First published 9th June, 2011
Just a few kilometres from the centre of the Lao capital of Vientiane, you'll find a little piece of mainland China that most visitors don't even know exists. While not on the scale of the Chinatowns you'll find elsewhere in the world, Sānjiāng is still a fascinating enclave, where thousands of Chinese immigrants seek to recreate through food and shopping, the home they left behind in China.
For the traveller it means a great spot to sample authentic Chinese cuisine and be immersed in a microcosm of China, warts and all. Don't expect anyone to speak English; service at restaurants is as hit and miss as it is on the mainland and an impatient 'Eh?' is as common as a smile. But if you haven't yet visited China, leap off Vientiane's beaten track and into Sānjiāng.
A range of regional Chinese cuisine is available in Sānjiāng; the following restaurants will take you on a pretty good best-of hits culinary tour of China.
Sichuan-Chongqing Restaurant (川渝饭店, Chuānyú Fàndiàn)
Chuānyú boasts cheery red décor and large dining tables, each adorned with a lazy Susan, and serves typical Sichuan-style fare laced with chillies and a distinctive regional peppercorn (huājiāo) that numbs the mouth. Portions are generous and rice for two arrives in a wooden bucket. Try the gānbiān sìjìdòu (fried green beans), a simple, mildly spiced dish, or huíguōròu (twice-cooked pork), pork slices with cabbage, red peppers, onions and celery in a black bean sauce.
The front room hums with local diners during Chinese lunch and dinner time, at around 12:30 and 18:30 respectively. Private dining rooms are available for a supplementary fee. There is no English on the menu and staff when we visited couldn't speak English. Taking the characters for these recommended dishes along should help to make ordering hassle free.
Fried green beans (Gānbiān sìjìdòu, 干煸 四季豆)
Twice-cooked pork (Huíguōròu, 回锅肉)
Sweet and spicy shredded pork (Yúxiāng ròusī, 鱼香肉丝)
Pork casserole (Hóngshāoròu, 红烧肉)
Fried beef with tofu (Dòuhuā niúrròu, 豆花牛肉)
Eggplant in garlic sauce (Yúxiāng qiézi, 鱼香茄子)
Expect to pay around 30,000 kip and up per person.
Restaurant with a red and blue sign above a white-tiled patio, Sichuan-style food, open daily, 08:00-22:00.
Three Paths Cuisine (三道菜, Sǎn Dào Cai)
Sǎndàocài's mix of Laos and Chinese customers dine on mushroom-like seats at low tables, in the centre of which is a stone pot for boiling your own food. This is Yunnan's version of hotpot: simple, earthy, and not at all spicy. Point to whichever ingredients you'd like to boil in the glass-fronted fridge: expect to see chicken, beef, lamb, pork, cured meat, stomach, liver, dried fish and tofu, as well as a wide-variety of vegetables. A thin soup will be added to the stone pot and once it's boiling, add your ingredients.
If you've ordered rice and it doesn't arrive, ask again; it's customary for rice to be served after the meal as something to fill up on once the tastier food is finished. An additional menu of fried home-style dishes has pictures, but all prices are in Chinese yuan, so check on the exchange rate. A stone pot meal for four will cost around 180,000 kip, depending on how much meat you order.
Beside Chuanyu Restaurant, Yunnan-style hotpot and home-style food, open daily, 08:00-22:00.
Liaoning dumpling spot
This friendly little place is a good bet for dumplings, which are made on-site daily. Use the pictures on the wall to choose between boiled, steamed or fried dumplings. Its friendly owner from Beijing is a laid back man, and if you're not in the mood for dumplings, his son, the chef, will cook whatever's in the fridge for you – but beware of the salt and MSG.
Ten dumplings, which are enough for a taste, cost 10,000 kip. Dishes are 15,000 to 40,000 kip each.
Glass-fronted restaurant in the middle row of restaurants, dumplings and home-style food, open daily, 06:00-22:00.
If you don't want to be served any surprises, a canteen-style place serves cheap staples that you choose from behind the glass. Dishes tend to be rather tasteless, with gelatinous sauce and low quality meat. A kebab stall also operates opposite the indoor market from 16:00, where you can point to a range of things on sticks and watch them get barbecued and sprinkled with powdered spices. Beef, sausage, potato, fish balls, vegetable and tofu sticks range from 1,000 to 5,000 kip each.
Laos – Sānjiāng International Trade and Commerce City (老挝三江國際商貿城)
Whether your goal is to fill your luggage with fake watches, sunglasses, handbags, DVDs and even fake iPads, or to just get a taste of what Made-in-China looks like in Laos, the indoor market will not disappoint. You'll find the entire contents of a Sino-American dream home here: washing machines, pianos, massage chairs, Halloween costumes – just for starters.
An array of fake brand-name products are on offer in and around shop number Ā226: electronics, smartphones, 'Gucci' sunglasses, 'Rolex' watches and 'Mont Blanc' pens. Nothing is real, but salespeople may argue otherwise. Bargain hard. When language fails, a calculator will usually appear. Pirated Hollywood DVDs are available throughout the market, at around 15,000 kip a movie, but quality varies.
Indoor market at the traffic circle, 08:30-18:30 daily
Hong Kong City (香港城, Xiānggāng Chéng)
This large store has fake designer handbags (around 200,000 kip), cheap brand-name sports shoes, golf clubs, lightweight binoculars and a range of other counterfeit products, with prices marked in kip and baht. The staff may be keen to show you their range of ridiculous battery-operated toys.
Don't miss the blonde stripper or the break-dancing donkey.
Store with a red sign, near Sānjiāng's back entrance, beside a place selling construction machinery .
How to get to Sānjiāng
Tuk tuk drivers know Sānjiāng and if you bargain hard, you won't pay more than 20,000 kip one way. Getting there by bicycle takes 15 minutes from the centre of town. Head west along Rue Samsemthai until you see a sign saying “Hong Kong Restaurant” on your left beside a brightly coloured temple called Wat Dai Noi (Small Dai Temple). If you reach Wat Dai Nai (Large Dai Temple), you've gone too far. Turn right down the narrow road opposite the restaurant. Sānjiāng's inconspicuous back entrance is a few metres down the road. Keep going north past wholesalers dealing in stationery, toys and agricultural machinery, and you'll reach a traffic circle, with the indoor market on your left and a few rows of restaurants on your right.
About the author
Claire van den Heever is the author of Sold Out, a book about Chinese contemporary art due for publication later this year, and a travel writer on her way from Shanghai to Cape Town, overland.
Story by Claire van den Heever
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