Lots to try
You are probably familiar with Vietnamese pho (feuhr) but there is also Lao pho, with a style and flavour of its own, usually made with beef or pork. It’s served with a massive serving of greens – lettuce, mint, basil, fresh lime, bean sprouts, plus raw green beans which you dunk into the sweet peanut satay dip and munch on.
Vientiane has some of the best noodle soup shops in all of Laos and you can try every single kind of noodle soup the country has to offer. Most shops are open either for breakfast and/or lunch, or for lunch and dinner. Look for steaming pots of broth, fresh looking vegetables and meat. A good rule of thumb: if the locals are flocking to eat it, even on the hottest of days, you know it’s delicious. Here is our run down of where to find the best.
For an awesome pho, head to Pho Zap on Phai Nam Road around the corner from That Dam stupa. Established in 1958, this shop serves up large bowls with a richly flavoured broth with hints of toasted cinnamon, fennel and star anise. Meat choices are beef and pork. A regular bowl costs 20,000 kip, large 25,000 kip and jumbo for 30,000 kip. Open daily from 06:00-15:00. A good alternative is PVO Noodle Soup, less than 500 metres from the central bus station, close to the new Vientiane Centre mall.
Of all the different kinds of noodle soups, khao piak is our favourite. This noodle soup is unique to Laos, made with a fresh chewy round rice noodle, a similar size and shape as Japanese udon. It’s usually served with a pork broth topped with deep fried shallots or garlic. We’re letting you in on a place that few foreigners know about — we reckon it’s the best khao piak in Laos. It’s definitely worth venturing the 1.5 kilometres from the town centre to find this place, which is always packed. The shop is on Dongpalane Road across from All Time Travel Agency. Head up Lane Xang and turn right on Dongpalane, travelling 550 metres. If you’ve hit the shop selling yellow and silver stupas, you’ve gone too far. Your bowl comes with delicious pork short ribs that are so tender, the meat falls off the bone. Let them know “baw sai leua” if you don’t want cubes of blood. They also serve a soup with yellow noodles and roast duck.
Office workers flock to another joint on the east side of Khunboulom Road, just north of Hengboun Road, serving up crisp deep-fried and dried yellow noodles, covered in a stir-fried beef and vegetable gravy. This Chinese-influenced dish is not noodle soup per se, more like noodle gravy. A heaping plate will set you back 20,000 kip. Look for the man with the flaming wok in front.
The shops mentioned here are on the higher end of the spectrum in terms of quality, portion size and price, and they are considered expensive by local standards. You can find cheaper soups, but be warned that excessive amounts of MSG can be an issue. Soup sizes are noy (small), nyai (large) and sometimes tamada (medium). If communication fails, point at what you want.
For locals, adding condiments are an essential part of the noodle soup experience. The ritual seems endless: a dash of this, a dollop of that, a squeeze of lime. Tables are loaded with sweet chilli sauce, fish sauce, pickled ginger, shrimp paste, chilli paste, birds-eye chilli, Maggi seasoning sauce, soy sauce, sugar, MSG, white vinegar, white pepper – just to name a few! The end goal for locals is something that is sour, salty, sweet and so hot it would make a foreigner cry (meanwhile they don’t even break a sweat). To tell you the truth, we prefer our noodle soup quite plain so we can actually taste the flavour of the delicious broth. To each their own though – happy slurping and experimenting!
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.
Our top 10 places to eat and drink around Vientiane