options – it’s been a while since I’ve had some quality continental food!!!

    Apr. 17 2014 @ 3:12 am
    1. Tim | UrbanDuniya author

      Thanks, Tim! I’m glad you found this one useful/inspiring. As you know, not all foreign places are created equal, but Vientiane really seems to nail its international food options!

      Apr. 17 2014 @ 9:10 pm
  7. Steph, I’m always impressed how you can suss out all the great foods in a place…yes, I think you’ve found a great niche! And I love your food photos…question. Doesn’t your food get cold while you are setting up your shots? Jim and I are usually so hungry by the time we’re served (our fault usually) that photography is the last thing on our minds. Help!

    Apr. 17 2014 @ 3:49 am
    1. Corinne author

      Honestly, we don’t actually spend that much time setting up and taking food shots. Maybe 30 – 60 seconds, max! At this point, we’ve just gotten really good at snapping them and then diving in. Also, everything is served so blazing hot here, it’s generally not a bad idea to give it a minute to cool down (not that it really does anything).

      Probably start off trying to photograph things that aren’t temperature sensitive like sandwiches, salads, etc., so that you develop an instinct for food photography (framing, angles, etc.,). That way when you start tackling hot (or very cold!) foods, you don’t spend as much time faffing about trying to make the photo look good and can do most of it on autopilot!

      Apr. 17 2014 @ 9:16 pm
  8. omgsh my mouth is WATERING over those photos. Dumplings… look so good. and how lucky to find an American restaurant with burgers! That is one thing I really miss in India. Def. bookmarking this post! Thanks.

    Apr. 17 2014 @ 6:34 am
    1. Rachel of Hippie in Heels author

      I was in heaven with the dumplings (although I love Vietnamese food, they don’t do dumplings and I can’t figure out why!!!) and probably could have eaten them every day and still wanted more. The burgers were nice too and definitely tasted like home. If you ever make it to Vientiane, I definitely recommend them!

      Apr. 17 2014 @ 9:18 pm
  9. I really wish we had gone to Laos AFTER you guys. Our food-sploration was non-existent. I guess the plus is that you guys will be doing Sri Lanka before us so I can follow your tummies there!

    Haha, hot ham water…love that episode. “It’s so watery. And yet, there’s a smack of ham to it”…teehee.

    Apr. 17 2014 @ 11:16 am
    1. Emily author

      This one had a “smack” of mushrooms and nondescript greens to it, but that just doesn’t have the same ring as hot ham water, now does it? 🙂

      Glad you enjoyed this; we’ll do our best to blaze a food-eating trail for you in SL!

      Apr. 17 2014 @ 9:43 pm
  10. I remember we didn’t enjoy Laos food as much as other cuisines, maybe we didn’t go to the right places. While in Vientiane I remember we enjoyed a lot the sticky rice dishes, the baguettes which were delicious and some vegan/vegetarian food we tried in a tiny local restaurant, we went back there almost every day, the food was delicious and very local!

    Apr. 18 2014 @ 1:48 am
  11. Okay stop. I now need dumplings and raspberry beer.
    This all looks super tasty, and I particularly like the looks of the setting for the fancy restaurant. 🙂 I live for cozy nook type restaurants like that.
    I love how reliably varied your food selection is. I would love to travel with you just so I could eat when/where/what you eat. I would be happy to have you make all those food decisions for me. Indeed.

    Apr. 22 2014 @ 10:32 am
    1. Colleen Brynn author

      The atmosphere at fancy restaurant was definitely one of its many charms (I wouldn’t say it was its greatest strength because the food really was awesome!) and it was such a pleasure to dine there. I love places that, just a few paces from the street, manage to whisk you away to another world.

      I think we eat a lot more varied diet now than we did at the start of our trip when we felt like we had to eat only local food all the time. We still do eat local 90% of the time, I would say, but we tend to spend so much time in countries that we know a few western/international meals here and there isn’t going to be the end of the world. Plus, when was the last time you got moules frites for less than $10? That was too good to pass up!

      Apr. 22 2014 @ 11:19 pm
  12. Victoria

    OMG, I LOVE dumplings!! I was in Shanghai last year and ate them every day I was there, sometimes twice a day 🙂 I will be in Vientiane in a few weeks and will look for the dumpling place you went to. I was wondering if you remember where in Vientiane you stayed. I have yet to book a place to stay as all the places I have looked at thus far have had mixed reviews. Many thanks in advance for your help!

    Feb. 18 2015 @ 6:04 pm
    1. Victoria author

      Hi Victoria—We actually have a Travel Resource page where we list all of the lodging we used throughout our trip, including our time in Vientiane. You can find that information here: https://www.20yearshence.com/resources/lodgings-by-country/

      Enjoy your time in Vientiane! It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but we liked it quite a lot.

      Feb. 24 2015 @ 12:11 pm
      1. Victoria
        Stephenie Harrison

        Thanks so much for the reply! 🙂 I totally missed that section of your site. What a great section to have! I love all the useful and helpful information you provide to us. It really is appreciated. Thanks again!!

        Feb. 24 2015 @ 1:13 pm
        1. Victoria author

          No problem! You are not the first to have asked for that kind of info (which is why we provide it!). We have a redesign in the works that will hopefully make it easier to find things like that, since we know it’s useful to fellow travelers!

          Feb. 24 2015 @ 2:25 pm
  13. Alan Meyers, PH.D.

    Hello Dr. Steph. Its Dr. Alan, a PH.D. in Psychology also and I’m done with that as well. I enjoyed your blog about the food in Laos. I plan to go to Thailand and Laos in the coming months and your info was very helpful. Thanks

    Mar. 16 2016 @ 11:04 am

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