Small World: French Vientiane, Laos

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Small World: French Vientiane, Laos

The three of us squeezed on a motorbike, zoomed past Buddhist temples and through street-meat smoke to L’Atmosphere. I could hear French even before we walked in, and the bartender—wearing a classic Breton striped shirt—greeted us with a warm ”bonjour.” Within the hour, I was sipping Cabernet Sauvignon and devouring warm goat cheese toast on a balsamic-dressed salad.

“It’s the French capital of the region,” the bartender told me proudly after years as an expatriate, a response to my rookie musings on the city’s undeniable Frenchness.

Earlier that day, I crossed the border from never-colonized Thailand to Laos by foot. After declining a barrage of overpriced ride offers, I settled on a 15,000 Lao Kip (less than $2 at 8,125 LAK to the dollar) city-bound tuk tuk. It was parked beside a woman wearing a conical bamboo hat, selling one neatly piled product: fresh baguettes. I knew the French colonized Laos, so the romance language on visa forms didn’t surprise me, but this stark fusion did.

As I ate my first tasty meal in Vientiane—local noodle dish pad ki mao—I couldn’t dismiss a nagging guilt that I longed for something else. Crossing this particular border posed a moral dilemma, one that challenged my pride of eating local when I travel. In Thailand, I never remotely considered escargot as a dish that could be considered authentic, but here, the distinction wasn’t so clear.

In post-colonial Laos, what is local?

On the streets of the sleepy capital that afternoon, tuk tuk drivers napped in hammocks hanging in their open vehicles and most people outside were sipping beverages on café patios, not walking anywhere briskly as expected in a country’s nucleus. My mission—before meeting friends that evening: find suitable spots to work remotely the rest of the week.

From the east side of Rue Setthathilath, I wandered past French colonial villas-turned-embassies and the rundown French Bibliothèque Nationale (National Library of Laos) built in 1923 as the Governor’s colonial residence. Though Laos achieved independence in 1953, in some six decades as part of the French protectorate, the colonial past still pulses through local flavors and aesthetics.

On the next block, I pass Benoni Café, local chain Joma Bakery Café, and Le Trio Coffee, the latter sandwiching an Italian restaurant. Here, cappuccinos, croissants, and tablecloths supersede the Southeast Asian norm of noodles, rice and plastic tables. And within a few steps, my mission is accomplished: Coco&Co.

The welcome mat at the entrance overlays the black-and-white checkered floor, blossoming into a sun-filled aisle between the bar to the left and round marble tables to the right. The glowing display case was my kryptonite each day; rich chocolate cake sprinkled with powdered sugar, lemon tart topped with meringue and perfectly flaky croissants. In the sticky heat, tall iced teas were my go-to, but even as a coffee novice, I couldn’t resist the attractive foamy latte. The spacious upstairs of the French-style café— filled with mismatched couches and antique tchotchkes—became my remote office for the next week. Each day, the baristas would greet me with a cheerful “Sabaidee.” Shortly after, I would eavesdrop on them taking orders in French.

The short stroll that first day, and the bartender’s insight that first night felt like…permission. Here, now, French is also local. And exploring it is my task.

That week, my schedule was clockwork: I’d drink a smoothie from Noy’s Fruit Heaven, explore for a few hours, eat lunch and then work at Coco&Co. until sunset. Wandering was curated with the intention of exploring the city’s Frenchness, but even in my hours chained to a computer I couldn’t avoid hearing snippets of ”oui” and ”Asie,” transporting me to Parisian boulevards despite the lingering curry aroma.


Photo: Stefan Fussa, CC-BY

Consecutive days of pastries warranted a jog by mid-week, outweighing the abysmal air quality. From the riverside pathway I could see Thailand across the brush, past multilingual signs and flapping Communist flags. Navigating the opposite direction down the main, wide thoroughfare Avenue Lane Xang, I zigzagged between an ancient Buddhist temple restored during colonial times and the Institut Français du Laos, where a stocked library was bustling with avid readers.

Steps away, the unmistakable Arc de Triomphe silhouette—encircled by Laotian and Communist flags—divided the wide boulevard. From afar, the distinctly regional features—gold-adorned elephants, carvings of Eastern religious deities, mythical statues on each corner—aren’t visible. Yet up close, Hindu gods are unmistakable. The Patuxai Victory Monument was originally built in the early 1960s in ironic honor of the independence from France and soldiers who were victims of World War II. Its current namesake stems from the 1975 Communist overthrow, one of many facts illuminating the multi-faceted history it represents. My earlier visit to a crumbling colonial building housing the Lao National Museum belabored the country’s fraught past, before and after colonialism.

Glittering gold temples dotted the landscape from the seventh-story view through a metal window designed in the shape of Buddha. Down below, tourists took selfies in front of a circular fountain, surrounded by remarkably manicured gardens. On my way down the circular staircase, passing fellow tourists going up, my elementary linguistic skills caught a snippet of conversation: ”à la maison” (at home), I heard, as I squeezed past a French-speaking couple.

As I walked towards breakfast, I couldn’t help but wonder how Lao locals and French visitors comprehend this fusion, which I found more pervasively palpable in Vientiane than in its colonial neighbors. Does it evoke pride or guilt? A sense of belonging or disconnect? Is it possible to have any distance from the colonial past? When I asked the bilingual Laotian hotel owner, she responded plainly: “We are proud of our culture today.”

Le Sommelier Restaurant was empty when I arrived before noon, but the Lao sandwich cart was outside—albeit unattended—stocked with fresh baguettes, vegetables, meats, and the familiar red cow on the round La Vache Qui Rit (The Laughing Cow) package. Just as I was about to walk away, the waitress came outside; I was the first customer of the day. As usual, I pointed, this time to my first Lao sandwich. Handing over my 10,000 LAK, I was led to a seat where copies of today’s Le Monde and Le Canard Enchainé were waiting. I was starting to miss spicy noodles for breakfast, which I had another month to indulge in. But as soon as the sandwich arrived—a warm, crunchy baguette stuffed with pickled veggies and soft cheese, smothered in sauces—I was once again immersed in a justified version of local.

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The Institut Français du Laos is the country’s hub of French culture, opened in the early 1990s with the held of Paris’ mayor, which hosts a number of cultural events and offerings to the public.

L’Atmosphere is a French restaurant and live music venue with both an extensive food and drink menu as well as weekly concerts.

Top French restaurant L’Adresse Cuisine by Tinay is Vientiane’s go-to for escargot, fois gras, and “to die for” crème brûlée, prepared by award-winning French chefs.

Coco&Co is a French-style café that serves beverages, snacks, and pastries from local bakers, plus high-quality local handmade wares in an upstairs boutique.

Dara Bramson is a roving journalist based in Kraków, Poland.

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