September update - A 2017 version of this post is coming soon! So many new and wonderful coffee shops in Vientiane now!
You're in Vientiane and dying for a decent cup of coffee. Preferably with a nice fresh croissant to go with it, or one of those tasty little macaroons. Well, what do you know, you're in luck.
It just so happens that Laos grows superb coffee. Originally planted by the French around 100 years ago, today coffee is Laos's fifth biggest export. The majority (95%) comes from the south, in the cool climate Bolaven Plateau. Laos produces both Robusta and Arabica beans but a growing appreciation for gourmet coffee is driving a push for more Arabica. Which is a good thing as it's a more expensive product which means more money for the farmers.
Okay, so we've got the coffee. And it's sold in practically every cafe and restaurant across Vientiane. So how easy is it then to find a decent cup?
I should preface this post with the small caveat that I don't drink coffee. While I love the smell of coffee and I don't mind the taste, the caffeine gives me an instant headache. (Yes, I have tried decaf).
So, for the purposes of this post, I roped in a coffee connoisseur (aka self confessed "I know what I like" coffee snob) to drag around Vientiane and shout cups of the city's best brews. Tough, eh? Meet my lovely friend, Moon, from Melbourne, a Western-style coffee addict. And cheering for the Lao-style coffee, there's Xairung too.
Putting aside the irony of Australians being the world's biggest coffee snobs, I can't fault their fastidious scrutiny of a hot beverage. I also threw the question out to the popular Facebook group, Buy and Sell in Vientiane for another 20-odd opinions. Thanks all.
So here we have it - where to find the 'best' cup of coffee in Vientiane.
On number of votes alone, this is hands down, Vientiane expats's favourite coffee spot. Owner Pop spent several years in Australia, gaining a barista qualification from coffee gurus, Toby's Estate. He then returned to Vientiane and opened the first Naked Espresso on Dongpayna Rd, followed by the second, more recently in town. There's an emphasis on Australian-style coffees, particularly flat whites and cappucinos, expertly made using freshly ground beans on a La Marzocco espresso machine. They do a standard Lao-Thai blend but also have single origin Lao beans too, as well as other international blends.
Naked Espresso 1 is on Rue Dongpayna near the traffic lights at the Dongpalane end. NE2 is on Rue Manthatourath near the Dairy Queen.
Le Trio Coffee
The general consensus on this tiny French owned cafe on the main drag in town is that it has the best take home brew. Just stepping inside their hole-in-the-wall coffee shop is a aromatic delight and I love picking up their freshly ground bags and giving them a good sniff.
Le Trio is on the main road through town (Rue Setthathilath) between the National Library and Jazzy Brick.
Several people waved the banner for the drip coffee here but when we tried it, it wasn't very favourably received. Perhaps it's one of those subjective things. Their scones and jam remain a favourite for me regardless.
When I last visited, I did get a chance to see the labourious method of making iced coffee; stewing and slowly layering the coffee into the jar - a process that took about five minutes per coffee. So, I'd be interested to hear what people think of that.
Little House is almost directly opposite Naked Espresso 2 on Rue Manthatourath.
Benoni and Joma
Benoni and Joma sit side by side on the main road through town, and near Le Trio.
Sinouk is one of the big coffee producers in Laos and they have a cafe and shop in Vientiane. I recently heard that they have just started selling Nespresso-compatible capsules too (thanks for the tip, Sam).
Cafe Sinouk is on Rue Bourichane near the Cafe Nomad end.
Moon says that a good coffee is all about the texture of the milk. She isn't a fan of Joma coffees, for example, as the milk is all froth and foam which only detracts from the coffee itself.
So too, in Vientiane, she finds that often the only differentiation between a latte and a cappucino is the glass in which its served in. Yet a cappucino should have a head of foam on it.
Where else in town does a good cup of coffee? Other friends recommended Dee cafe on Nongbone, who also use a La Marzocco machine; Cafe Ah near Panyathip School; and Kung's Cafe on Rue Simuang for their iced coffee.
But what of Lao-style coffee? It's much simpler and only served one way - stewed in a 'sock' in a hot metal jug over a coal fire. The beans are stewed whole, giving the coffee a rich, intense, almost 'muddy' taste. It's served semi hot in a glass with a thick layer of tinned condensed milk at the bottom.
Xairung and I stopped in for a cup of Lao brew at Vientiane coffee shop, one of a million similar joints all over the country. She loves the dense, "almost chocolatey" taste, only slightly sweetened with the generous pour of condensed milk, straight out of the tin.
It's how Laotians across the country drink their coffee.
Are you a coffee drinker? How do you drink yours?