Eat and meet
Vang ViengVang Vieng has dozens of restaurants-cum-TV-bars where travellers weary from slow boats and trekking sit and do little more than stare vacantly at TVs, eat cheap Western food, and slurp Beerlao. If mediocre burgers, pizzas, fried rice, pasta, salads and soups are to your liking, then take your pick from the 20 or so restaurants on the main strip offering the same same cuisine and prices. Often the only thing differentiating them is whether they're playing Friends, Simpsons, or Family Guy. Fortunately, some more interesting options are dotted around town.
Cooking up fresh produce from their farm outside town, Organic Farm Cafe has a small menu of healthy food and drinks. Vegetarians will enjoy choosing from dishes such as stir-fried organic greens or the harvest curry, made with potato, eggplant, pumpkin, and whatever else is in season. Hearty coconut curries can also be made with meat, or there's a variety of noodles, soups and spring rolls with your choice of filling. The drink menu is even more tempting than the food with fruit shakes (try the apple mint), cocktails and their famous mulberry tea served hot or iced.
Next door, B&P Restaurant serves tasty pizzas and pastas in a mature setting without the sitcom laugh-track common to Vang Vieng's other pizza joints. One of the managers is Dutch and Western food is done very well here: check the menu for specials like steak or home-made apple pie.
Bringing Luang Prabang's tradition of great cafes to Vang Vieng, The Luang Prabang Bakery serves delectable breads, pastries, fruit shakes and specialty coffees at their sidewalk cafe. A bit further back is a full-service restaurant with a more substantial menu plus a nightly movie screening at 19:00, but it's best as a breakfast spot.
Otherwise a typically Vang Vieng restaurant, Sakura sets itself apart with a few surprises on the menu plus free WiFi for customers spending over $2. The setting is cosy with tables or cushion seating and the menu covers everything from all-day breakfasts to Chinese food to clubhouse sandwiches.
Nearby, the Rising Sun bills itself as the only Irish bar in town and is notable for its tasty UK-style pub grub like fish and chips, pies and even Cornish pasties: the authenticity of the menu might have something to do with its Cornish emigre owner. For spot-on Aussie cuisine look no further than the Aussie Bar for great barbecues and a serious contender for the best beef burger in town.
Riverside Sababa has a big banner boasting about its cosmopolitan menu, featuring European, Israeli, Italian and Japanese food. Signs on the wall are written on by Israeli tourists proclaiming their love for mama and papa who run the restaurant, and the falafel pitas and schwarmas here don't disappoint. There's another smaller location in town.
Of course, South Asian food has made its way to Vang Vieng and an Indian restaurant can be found at each end of the main road. Nisha and Nazim have similar menus and prices, but Nazim is more spacious with some sidewalk tables. At both, the menu includes favourites like chicken tikka masala and naan bread plus lots of veggie options. Spices are toned down for tourist tastes so if you like it spicy be sure to say so.
Among the more up-scale restaurants in town, Xayoh Downtown Cafe at the Inthara Hotel serves upscale Western fare, tasty tapas, and wine by the glass, carafe or bottle. For more imported wine paired with French cuisine head to Le Verandah Restaurant at Villa Nam Song. Prices are among the highest in town, but the tranquil river setting casts Vang Vieng in a romantic light and wine starts at a reasonable 20,000 kip per glass.
Due to the total tourist takeover, it's a bit of a challenge to find real Lao food in Vang Vieng. Sanasay is one of the only spots on the main road where locals regularly sit down to a meal, and the freshly barbecued chicken and spicy salads pair perfectly with big bottles of Beerlao. Long-time favourite Erawan is now known as Ban Lao Restaurant, but their Lao soups, noodles and laap remain a cut above the rest. Set meals start from 35,000 kip and they also run a half-day cooking course.
For authentic street eats, visit the food stalls that set up in front of the Kang Temple every afternoon. Barbecued meats, laap, spicy salads, sauces and dips, seasonal vegetables and Lao sweets are featured items. All the food is on show, so there's no need for a menu, just point. The market, now located a few kilometres north of town has a wider selection of fresh Lao food and is worth a visit. It's open 7:00-17:00.
Ten years ago Vang Vieng was a quiet town that turned out the lights and went to bed at 10pm. Fast-forward to the present, and Vang Vieng is well-established as Laos' party central. Don't expect any chic cocktail lounges or multi-level discos here though as the emphasis is on ramshackle bars and drinks by the bucket.
Tubers return to town in the late afternoon, many already half in the bag, and stunning mountain sunsets lure them down to bars dotted along the river's edge. Stilted open-air restaurants set up with decks overlooking the river serve ice cold Beerlao and many have barbecues. Aussie Bar and Nam Song Garden attract a young and boisterous crowd, or if you just want a good vantage point for a sundowner try Viewpoint Restaurant or Kangaroo Sunset Restaurant further south along the river. The latter, though owned by an Aussie, is currently being run by a friendly Irishman and has a pool table, cheap whiskey, and the self-proclaimed coldest beers in town.
As the night progresses, the party moves to the bars in town like Sakura, O La La and Rising Sun, fuelled by thumping music and cheap buckets filled with a mix of Lao whiskey, soda and energy drinks. Signs advertise the different drink specials each night and drinking games, like the dice game at Sakura, mean you can score your drinks for free.
To finish a night out, most head down to the party island in the Nam Song river at the northern end of town. Accessed by rickety bamboo bridges, the island is home to half a dozen bars that stay open into the wee hours of the night. Sunset Bar and Smile Bar are the most popular with hammocks, lounge huts, bonfires, and chill-out music and Rock Bar is known for its acoustic jam sessions. Depending how strictly the curfew is being enforced, the heartiest partiers may find the nightlife merging with sunrise.
Aussie Bar: Open 8:00-late
B&P Restaurant: T: (020) 546 8153. Open 7:00-22:30
Ban Lao Restaurant: T: (023) 511 083. Open 07:00-22:00
Kangaroo Sunset: Next to New Bridge, River Road. T: (020) 771 4291
Le Verandah Restaurant: At Villa Nam Song. T: (023) 511 637. Open 07:00-22:00
Luang Prabang Bakery: Next to ATM, off Main Street. T: (023) 511 145. Open 07:00-22:30
Nazim: T: (023) 511 214, (021) 223 480. Open 7:00-22:00
Nisha: T: (020) 557 1015-6. Open 07:00-22:00
O La La: T: (020) 207 1176. Open 08:00-12:00.
Organic Farm Cafe: T: (023) 51174, (020) 5101166. Open 7:00-21:00
Sababa: Open 07:00-22:00
Sakura: Just off Main Street, next to Thavisouk Guesthouse. T: (020) 650 6993. Open 08:00-23:30. http://sakurabar.com/
Sanasay Restaurant: T: (023) 511 440. Open 7:00-22:30
Smile Bar / Sunset Bar / Rock Bar : Party Island. Open 10:00-late
The Rising Sun: Opposite Sakura, off Main Street. T: (020) 539 7535
Xayoh Downtown Cafe: In front of Inthara Hotel. T: (023) 511 088. Open 08:00-22:00
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