Lao and Vietnam share many things – borders, food, a love of motorbikes and backpackers in search of offbeat adventures and decent WiFi.
What Laos doesn’t share with its Eastern neighbour is the same styled coffee. It has Laos Coffee, which is not as close a cousin as you might think. Some of the subtlety and most of the method must have gotten lost to the mountains on the way over the border. A pity too. There is something terribly delicious about Vietnamese coffee, which finds you seeking it out on every street corner and making room for it in your luggage. Mention that you are in Vietnam on your blog and there is inevitably an outcry of “I miss Vietnamese coffee!” Cleary Ha Long Bay is not the number one tourist attraction.
Pic: Vietnamese coffee with coconut at the cafe opposite the cathedral in Hanoi.
Vietnamese coffee is slightly sweet and rich but doesn’t leave you with the caffeine jitters. The addiction is the same as with its European counterparts; the method not. Perched on your cup like a little tin hut, this slow drip method is a lesson in delayed gratification and instant attraction. You can have it neat, with ice or simply watch it levitate above a cream layer of condensed milk. But once you stir it in, you are in for a rush of sugar that will put pimples on your skin.
Lao coffee is much like camping coffee – so thick set in its ways that it doesn’t let light in or flavours out. I blame the method not the bean. They boil it up and strain it through, giving you a slightly more refined version of Mekong mud that even ducks would refuse to bathe in.
Pic: Preparing coffee, Laos style (although the woman preparing it was actually Vietnamese.)
Camping coffee should stay where it belongs – on a campfire against the backdrop of an African sunrise. Because it’s the context, not the method, that make it so deliciously satisfying. So no, I am not a fan of Laos Coffee, even when smothered in condense milk. It’s like the Afrikaans say “al dra ‘n aap n goue ring bly hey nogsteeds a lelike ding.”
Laos has other things, like sticky rice, which Vietnam doesn’t. That’s a big plus for Laos. Sticky rice is not only tasty it openly encourages you to play with your food. And it comes served in a natural bamboo or palm leaf container. I know some travellers who even buy it, just to roll it into balls. Maybe it’s meditational, it’s definitely therapeutic, if not a little unhygienic, especially at night, when you are alternating feeds with spraying diluted Deet on your body to ward off mosquitoes (Another thing Laos has more of).
Going on satisfaction levels alone, it’s probably more accurate to compare Café Vietnam with Beer Laos. There is good reason why travellers wear “Beer Laos” t-shirts with equal amounts of pride and sweat. This light golden lager satisfies like a cool breeze on a hot, sticky day. Like the café culture that sprung up around Vietnamese coffee, there is a sub culture that pays homage to Beer Laos with a clink and clutter of quartz bottles.
Pic: The darker brewed Beer Laos
Personally, I prefer the dark Beer Laos. It’s a bit stronger and has more of a pale ale taste. But it comes in smaller bottles so it doesn’t give you the same value for money that its taller cousin does at 10 000 kip ($1.25) a quartz. I also appreciate the bright yellow stylings of the Beer Laos crates, which are quickly refurbished into society as seats, outboard motor engine covers and the like. Who said beer drinking doesn’t lead to creative inventions?
So there you have it. Vietnamese coffee and Beer Laos – two great SE Asian inventions worthy of a cult following and export licence.
pics: Necessity (and monsoons) is the mother of all inventions
Musing on the fact that I have lost my comb and might have to use a panga to bush wack through this nest.