As a high-school student, Jen Redden traded her home in sleepy Uralla, in NSW's New England region, for a year as an exchange student in southern Thailand. It set her on a course of Asian Studies at university, and she moved to neighbouring Laos 17 years ago, where she works in international development for an NGO.
The centre of Vientiane, the Lao capital, is really small and easy to navigate; you can walk it in 20 minutes. Little shops, cafes and a few temples are tucked away in the side streets, and there are still a handful of lovely old buildings from the French colonial period. Unfortunately, the older architecture is disappearing as big developers buy up the prime sites. Le Trio sources its sustainably priced coffee from local growers, and serves great coffee. See letriocoffee.com
The Mekong River has a real magic to it. I like to spend time watching life along the river, especially at sunset, when it's cooler and people become more active. Vientiane's riverfront is great for people watching in the late afternoon and early evening; enterprising fitness instructors set up little stages and speakers, people can pay around 50 cents to join in their classes. West of the Mekong River Commission building, food stalls set up on the sidewalk - you can get a Beer Lao for just over a dollar. If you're with friends, the Lao way is to drink beer in a glass with ice – order one bottle at a time and keep topping up your glasses so there's less chance of the beer going warm while it sits on the table. Ice cubes are fine but avoid the shaved ice, which is more likely to be produced under less-than-hygienic conditions.
A lot of dishes that you think are Thai are actually from Laos, such as papaya salad (som tum in Thai or tum mak hung in Lao) and sticky rice. Larb is also Lao – I love mushroom larb and tofu larb. If you're sitting by the river, order pun pa, barbecued Mekong white fish which comes with salad leaves, herbs, nuts, ginger, chilli, garlic and a spicy sauce. Wrap up a bit of everything in the salad leaves, like a build-your-own spring roll. If you aren't sure what to do, ask the staff to show you how. Do Kha Noi, a 10-minute tuk tuk ride from downtown is a lovely restaurant run by a Lao-British couple serving traditional Lao food. The menu changes daily based on what's in season and what's in the market that morning. They always have a few vegetarian options too. It is good-quality food in a lovely setting for $10 to $20 a person, and try their gin, which they spice with plum, pepper or lemongrass. See facebook.com/DoiKaNoi
If Beer Lao by the riverside isn't your drink, up-market 525 serves cocktails and tapas and a great negroni in a beautifully renovated old colonial house. Note that you'll pay more for a cocktail than a labourer earns for a day's work – but still affordable by Australian standards. Sticky Fingers was started by two Australian women 20 years ago, and they have a happy hour from 6-8pm where the drinks are half price. They do a great spicy tom yum margarita which you can buy by the glass or by the jug.
To say someone's "hot-hearted" is quite an insult, so avoid losing your temper. You have to embrace the bor pen nyang, the "it'll be all right" or "never mind" attitude. Also avoid bargaining too hard, especially over something that the vendor has grown or crafted themselves. The economy has taken a huge hit over the last few pandemic years and many people are still struggling to earn enough to support themselves and their families.
Support local industries by shopping from the social enterprise handicraft shops that operate on fairtrade principles and ensure their workers are fairly compensated. The sinh is a Lao skirt made from cotton or silk – you will see women up and down the country wearing them. Laos has worked hard to hold onto its textile traditions, and women take a lot of pride in their weaving patterns and natural dyes. TaiBaan Crafts is a good choice in Vientiane. See taibaancrafts.com