Our little haven during our all too short stay in Vientiane was the Lao Orchid Hotel. Located a half block from the Mekong, the Lao Orchid is situated on the quiet side of Chou Anou street. As I mentioned earlier, we walked in and got a suite, which was quite large and comfortable. There was just so much, "space", something we had been without for a few days.
After doing the "Guest house thing" for the last 3 nights, the Missus was really craving some Western amenities (wow, television!!)....I guess we are just "soft Americans" after all! We were really impressed at how clean this place was....totally spotless, and possibly the cleanest floors (to this point) I've ever seen in a hotel. In fact, in keeping with the standard, we saw the housekeeping staff, and even the front desk folks walking barefoot. And we had no qualms about doing the same at all.....
Our view from the balcony wasn't outstanding, though we could make out the Mekong:
What really stood out here was the service .....especially from one young lady named "Ai". Ai spoke good English, and was very eager to be of help, a common trait among many of the Lao people we met. Ai went beyond the call for us, and displayed a great sense of humor. She found much amusement in my interest in Lao Food. A typical scenario would be an inquiry about, say "Naem", Ai would call the staff into an impromptu "huddle" and a short discussion would take place. After which, a concensus would be reached. In this case, "Inter-City makes the best Naem". Hmmm, Inter-City was the restaurant for a hotel next door....I wasn't too keen on hotel food. Funny thing was, Inter-City was recommended later on by several other folks in Vientiane (by "A", and the Young Lady at Lao Airways). This recommendation would prove to be ironic a bit later on. Ai's most outstanding favor, was a touching act of kindness; the Missus hadn't heard from Her parents since we left for our trip. On all of our vacations, the Missus's parents would always stay in close email contact; but this time our emails went unanswered.....the Missus began to worry. We tried making several international calls, but always ran into problems with connectivity. Ai, seeing how worried we were, told us to wait for just one minute......she than pulled out her own personal cellphone, and made the call for us, which got through. It is because of Ai that I quickly learned my second word in Lao (the first being Sa-bai-dee), kopchai (Thank you). And than to add to it, kopchai-lai-lai (thank you very much).....which I used constantly in Laos.
Deciding to pass on Inter-City, we walked on over to the banks of the Mekong, which are lined with food stalls of all shapes and sizes.
Some of the stalls have elaborate platforms build stretching out over the Mekong, with proper dining tables and chairs. All of them specialize in mainly one thing; what they call "Ping", grilled items, mainly "Ping Pa"(grilled fish) and "Ping Kai"(grilled chicken).
After one quick pass down the Mekong, we settled on the first stall we had seen. It was a pretty modestly equipped stall, you could just say it was a big table. But the woman running the stand had the warmest smile, and though she didn't speak hardly any English, we appreciated one thing:
Everything served here was fresh, there would be no reheated, pregrilled fish served to us. All her fish were live and kickin'. There were only a few fish in the bucket, perhaps five, probably just enough for one evening's worth of service. The Missus had Her eye on one of the larger specimens, and the Woman let Her pick out whichever one She wanted.
We also got 2 huge live prawns that were thrown on the charcoal grill for us.
We ordered a few other items from the young person of slightly indeterminate gender who spoke fairly good English. When it came to the Naem, we were sadly told that they don't make Naem. That was fine with us, the fish looked great, and we'd be happy with whatever we got.
We walked down the hill from the now busy cooking area.
And had the seat on the cushion set upon a platform overlooking the Mekong. We were charmed by the setting.......
This is also where I had my first taste of Beerlao, which was named by Time Magazine as Asia's best beer. And thus began my love affair with Beerlao, and apparently I'm not the only one . The beer is crisp and clean, with a mild sweet finish. According to the Beer Lao website , the hops and yeast are imported from Germany, and jasmine rice is used in the process(that explains it!). I must've had this every night except one while in Laos, and was desperately looking for it (to no avail) in Thailand. Even the Missus, who hates beer, loved this. There is nothing quite like sipping some Beerlao (called the Dom Perignon of Asian beers by the Bangkok Post) while watching the Mekong rolling by.
Meanwhile, our food started arriving. First up, was the Stir Fried Morning Glory:
This was the best stir fried vegetable we ate during the whole trip. Perfectly "wokk'd", crisp, with a nice crunch, great fish sauce flavor, and a nice garlic and chili kick. Excellent!
Of course some sticky rice:
And then a very big surprise:
It was the Naem!!! Where did this come from? I've been known to rave, along with Ed from Yuma, about the Naem Khao Thawt from Asia Cafe, but this was in a whole 'nother league! It was very good, a symphony of various crunchy textures, the crisp rice, the peanuts, pork skin, and the scallions. Nice heat from the essense of the chilies, along with the sweet saltiness of the sausage. The item that really got our attention was the addition of coconut milk, which gave this a nice sweet richness, and when wrapped with herbs in cabbage...this was beyond excellent.
The Missus, who was totally blown away by this, quickly ran up the banks to the stall and asked to see how they made this wonderful dish. "Oh no, we no make Naem....it's from Iiin-ter-Citeee!" Was the reply, along with lots of giggles. Now how's that for service? The folks at the stall had not wanted to disappoint us, so they ran on over to Inter-City, and got us some Naem! So in the end, we got our dish...and it was from Inter-City to boot!
Next up were the grilled prawns:
As we have often found, bigger is not necessarily better. These were tough, and had very little flavor. I opened one, and gave the Missus a taste, "eh...." While I was finishing mine up, a young boy walked over and tried to sell us some kind of trinket. The Missus, inspired by the moment (and uninspired by the prawns), offered it to the boy, who instantly, without hesitation, grabbed it, and made a beeline down the shoreline.
The last to arrive was our fish. It was gutted, stuffed with lemongrass and other herbs, crusted with salt and grilled. Served with a tangy-sweet-spicy sauce, it was somewhat of an anti-climax after the Naem. I really enjoyed the skin, mmmm-fish bacon! The meat was on the dense side, and though moist, really lacked any flavor. It was good, but not great. I did finish every inch of skin from that fish, though......
Along with 3 large Beerlaos, the meal cost us approximately $14 US. And that includes the Naem from Inter-City. Fourteen bucks for a meal we consider priceless.....fourteen bucks for such thoughtful and considerate service, and this view, sunset from the shores of the Mekong:
Perhaps it was the Beerlao at work, but it was at that very moment that I fell under the spell of Laos. And while the stress melted away, and my blood pressure dropped to levels not seen in decades...... I decided, we'd stay another day in Vientiane.