Sam Neua can be a shock to the newly arrived, especially if coming from Hanoi. If you’re expecting a pub street, a late night noodle soup or a banana pancake, this isn’t the place—and that’s why we like it. The handful of local restaurants should satisfy travellers up to a few days before getting repetitive. Keep in mind that eating in Laos is generally pricier than in Vietnam.
Sam Neua will also satisfy adventurous eaters. It’s famous for dishes using pia, an ingredient that outsiders may find hard to stomach, pun intended. Pia is raw cow/buffalo bile, the digestive juices and partially digested grass on its way to the tract. The brown-yellow-greenish liquid is a key flavouring for an ethnic Tai Daeng version of the national dish laab (mince meat salad), made with raw meat, pia and sometimes fresh buffalo blood. Gulp.
A safe (and pia-free) option is Dannao Meuang Xam. The restaurant is a Sam Neua mainstay, one of the only restaurants that has gone out of their way to be foreigner friendly while also being frequented by locals. It’s located right in the small cluster of budget accommodation at the bridge and unlike other joints, is more reliably open for dinner. The menu is mainly noodle soups and stir fry like their tasty pad kaprao, rice topped with a fried egg and wok fried meat and vegetables—it’ll be five-alarm spicy unless you ask them to tone it down. Coming with a soup, it’s terrific value at 20,000 kip. There’s also some Western options as well, like fried chicken wings and fries. All dishes are 15,000 to 40,000 kip. The friendly owner Sitt speaks English and is helpful.
Walk along the main street and it doesn’t take long to notice the number of shop signs in Vietnamese, it’s a mere 80 kilometres to the border after all. A good one is Ngan Thuy, possessing classic no frills, fluorescent lighting charm. They do a satisfying lau (hot pot) that will both fill and warm you up. For two people, with vegetables, choice of meat and cans of Bia Ha Noi, it will be around 120,000 kip. The shop also does rice soup in the morning and bun rieu noodle soup all day.
The main street and area around the market are dotted with morning noodle soup joints. The market itself is a must, not only to see one of the most impressive ones in northern Laos but also to graze on cheap eats. Between 17:00 and 18:00 is a good time as everyone is stopping in for after school/work snacks and quick dinners, just like all other tired working moms and dads in the world. Slurp up noodle soup or cold noodle salad, nibble on deep fried banana fritters or grilled sausage, sip on sweet fresh soy milk before finishing with a dessert of cakes and tofu with hot ginger syrup. The hole in the wall bakery at the market churns out baguettes—have a hot one drizzled with condensed milk. Most items are just a few thousand kip each (less than a dollar).
A tiny local night market pops up at the edge of the sprawling concrete park (northwest corner of the town centre). Aside from a couple of basic kid carnival games and plastic things for sale, we spotted a roti prata cart, the buttery flaky dough served drizzled with thick, sweet condensed milk.
Northern Laos can be hard of coffee drinkers as it’s either green tea or the instant stuff. Yuni Coffee will come as a surprise as the American-owned cafe is modern and refined. The cafe is off of the big roundabout as the road begins to rise towards the bus station. Order a classic Americano (10,000 kip) or latte (14,000 kip) or get fancy with matcha latte, V60 pour over or Aeropress coffee, all made using their own Hua Phan grown beans. No rice on this snack menu. Carb cravings can be satisfied with panini, waffles and house-made brownies, 8,000-12,000 kip. Open Mon-Sat 07:30-17:30. https://www.yunicoffeeco.com
There are a few joints in town that serve dog meat. It’s easily avoided as you’d have to seek these places out. “Dog meat” in Vietnamese is thit cho, an accent going up on the “o”.
Dannao Meuang Xam Centre of town, Route 6, Sam Neua; .
Ngan Thuy North from the Post Office, Sam Neau; .
Night market By the sprawling concrete park (northwest corner of the centre of Sam Neua); .
Sam Neua market North of the centre of town, Sam Neua.; .
Yuni Coffee Opposite Xayphasouk Hotel, Sam Neua; .
Cindy Fan is a Canadian writer/photographer and author of So Many Miles, a website that chronicles the love of adventure, food and culture. After falling in love with sticky rice and Mekong sunsets, in 2011 she uprooted her life in Toronto to live la vida Laos. She’s travelled to over 40 countries and harbours a deep affection for Africa and Southeast Asia. In between jaunts around the world, she calls Laos and Vietnam home where you’ll find her traipsing through rice paddies, standing beside broken-down buses and in villages laughing with the locals.