Where to eat and drink: Vang Vieng

Vang Vieng: Where to eat and drink

Vang Vieng’s dining scene leaves much to be desired. If mediocre burgers, pizzas, generic Asian stir-fries, pasta, salads and soups are to your liking, then take your pick from the 20 or so restaurants throughout offering the same cuisine and prices.

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The Lao food is equally disappointing and forgettable, though at least the days of backpackers staring vacantly at TVs playing Friends, Simpsons and Family Guy are pretty much over except for a few holdouts. Several Korean joints have popped up to cater to the recent Korean tourist boom but the banana pancake and baguette stands are as ubiquitous and plentiful as ever. When you’re on the hunt for a meal, remember your options include hotel restaurants on the river.

Viman Vang Vieng is an eccentric little place with an eccentric chef. The menu of Thai-German food is brought to you by a Thai-German chef born in Bangkok, living in south Germany for 34 years. Here you can have pad thai (30,000 kip) or Berlin-style Bratwurst (50,000 kip). Chef Mr Katz claims to have the best Thai curry outside of Bangkok – it certainly is delicious, and well worth the 40,000 kip, as is the beef laap and vegetable stir-fry, all MSG free. Those craving a good well-cooked Western meal should try the authentic grand schnitzel with fried potatoes (80,000 kip). The restaurant is a one-man show – proprietor, waiter and cook – and the German efficiency certainly comes out as he will inform you of the cooking time and precisely how long each dish will take. Reservations are recommended in high season. Find this eatery on the street adjacent to the hospital, running between the main street and the river road. Guten appetit!

From the same company that owns popular Khop Chai Deu in Vientiane, The Kitchen at Inthira Hotel has the same kind of Western and Asian fare more professionally presented than most restaurants in town. Mains start at 30,000 kip while nibbles like fried spring rolls and meat skewers start at 25,000 kip. This is also a decent place to get an a la carte breakfast. Eggs, bacon and baguette for 28,000 kip, an omelette for 16,000 kip.

On the main road at the north end of town, just south of Wat That, there are several evening barbecue joints serving up tasty grilled duck, chicken and pork. It’s served Lao-style: stuff a lettuce leaf with meat, herbs and sweet, spicy sauce to make a wrap. Order some fiery papaya salad and cold BeerLao to wash it all down. Two people can be fully satisfied for 50,000 kip. These joints have become extremely popular with Asian tourists who prefer an early dinner so get there early if you want any chance of getting good meat; by 19:30 it’s sold out or there are only fatty bits left.

Luang Prabang Bakery wants to be good, but it’s not. It’s an extremely popular place at breakfast with a large selection of cakes, things that look like pastries and Western breakfasts all devoured by the masses every morning out of a lack of choice. The problem is that the food and pastries are mediocre at best and expensive – 35,000 kip for a baguette sandwich. People come here because there aren’t many other appealing breakfast options in town. However, the environment is quite relaxing and the coffee is real, but the price is dear at 18,000 kip for an espresso. Centrally located on the road which leads down to the river. Look for the big display of baked goods. Free WiFi. Open 07:00-22:00

A far less expensive spot for a proper coffee is at Vieng Thara Guesthouse which has a front of house eatery on the river road, at the top of the toll bridge. It has an espresso machine and a long black is only 12,000 kip, a latte 14,000 kip.

Sababa serves Israeli food and signs on the wall written by Israeli tourists proclaim their love for mama and papa who run the restaurant. The 45,000 kip falafel pitas and schwarmas stuffed with chicken and fresh salad here don’t disappoint (but avoid getting the hummus). Give this restaurant a go before you resign yourself to yet another baguette sandwich.

If you’re heading out for explorations in the area west of the Nam Song, stop in at Lao Valhalla Guesthouse for refreshment or a meal. Not only is the Lao food cheap and tasty, proprietress Nout is a delight. Your mango shake (10,000 kip) and spicy vegetable curry (20,000 kip) will be served with warmth and care. The guesthouse is located just over one kilometre west from the toll bridge, on the road to the blue lagoon. Look for it on your right hand side.

Though the guesthouse at Vang Vieng Organic Farm, formerly the Organic Mulberry Farm, has gone downhill, the restaurant remains a great spot for a meal and it’s a worthwhile pit stop before tubing or if you’re out exploring by bicycle or motorbike. While we’re not sure if they still produce their once famous goat cheese or how much of the ingredients are still grown on the farm, the dishes are tasty and ingredients fresh. The yellow harvest curry is superb as are the spring rolls and the mango sticky rice. Thirsty? You have to try the mulberry juice for 15,000 kip. Main dishes start at only 25,000 kip. Sadly this place seems a bit lost and it is rarely busy but it should be because it’s better than a lot of the stuff in town. Vang Vieng Organic Farm is located four kilometres north, directly next to the tubing start point. Prices here are great for the quality on offer and cheaper than some of the generic places in town. Worth a trip in its own right. Open 07:30-21:00.

Kangaroo Sunset Restaurant and Bar is a good spot for watching the magnificent Vang Vieng sunset while snacking on a tasty burger and sipping on a cold beer. What really sets this place apart is the bright and breezy pavilion -- a perfect place to chill. A pool table is free to use and there are some groovy beats on the sound system too. Open 08:00-midnight.

Competitor Aussie Bar is famous in Vang Vieng for serving big portions of Western food to Western standards alongside ice-cold beer. The menu is actually a lot more complete than that with a huge section of tasty Asian dishes on offer as well. Its vibe is shared perhaps only by Gary’s Irish Bar. The punters love this place because of the quality of the produce and the low-key hangout spot vibe. Good burgers, steaks and chips. Open 07:30-23:45.

What remains of Vang Vieng nightlife centres on Gary’s Irish Bar and Sakura. Gary’s Irish bar serves up tasty pub grub in a great little two-storey shack. Get a beef burger with chips for 25,000 kip, homemade pie with mash and gravy for 39,000 kip or tuck into a full Irish with sausages, bacon, baked beans, two fried eggs, tomatoes and buttered toast for 39,000 kip. They’ve got a couple of free pool tables and a darts board to pass away the time with, however, most people usually come here for end of the day happy hour banter after a hard day of kayaking or cycling before the place ratchets up to a party. It’s not the party central that it once was, but it still attracts a crowd.

Directly across the street, Sakura still welcomes backpackers in search of a party with open arms. “Drink triple, see double, act single” glows above the entrance. There is a grotty pool table that eventually gets turned into a “look at me I’m dancing on top of a table!” table as the night progresses. There are still travellers determined to experience Vang Vieng’s party heyday and a dance floor forms, but it certainly is no where near what it used to be. Open till late.

To get away from it all, away from the burgers, banana pancakes and beer, Riverside Boutique Resort’s restaurant-bar is the place to treat yourself to a more civilised dining experience and good Lao food. You may be surprised to learn that prices are very reasonable. The beautiful restaurant surrounded by a serene garden serves up a stunning view of the mountains along with favourite Lao dishes such as laap (55,000 kip), mok pa steamed fish wrapped in banana leaf (75,000 kip) and grilled beef with lemongrass and chilli (85,000 kip). Appetisers start at 35,000 kip while Western dishes cost more. How about chicken braised with dark BeerLao and served with spaetzle sound? A glass of red or white is 42,000 kip. The property is located beside the toll bridge.

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