By Laurel Tuohy
Apr 29, 2019
SLEEPY LITTLE VIENTIANE is one of the more overlooked capitals of Southeast Asia—most pass through for no more than one night. But on a long-weekend trip, I quickly learned that what it lacks in wow-factor attractions, it makes up for with plenty of small-town charm.
I live just a short flight away, in Bangkok, but had never visited before—always seduced by flashier destinations when holiday time rolled around. Friends had told me that café culture rules in Vientiane and the city’s growing number of coffee shops make perfect pit-stops as you wander the still-standing French-colonial architecture—some addresses lovingly restored, others in advanced stages of decay. The low number of tourist sites, plus a compact, walkable downtown, is said to make the city’s slow pace of life surprisingly alluring.
So, when I heard about the opening of the city’s first real boutique hotel, Lao Poet, I had a feeling that owner Lamphoune Voravongsa, who also founded Luang Prabang’s lauded Satri House, felt the hip winds of change starting to blow through the languorous capital.
After landing into the city at dusk, I checked into Lao Poet (doubles from US$88), which has brought a modern, more millennial-style stay to a city that’s better known for its heritage buildings. The 55-room boutique mixes Indochine antiques from Voravongsa’s own collection with hits of jewel-toned glamour reflected throughout the building: velvet cushions; fancifully painted wooden furniture; oversized vintage photographs of the city’s former residents. While the rooftop pool has views of the Mekong River and the palm-frond theme channels Wes Anderson, the hotel’s pretty moniker brings the brand back down to earth—it’s an homage to beloved Laotian poet Maha Kheo, who once lived on this site, and who oversees the lobby in the form of an oversize old photograph.
Across the street from the hotel is a smart choice for a first night’s dinner, La Cage du Coq (mains from US$6), referencing both the city’s former French rule as well as nods to Laos’s rural, agricultural soul. The brasserie is decorated with woven rattan chicken cages and plays a soundtrack of vintage French pop. The duck confit, Camembert ravioli, and a delicate tuna and pomelo ceviche were all perfectly cooked. And though it seemed like I was out of room for dessert, I was glad I indulged: a spot-on espresso topped by golden crema was delivered alongside a silky lemon tart alluringly served in a small pitcher.
Setting out for a walk to familiarize myself with the city, the first stop was for coffee at the Cabana Design Studio & Café (coffee from US$2). Owned by interior designer and local tastemaker Nilada Ratanavong, the space is bright and filled with greenery, the menu offering hits like avocado on sourdough toast, and sweet mango waffles.
After breakfast, I strolled toward the morning market on Lane Xang Avenue, where locals buy everything from clothing to electronics to kitchen staples. I took in the chaos over a Thai tea and sampled honey so fresh bees were still stuck to the comb. (It’s not as scary as it sounds—Laos is well-known for its honey, and jars from small producers are found in nearly every corner store and larger vats in markets.) Down the street is another mélange of Franco-Indochinese culture: Patuxai, the Arc de Triomphe–inspired war monument features Laotian touches, such as renderings of Kinnari, a mythical bird-woman.
I stopped by Wat Si Saket (entry US$1), the only temple in Vientiane that survived the Thai invasion of 1828, then I was ready for an afternoon pick-me-up from a newbie to the coffee scene, Titkafe (drinks from US$2). The modern coffee bar is developing a reputation with the city’s bloggers and bean connoisseurs. I wanted to try their nitro cold brew, which is crafted with state-of-the-art technology not often seen in the laidback capital. Titkafe uses a mix of locally sourced beans that support farmers with imported beans to balance the flavors. I chose the “passion honey nitro,” which was surprisingly mellow.
Enticed by the vibrant Laotian textiles I kept seeing, I stopped into Saoban for souvenirs. Their wide selection of handmade fabric items (indigo scarves, Tai Deng woven wall hangings, ikat bags) comes with an attractive ethos: stock is sourced using fair-trade principles that support employment for local craftspeople— more than 95 percent of whom are women, according to the owner—and preserve traditional techniques. Between the crowds in the new café and the passion behind Saoban’s crafts, it seems that the city is developing an appreciation for locavore products.
Keeping my taste buds firmly in country I set off to Amphone (mains from US$5), a restaurant serving traditional Laotian dishes in a vintage turquoise villa. An order of som phak, or pickled mustard greens, arrived at the table spicy, bitter and fresh, their flavor amplified by slices of raw garlic and red chilies. Orr, a traditional Lao stew made with eggplant, fish sauce and sweet basil, arrived next. Mine combined minced fish and chopped greens in a clear broth with grilled shallots and chilies floating on top. Though it wasn’t beautiful, it tasted divine, like a fresher, healthier take on a Thai dish freed from the creamy shackles of coconut milk.
For a nightcap, though, I thought nouveau- Laos might be the ticket. Ratanavong had suggested I check out Cocoon (drinks from US$7.50), a new, tiny cocktail spot so completely hidden down an alley on Henbounnoy Street that it’s like it doesn’t want to be found. Done up like a gentleman’s lounge with just 20 leather seats, the vibe was anything but understated, with 90s R&B pumping from the sound system and Vientiane’s hippest crowd yelling above it. I felt lucky to nab a seat at the bar and ordered their most popular drink, Gung Special, made with Jameson, honey and fresh peach juice. Upon telling head bartender Tongchana Limchai that I liked negronis, he whipped me up an expert Boulevardier. I thoroughly approved.
Breakfast on my last morning at Dough & Co (mains from US$4) kept me in modern Vientiane. This doughnut café was created by Christina Soukdala, a native of the capital who began her love affair with British-style doughnuts while studying in the U.K. The filled pastries—apple compote, raspberry jam, and dark chocolate on the day I visited—were sweet, chewy and messy in the best way possible. Many customers were ensconced behind their laptops; the café, housed in a greenhouse-like structure overlooking fields and a small stream, is a popular location for working travelers wanting an office with a fresher view.
On a sugar-high, I set off for Settha Palace (doubles from US$140), a historical hotel standing since 1932 that is one of the city’s great landmarks. I strolled the property and chatted with general manager Hala Krimi about life in Vientiane over lunch at their restaurant, Belle Epoque Brasserie (tasting menu US$58). In her year in the city, she’s come to appreciate the slower pace of life in a place she calls “a retreat from the world.” She’s lived in Dubai and Bangkok, but here, she said, is the best place to chill out and indulge in the pleasures of a long afternoon massage, a two-hour lunch, or watching the sunset over the river. “The luxury the city offers is time,” she said. Though trendy places to eat, drink and stay are adding a new dimension to this historic city, Vientiane still wears its sleepiness with pride, and that’s a reason to visit in itself.