It began with a love for French pastries.
Vientiane, the capital of Laos, is a city that seems comfortable embracing its French colonial past, traditional Lao roots, and the current headlong push into modern times. The residents face challenges living with such a tumultuous past, but the impression is of resilient people who value their unique heritage. For the visitor, it means being able to just as easily step into a Lao restaurant for a traditional tam mak houng (spicy, green papaya salad) as a French café serving real croissant. Or even a teahouse with macarons delicious enough to rival the biggest names in Paris.
Soujata Inthavong, whose family owns the Dhavara Boutique Hotel, and who runs the Suksavanh River Hotel located on the banks of the Mekong River, is the master behind this delicious French secret tucked into the heart of Laos.
I stayed at the Suksavanh River Hotel during my recent visit to Vientiane. Inthavong and her partner recently took over management of the hotel and have exciting changes planned that will take nothing away from its current charming and unpretentious vibe. It’s a surprising find—tucked across from the Mekong River down a quiet lane—considering how close it is to the heart of the city, major historical and Buddhist sites, and its proximity to the Mekong. There are grander hotels, but the Suksavanh suited me perfectly.
Each evening began with quiet time sitting on the banks of the river, watching a sunset that never grew old. Once night fell, I made it my goal to taste dishes from different roadside vendors, always on the hunt for the tastiest food I could find. And then I’d walk and walk and walk. Sometimes to busier sections of the riverside, passing bars with live music and vendors hawking more food, traditional Lao skirts, and kitschy, tourist geegaws (made in China). Other times I’d walk in the opposite direction, to a section of the riverside that still falls quiet at night, where fishermen come out with their nets as they have for generations. Then I’d make my way back to the hotel to sit and talk and listen to stories, or to listen to Teng Sihapanya—Inthavong’s partner and one of my distant cousins—sing melancholic Lao songs and 1960s French ballads while picking at his guitar.
It was during one of those evenings that Soujata Inthavong and I discovered a bond beyond our family ties, the love of pastries. Inthavong loves macarons, admittedly not my favourite because I usually find them sickly sweet. She scoured books and websites for recipes to try and tweak to her liking. After many attempts Inthavong found the perfect combo of ingredients that blends local Lao flavours with less than half the sugar content of traditional recipes.
Because I’m family, or maybe because I’m so obviously a pastry fanatic, Inthavong invited me back to see the making of her macarons, which she sells out of Dhavara Macarons and Tea. The kitchen is tiny. I will in the future curb my complaints about lack of counter space now that I’ve seen this kitchen, and those of other restaurants that are still (obviously) able to make the most amazing food. This, despite the lack of conveniences we’re spoiled with in Canada.
Once in the kitchen, I promptly and completely freaked out her young pastry chef when she told him I’d be watching and taking photos. He looked to be about sixteen (though he wasn’t) and had a dexterous hand with a pastry piper that I will likely never have. Once he got past his shyness and I assured him I was there to admire, and hopefully steal a macaron or two, he agreed to the photos. While I was at the teahouse patrons came and went, some were tourists, but many were locals on their lunch break, coming to treat themselves to a little piece of France.
I’m still undecided about which one of the many flavours is my favourite: taro, green tea, or tamarind. Between my indecision over macarons and the Mekong sunsets it might be time for a return trip.