Indochinas’s Cities’ Secrets

 |  May 30, 2011

It’s a small capital city, but enjoys a mix of international communities and social activities, and at only an hour and a bit flight from Chiang Mai, this is a great city to pop over for a visit during a long weekend.

Vientiane’s dining and entertainment centre is located around the Nam Phou Square (The Fountain), a great place to walk around and check out bars and restaurants.

Hungry?

The Aria Mixai Italian Culinary Arts is known as the best Italian restaurant in town. The chef/owner, Gerardo Dereviziis delivers 5-star culinary art with flair and creativity (ariaorg.com). Le Silapa, is known as one of the best, and most expensive, French restaurants in town. La Cote d’Azure located on the lively side of town – Quai Fa Ngum -a more laid back walking area, is run by a French chef, Jean-Marc, who has opened this restaurant for more than a decade serving authentic French Mediterranean cuisine at very reasonable prices. Amphone Restaurant serves authentic Lao cuisine in a stylish ambiance unlike many other Lao restaurants that tend to attract tourists, this Amphone Restaurant is best known to Vientiane and expat communities as the perfect place to have Lao food in a classy ambiance. Nazim (nazim.laopdr.com) is known as the most popular Indian restaurant with branches in Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang. Don’t expect the ambiance, but the food is authentic and the price is very reasonable. Fujiwara is the most famous Japanese restaurant in town, known for the good quality of food and ambiance and friendly prices, while Kiku restaurant in Lao Plaza Hotel is known for its quality of food and luxuriou decors which is matched by the price. May Yuan Chinese Restaurant, also located in Lao Plaza Hotel, best known for its dim sum buffet lunch and VIP dinner, is known as the best Chinese restaurant in town and has won best Chinese restaurant prizes in Asia for several consecutive years.

Thirsty?

Jazzy Brick, is known as the best jazz lounge in town but oddly enough with no live music. It’s the place to be seen, crowded with Vientiane’s high society and well heeled expats. Deja-Vu (vayakorn.biz) is also known as the first cocktail bar in town and still remains the best. This small but cozy venue is a one-man show type, run by the owner who’s also the bar tender. It gives you the ambiance of a small cocktail bar in Tokyo or New York, where people go in for a drink before or after dinner. The bar can only accommodate 15 people at a time and the owner will not accept more clients when it’s full, and is quite happy to kick you out if you make too much noise! Opens and closes according to his moods…keeping punters guessing and wanting to be admitted. Gecko Wine Bar, newly opened, but already famous for its happy hours between 5 – 8 p.m. at 50% discount for wines, a popular place for the after work crowd, or aprés diners. Khong View (kongview.com) is owned by Chiang Mai’s famed The Good View, providing arguably an even better view along the banks of the Mekong. Best known for sunset drinks and local food with beer and wine…same same, but different!

Itching to Spend?

Vientiane doesn’t yet have the great brand name shops of other Asian cities, but boasts great handicraft products. Ta Lad Sao (Morning Market) is a great starting point, though a posher version is now known as Ta Lad Sao Mall (talatsaomall.com). Apart from that, there are many small shops and boutiques in town including Caruso Lao Home Crafts (carusolao.com) whose regular clients include Mick Jagger.

To find out much more about Vientiane, pick up a copy of the glossy and glamorous Lifestyle Magazine

To those of us used to unreconstructed madness of everyday Saigon, a visit to genteel An Phu can seem like a trip to another planet. Nevertheless, there’s fun to be had in the ‘burb as well. There are those who say crossing the Saigon River in District 2 is like crossing into another country. We’ll call these people extremists, loyalists to the ancient city plan who believe an alien world lies across the churning murky waters.

Crossing over first stop on my quest into the ritzy unknown was The Deck (thedecksaigon.com), possibly the most decadent hotspot on the An Phu scene. High class, minimalist design and international cuisine, including the warm Dalat artichoke miso aioli (226 baht) and sauce (330 baht) provides serious culinary thrills. However, the restaurant’s main attraction is quite obviously in the title, a wooden panel deck that stretches out into the Saigon River, boasting stunning views. Draught beer starts at (50 baht) and a glass of Signos San Juan Valley Cabernet at (115 baht).

Next stop was Le SudGAUDIR (4 Thao Dien). The interiors here are clearly inspired by Spanish architect Antoni Gaudi and the Balearic party island Ibiza giving the nightspot an air of chic warmth. Although the usual crowd of well-to-do, family-orientated hipsters who frequent the place were notably absent on my visit, I was assured the place was usually heaving from Thursdays to Sundays, with live Spanish tapas such as fried chorizo with red wine (100 baht), and Italian food including pizzas starting at 125 baht and pasta dishes. A glass of sangria goes for 50 baht but the best bet is the jug for 280 baht because it’s hard to have just one glass when you’re relaxing by their swimming pool. Make your way back down Nguyen U thoroughfare of Thao Dien and are likely to be immediately drawn to Buddha Bar (7 Thao Dien). A staple on the An Phu scene, this dimly lit establishment is a stark contrast to my previous encounters, but a welcoming environment, laid back ambience and a gorgeous patio terrace has made Buddha a favourite among the locals. Just down the block from Buddha is the BoatHouse (APSC Compound 40 Lily Roadfood that can be enjoyed against a backdrop of chirping birds and soothing splashing water. And despite being a members-only club, joining is easy. “The only thing you need to be a member is a telephone number,” says restaurateur Rod Quinton. With the menu focusing on surf and turf, mains including delectable Australian-style steaks start from 140 baht and you can sip on the bottled beers starting from usually on Sundays, and oh – did I forget to mention there’s free beer, thanks to Coors Lite, from 6 p.m. to 7.30 p.m. every Monday? Forget Disneyland, this is the happiest place on earth. Just a few doors down from Buddha Bar is Mekong Merchant (23 Thao Dien) the perfect spot to while away the hours. Set in an open courtyard framed by banana plants, this laidback cafe-restaurant is a magnet for expats and locals alike and the menu features homemade pizzas and fresh seafood. And if you fancy perusing a nice designer piece of furniture, MM is part of a contemporary furniture and home wares store. A pretty diverse, and reasonably-priced cocktail list, starting from 65 baht, should keep you nicely buzzed all evening, with the signature MM mojito invented by a mixologist from the US. I ended the evening at La Plancha (23 Tran Ngoc Dien). This simple mix of an Italian and French bistro-style restaurant has a pleasant outdoor area where one can enjoy a cool and relaxing evening.

This article was provided by The Word Ho Chi Minh City. For further information go to www.wordhcmc.com or email editor@wordhcmc.com .

The City

Known as the Pearl of Asia in the 1920s, Phnom Penh is arguably the most beautiful capital city in Southeast Asia. Tree-lined boulevards flow from central Independence Monument to all four corners of the city. Large swathes of the city still possess architectural reminders of its French colonial past and recent regeneration projects have opened up green spaces and transformed the riverfront.

With a vibrant international restaurant scene, buzzing nightlife and emerging boutique shopping, Phnom Penh is finally emerging from the shadow of the Khmer Rouge and the Killing Fields into an attractive long weekend break destination.

What to do?

Conveniently most of the city’s main tourist attractions are based around the riverfront. Built in the 1860s the Royal Palace is the home of the Cambodian Royal Family, although don’t expect any royal weddings anytime soon. Next door, the National Museum has one of the largest collections of Khmer art in the world. A must-visit is S-21, which was used as a detention centre by the Khmer Rouge. From 1975-9 between 17,000 and 20,000 people were detained here, tortured and killed, their bodies thrown into pits at the Killing Fields.

Where to party/eat/sleep?

Perhaps surprisingly for the capital of a country not renowned for its cuisine, Phnom Penh has an excellent cosmopolitan restaurant scene. Less surprisingly, given its colonial heritage, French cuisine features strongly. Topaz (topaz-restaurant.com), La Residence (la-residence-restaurant.com) and Van’s (vans-restaurant.com) offer refined dining. Those wishing for a taste of Khmer cuisine should head for Malis (malis-restaurant.com), headed by Cambodia’s premier chef, Luu Meng.

From the landmark FCC (fcccambodia.com) to Pacharan Tapas and Bodega (pacharan.biz) via Irish bars Green Vespa (greenvespa.com) and Paddy Rice (paddyrice.net), the riverfront has it all. For a while now Metro has served the best cocktails and some of the finest food in town, while no Italian surpasses Giorgio’s Pop Café. Owned by a Frenchman, run by a couple of Venezuelans and situated in the Chinese House, Tepui offers truly international cuisine, and threatens to take over the mantle of best diner in town.

Those wishing to carry on into the early hours of the morning without leaving the riverfront can join the party at Riverhouse Lounge (riverhousecambodia.com). While Street 51’s Heart of Darkness might have the fame, just around the corner, the recently relocated Pontoon Lounge is one of the few places to host international DJs. Memphis Pub on Street 118 has consistent live music.

After all that partying, eating and sightseeing you’ll need some rest. In addition to the five-star Raffles Hotel Le Royal (raffles.com) and Sofitel Phokeethra (sofitel.com), the city has a wide range of boutique hotels, such as the Pavillion (thepavilion.asia), Villa Langka (villalangka.com), Billabong (thebillabonghotel.com), Blue Lime (bluelime.asia) and Circa 51(circa51.com).

For more information, pick up a copy of AsiaLIFE Cambodia when in the country.

credit to www.JamesGrantPhoto.com

The city of Luang Prabang represents a rare fusion of cultures, of architecture and lifestyle, one that has avoided the outward and upward sprawl of other historic cities in the region. The heart of the city lies on a river peninsula in northern Laos, bordered by the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers and surrounded by a cluster of smaller villages. As a UNESCO World Heritage site, the city of Luang Prabang is strictly protected from encroaching modernisation and over-expansion, making a visit to this fascinating city a glance into Laos’s Indochina past.

The Vibe

A large night market stretches along one of the roads, offering everything from inexpensive textiles to hand-painted handicrafts to bottles of rice liquor with dead snakes inside. The banks of the two rivers are excellent places to relax at one of the city’s wonderful cafes, bakeries, or wine-serving restaurants. The western bank is popular at dusk for the view of the setting sun. Inexpensive local food (sticky rice, Beer Laos, barbecue fish, and meat and noodle concoctions) can be found on side streets near the night market. The Scandinavian Bakery (Scandinavianbakerylaos.com) is about as popular as it comes and serves up great breakfasts all day, with yummy fresh baguettes and breads. For high-class dining, we recommend the Arisai Restaurant (thearisai.com) down the street from the market with its outstanding service and Mediterranean cuisine as well as the Apsara restaurant and bar (theapsara.com) which is one of the best fusion restaurants in Laos. The famous L’Elephant (elephant-restau.com) is also a must visit for lovers of French food. The nightlife in Luang Prabang is relatively quiet and short-lived due to a strictly-enforced 11 p.m. closing time for local bars. Backpackers often enjoy the riverside Utopia Bar (utopialuangprabang.com), which includes a sand volleyball court and the Hive Bar (hivebarlaos.com) and Laos Beer Garden are also quite popular. At only around 30 baht for a large bottle, enjoying a Beer Laos or two is far less expensive than downing beers in Thailand.

Sleeping Arrangements

For low-budget travellers, Spicylaos Backpackers (spicyhostels.com) offers a great community and a place to play pool and ping pong with locals. A cluster of traditional Laos guesthouses can be found on the side streets near the bank of the Mekong past the Royal Palace Museum and market. For honeymooners and other folks accustomed to travelling in style, we recommend the famed Villa Santi (villasantihotel.com), which is located in the centre of town and offers some of the most beautiful full-service rooms we’ve seen. Maison Souvannaphoum (angsana.com) is exquisite with its colonial architecture and cheekily trendy designs.