Food is generally very inexpensive in Laos, with the cheapest options those sold by hawkers – usually fruit, small dishes like papaya salad, and grilled skewered meat – and the most expensive being the upmarket tourist restaurants (usually French or European) in Luang Prabang and Vientiane.
Though hygiene standards have improved over recent years, basic food preparation knowledge in many places still lacks behind other countries in the region. However, though a little caution is a good idea, especially when you first arrive in the country in order to allow your stomach time to adjust to the change of cuisine, it’s best just to exercise common sense. Generally, noodle stalls and restaurants that do a brisk business are a safe bet, though you may find that this denies you the opportunity to seek out more interesting, less touristy food.
Markets, street stalls and noodle shops
Morning markets (talat sâo), found in most towns throughout Laos, remain open all day despite their name and provide a focal point for noodle shops, coffee vendors and fruit stands. In Luang Prabang, Vientiane and Luang Namtha, vendors hawking pre-made dishes gather towards late afternoon in evening markets known as talat láeng. Takeaways include grilled chicken (pîng kai), spicy papaya salad (tam màk hung) and in some instances a variety of dishes, displayed in trays and ranging from minced pork salad (larp mu) to stir-fried vegetables (khùa phák).
Most market vendors offer only takeaway food, with the exception of noodle stalls, where there will always be a small table or bench on which to sit, season and eat your noodle soups. Outside of the markets, noodle shops (hân khãi fõe) feature a makeshift kitchen surrounded by a handful of tables and stools, inhabiting a permanent patch of pavement or even an open-air shophouse. Most stalls specialize in one general food type, or, in some cases, only one dish; for example a stall with a mortar and pestle, unripe papayas and plastic bags full of pork rinds will only offer spicy papaya salad and variants on that theme. Similarly, a noodle shop will generally only prepare noodles with or without broth – they won’t have meat or fish dishes that are usually eaten with rice.
Proper restaurants (hân ahãn) aren’t far ahead of noodle shops in terms of comfort; most are open-sided establishments tucked beneath a corrugated tin roof. Ethnic Vietnamese and Chinese dominate the restaurant scene in some parts of Laos; indeed it can be downright difficult to find a Lao restaurant in some northern towns. Most towns that have even the most basic of tourist infrastructure will have at least one restaurant with an English-language menu – even if the translation can lead to some amusement. Away from the larger tourist centres, dishes will usually encompass variations on fried rice and noodle dishes, often with a few Lao, Chinese or Thai options intended to be eaten with sticky or steamed rice.
Tourist restaurants in larger centres usually offer a hotchpotch of cuisine – often encompassing standard Lao dishes like larp and mók pa alongside sandwiches, pastas and steaks. The most upmarket restaurants in Vientiane and Luang Prabang generally serve French cuisine, often in very sophisticated, un-Lao surroundings, but at very reasonable prices – a meal for two, including wine, is unlikely to stretch past $40.
When it comes to paying, the normal sign language will be readily understood in most restaurants, or simply say “khãw sék dae” (“the bill, please”). You’ll generally only be able to use credit cards at upscale establishments in Vientiane and Luang Prabang. Tipping is only expected in the most upmarket restaurants – ten percent should suffice.