We have finally arrived in Laos yesterday, a 2 1/2 hour flight from Kuala Lumpur to Vientiane, capital city of Laos, with a population of 240,000. I have always wanted to visit Laos, as the only country left in the former colonial French Indochina that I have not visited. The other two countries are Vietnam and Cambodia. The reason why I chose Laos this time is to see the place especially Luang Prabang, the people, the food and the culture.
We arrived at Wattay International Airport flying Air Asia. On arrival, my partner like other non-ASEAN tourists have to apply for a visa. There were 3 different forms to complete; one for visa application, one for immigration arrival and departure card and one on personal health condition (I assume due to latest swine flu pandemic crisis). The visa application costs USD$30. Make sure you have USD and in the exact change on arrival. I had it easy having a Malaysian passport. The queue at the immigration was long. It took almost 40 minutes to go through the immigration. The good thing was our checked in luggage were there at the carousel, rather than the other way round! Our driver, from the hotel was waiting on arrival. We were taken to the hotel, Lao Orchid Hotel.
It is a small boutique hotel, in a great location near Mekong River and within walking distance to shops, restaurants, cafes, art gallery. Actually Vientiane is a small city, very easy to get around. The staff are friendly. Great room with nice balcony view across a temple, Wat Chantabuli.
After checked in at the hotel, I took to the streets and wander around. There were quite a few small construction sites but with little sound and noise. The traffic was quite heavy, but not as heavy as Hanoi’s streets in Vietnam. It was easy to walk around without fear of being hit by a motorbike. Quite a contrast from Vietnam and Cambodia.
There is quite a lot of similarity between Laos and Thailand due to the long history of two countries. The language is quite similar, so I have little difficulty communicating with Lao using Thai language. I found most of the people we spoke to can also communicate in fluent English.
I came to a corner restaurant at 158 Rue Heng Boun called Pho Dung. Before I reached the corner of the street, I could sense a beautiful aromatic smell in the air. Then I saw the backdoor of the kitchen before I realised it is a pho restaurant. The restaurant was quite busy with locals. I knew it has to be a good place so my partner and I got ourself a table.
I love a good bowl of pho. It can be different from stall to stall. The way to differentiate a good pho is in the stock itself. Naturally all the other ingredients such as sliced raw beef, beef balls, tendons, herbs and sauces give pho an overall lift in its flavour, tastes and smell. The ones sold at Cabramatta in Sydney and Richmond in Melbourne have a stronger stock flavour compared to most pho sold in Vietnam and this one in Vientiane. The stock here is delicate, subtle and aromatic. The herbs used here has a few variations – I assume most are local to Laos. Even the mint is quite different. One of the herb has a strong smell, almost woody. There are more sauces at the table, from chili sauce to fish sauce. There is another dipping sauce, sweet and quite nutty and pungent at the same time (probably from some fermented seafood paste).
This Pho is probably one of the best I had for a long time. It is different from the ones I had in Vietnam because of some of the unique herbs used in this restaurant.
After a great bowl of pho, I continued with my walk around the streets of Vientiane. Along the way, I saw a street stall selling fresh pomelo, boiled sweet potatoes, Asian red skin groundnuts, a family house drying some hot bird eye chili, and an old colonial building turned into a silk weaving factory, and a run downed rusty volkswagen.