The Spirits of Indochina

On the terrace of Vista Wi-Fi Café in central Vientiane stands a dark red spirit house. The Vista owners follow the ancient belief, prevalent throughout Thailand, Cambodia and Laos, that they should build a residence to host the celestial spirits whenever they erect a new building. As per tradition, they place a daily offering to the spirits in the house, to attract the protection of the spirits on their business.

This being Vientiane, the Vista Café leave two croissants and a cup of coffee for the resident spirits.

If the spirits of Indochina can have croissants and espresso for the petit déjeuner, why should I deny myself the same pleasure?

Colonial Echoes

Even today, there’s no denying the French influence on the Laos capital. All government departments, and many small commerces, carry signs in French and in Lao, and it’s easier in some areas of town to find an espresso than a laap (Lao meat salad.) The French themselves have returned to Laos since the day of La sale guerre, the First Indochina War. They show the quiet respect of a divorcee learning to be friends with his ex-wife.

As with Vietnam, French colonialism has left its imprint on the local food culture. Cafés are everywhere, with atmospheric French names such as Le croissant d’or or Café Indochine. Most of the coffee on offer is grown on the Bolaven Plateau, in the south of Laos, where French settlers first planted the bean. Roasted dark, it yields an espresso with a modest foam and a bittersweet aftertaste, best enjoyed with a croissant au beurre or fresh baguette.

South by Southeast Asia

With its French clientele and its promise of $3 USD steak au poivre at lunchtime, Le Vendôme in central Vientiane has lured Helene and me on many occasions. After three months on the road in Southeast Asia, we grew to like the restaurant’s mostly expatriate crowd, and found its menu an effective antidote to homesickness.

The owner hails from the south of France, which helps explain the many bullfighting posters on display on the walls. His restaurant is a Vientiane institution, having stood on the same spot for the last fifteen years. Here, we rub shoulders with VIPs from Laos and elsewhere, NGO workers, and the occasional tourist looking for the balm of a glass of French wine. Besides steak, Le Vendôme offers a variety of soufflés, gratins and meat-rich salads that would sit proudly on a bistro table in Paris, at a fraction of the price.

As we sit on the terrace at Vendôme, the French patrons, often in the sing-song accent of the South, fill the air with their love of argument and their good humor.

Our restless spirits sated, at least for the time being, we return to our guesthouse, wondering what other offerings Vientiane will have for us next.

Where to Go

Cafés are plentiful in central Vientiane, and restaurants without an espresso machine are surprisingly rare. Many businesses sell the fair trade, organic Lao Mountain Coffee. They claim to be the only fair trade co-op in Laos, though many other coffee vendors claim fair trade practices as well. You should be aware that the lack of fair trade certification does not mean this claim is false; if possible, you should ask the vendor for details on the grower’s practices, and base your judgement on more than a certification sticker.

The best espresso and croissant in town, in my opinion, can be found at the tiny café inside Phimphone Market, on Setthathirath Road. The Market also sells Lao Mountain Coffee.

JoMa Bakery Café, right next door on Setthathirath Road, makes a great espresso as well, and they do offer free wifi, though I would be hard-pressed to recommend their croissants.

Vista Wi-Fi Café and its spirit house can be found on Rue François Ngin.

Le Vendôme can be found on the east-west street on the south side of Wat Impeng (Impeng Temple.) Their lunch specials, including a superb steak au poivre vert at 25,000 kip ($3 USD), stands in my mind as the best steak value for money anywhere in the world.

About Daniel Roy

Daniel is a writer, backpack foodie, slow traveler, and endurance runner. He is the author of the upcoming book, "The Way of Slow Travel: A Hands-On Guide to the Best Travel of Your Life."

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