Our favourite café (owner) in Vientiane – Dit and her Amelia Cafe
Note: Although roughly 80% of the Lao population are still engaged in agriculture (Nations Encyclopedia, 2020), Laos’ economy has been changing and growing towards an expansion of the service sector, industrial sector, and commerce sector in the last years (Vientiane Times via Asia News Network, 2019). Entrepreneurship as an option to gain financial wealth has increased as well, especially amongst young people (Maeda, 2014). According to Hunt (2016), the majority of newly-opened businesses are owned by women. However, the Lao Businesswomen’s Association stated in 2014 that skilled women would rather choose to be employed at less-risky and higher paid government jobs than open their own enterprise (Hunt, 2016).
We were told that in recent years, there were plenty of new café openings all over Vientiane. We found that Vientiane offered a great variety and number of cafés, which we were not accustomed to from our hometowns in Germany. Many of the recently opened cafés advertise their combination of Lao-grown coffee beans and western decor and taste, which mostly attracts foreigners. The traditional “Lao coffee“, which can also be found on all café menues, is usually drunk iced and very strong. Depending on the addition of milk and/or sugar it can be called “cafe yen” (“coffee cold”) or “cafe yok lor“. Laotians and tourists alike typically buy it at little drink stands by the side of the street.
As both of us, Yvonne Jacqueline (“Jacqui”) Dyck and Phi Ha Nguyen (Team IX), love coffee, we started a digital list of cafés in Vientiane, which we wanted to go to. Especially interesting were cafés in the vicinity of our accommodations and/or schools. There was this one café which according to google maps was only opened until 5 p.m. and often, when we walked past it, the roller shutter was already pulled down. As most our classes took place in the late afternoon, we could never make it to the café during the week – and on Sundays, when there were no classes, the café stayed closed.
We later found out that the roller shutters were pulled down to prevent the sun from dazzling employees and customers and that the information on google maps was outdated. Additionally, the “Amelia Cafe” is a little hidden away from the street: The window front and entrance are a few metres off Sokpaluang Road and tucked in between many other shops, but if you look for the sign you cannot miss it (Google maps Plus Code: WJVG+9Q Vientiane, Laos).
When I, Jacqueline, first went inside the Amelia Cafe at last in December 2019, I instantly noticed the unique furniture and decorations. I also loved the quiet atmosphere as I usually went to cafés in Vientiane to work, i.e. write my reports, edit a blog post, or prepare lessons. When I asked for paper straws, the café owner Dit Patthana and I continued discussing the impact of single-use plastic on the environment, during which conversation I discovered her excellent English skills. We later found out that Dit and her husband had lived and studied in the USA for a few years.
I, Phi Ha, remember how Jacqueline told me she had finally made it to the café that had been on our list for so long. She raved about the good coffee and about the chat she had had with Dit. I also vividly recall how excitedly she told me about the first food she had eaten at the café, the crispy chicken, which had been absolutely delicious. That is how I became even more curious – and when we finally managed to go to the Amelia Cafe together, I could totally understand Jacqui’s enthusiasm, and it was soon passed onto me as well.
Dit also remembers Jacqueline’s first visit to her café: “I thought ‘Oh, my God, if she leaves early that means she’s not happy.’ That’s how I think about the customers. So I thought: ‘Ok, if she stays with me longer than 3 hours, that means she likes it.’ That’s how I feel. So I was here the whole time, told the barista to keep an eye on you, make sure she had anything to drink, enough whatever. But my barista doesn’t speak English, so if she don’t pay attention to you, you might hesitate to ask her for something. So I asked her to stand up, not play the phone.”2
Not long after the café became our favourite spot. Between then and our departures back to Germany our whole team came to love coming here. The cozy surroundings are replenished by the delicious and fresh drinks and food and by our friend Dit, who continued to treat us with free freshly homebaked sweets. While thinking about possible topics for future blog posts, we came up with the idea of interviewing Dit and her husband Taa, who is the manager of a local spa and residence. We asked them if we could interview them for thelaosexperience.com and were very happy when they agreed to meet with us on a hot sunny Sunday afternoon in January 2020.
Interviewers: Phi Ha Nguyen & Yvonne-Jacqueline Dyck
Interviewees: Dit Patthana & Taa Patthana
Sunday, 12 January 2020: Amelia Cafe VTE, Sokpaluang Road, Vientiane Capital, Lao P.D.R.
What are your names and how old are you?
Taa: My name is Taa and this is my beautiful wife, her name is Dit, and we are in our forties.
How did you two meet and how did you end up here together in Vientiane?
Taa: It is quite interesting. We first met in Sydney, Australia, back in the early 2000’s. It was a vacationing trip and somehow we keep talking and it clicked. And her mom said: “If you love her, marry her”, and here we are as husband and wife – after what? – 16 years, we’re still here. So, it was a long-distance relationship but we made it work somehow.
Dit: We’d been talking for 2 years before we decided to get married.
What would you answer to the question “Where are you from” or “Where do you feel at home”?
Taa: She, Dit, she lived in the Khammouane Province, close to Savannakhet, and I lived in Vientiane and she still have her family live there, her mom, her parents, they live there and we go visit every time we have a chance to go. But most likely every Lao New Years we always make a trip there, go back visit them. And my family, mostly they live in Vientiane. So, I feel at home in Vientiane.
Dit: Me too, because some time my parent they come visit us, too, like, so many times per year, right, Taa? They always come, also my brother, my family, they always come to Vientiane. Yeah, that’s why I feel like I’m at home, you know.
Have you travelled to any other countries before?
Taa: I visit not so many, but maybe Australia, Thailand, Vietnam, Dit’s parents’ province, and U.S.
Is there a country which you would like to visit?
Dit: My dream is to go to Japan! I always want to go, but we just don’t have a chance.
Taa: Maybe I’ll take her there next year. But for me, anywhere, it doesn’t matter. Anywhere I go, I feel I always enjoy it, whichever country it is. But if I got to pick, I wanna go to Europe first. I would love to go visit Germany because it’s very highly developed country3 and I heard, I know, is over there they have like the best health care and you guy don’t pay anything for your school. I would also love doing Octoberfest, that’s one thing I want to go. I went to the Vientiane one they have every year. But to drink good beer, you have to go to German.
When did you open your café?
Taa: We just opened three to four month ago as a try-out.
Taa, did you support your wife in opening the café? Do you give her business advice?
Taa: Yeah, I support her always. You see, I don’t really get involved with her café that much, but I would jump in if she had trouble. I had to tell her to manage yourself, your employee, your food… You make the decisions, I’ll help you out when you struggle.
Has it always been your dream to open a café?
Dit: Yes, for me, yes! I always dreamed to have my own, like, small café because I love cooking, I love talking to new people. Normally I cook every day. I just love doing it even though sometimes it does not turn out that good yet. That’s why I decided to open.
Taa: I mean, I know she’s good cook and I advised her: “You know what? Turn something you like into an income for her own.” And you always cook good, honey, I love your food!
What is the significance of your café’s name?
Taa: We got that name from a movie back in the day called “The Princess Diaries“. Her (the protagonist’s) name is Amelia, her nickname is Mia. Dit loves that movie so much, so we just adopted the name and named our daughter Amelia and the café after our daughter.
Is your daughter proud that your café is named after her?
Dit: Oh yes, she is. She loves loves it. That’s why she always sits in the front. I tell her: “Oh Mia, why don’t you go in your room?”And she says she’s taking care of her own café.
Note: After we had been to the café many times, Mia and her younger brother Preston would greet us happily and excitedly. Mia loved to played hide-and-seek with us and showed us her toys.
How did you find this location and why did you choose it?
Taa: My sister-in-law said: “Why don’t you rent somewhere on the street.” Because in Laos on the street is the best one. This area here is like “expat-ised” area (an area where many foreigners live or work) or community and it is around international schools and in front of Sinouk (the popular Lao café chain) and K-Mart (a Korean supermarket chain), so people know this area. So that’s why we picked this location. It’s not the best, but it’s the best we can get. Price-wise it’s ok.
What were your difficulties with opening a café?
Taa: The café struggled a little bit first, for a month. Not like we did not know, that’s just the way that it is. When you open a new business, right, it’s always struggle but it’s getting better. Lots of customers coming in, enjoy it, I’m happy about it and she do it by heart, cook by heart, service by heart. She enjoys to laugh. But at night time it’s tired, very very tired. Café business is not a good business, so long day.
Dit: Sometime tired after work, but happy. But in the morning I still have energy to cook. I don’t know why, it just happen to me that I think: “Oh, I have to wake up this time and then have to go to market, come home and cook and do things.” I’m happy doing it.
Have you encountered any other challenges since you opened?
Taa: First one is to hire employees, to train them. To get what they’re supposed to do is hard because we have to send them to training for two weeks.
Dit: It’s hard to find the good one to work for you. I’m the owner and even though I don’t know how to make the coffee before, but I have to learn. I have training from the real professional barista. We’ve been training for a month. I have to be better than my employees in order to open my own café. Even cooking in the back, I’m not that good but I have to learn to be better than them. They can quit anytime, that’s how Lao employees are. They don’t care. When they’re not happy, they quit (laughs). We cannot depend on them. That’s how I feel.
How many employees do you have?
Taa: I think we have three right now.
Dit, did you also learn to cook somewhere?
Taa: She doesn’t go to school, she just love to cook, like I said, from her mom, from her family …
Note: When we originally asked Dit whether she would be available for an interview, she asked us whether she and her husband could do the interview together as she felt insecure about her English. Dit was therefore more comfortable with Taa answering for her or both of them.
Dit: From my friends. We ask them the recipe, how to do this, to do that.
Taa: And now youtube, right? (laughs)
Dit: (laughs) Oh youtube! I mostly learn from youtube, too.
What kind of food do you like to cook the most?
Dit: I’m not that good in Lao cuisine. Because Lao food has really strong taste. Lao people they eat differently. They eat like spicy things, spicy salad, grilled chicken, so many herbs.
Taa: She likes Thai more. And like modern Asian food. But we try to modernise it, westernise it. My taste is different, I like modern food. Modern American Chinese food, for example, is totally different from traditional Chinese food.
Sounds a little like “fusion“?
Dit: Yeah. That’s how we eat.
Many of your customers are foreigners, right?
Taa: Yeah, that’s why the food that we’re making right now is pretty much foreigners but we can cook for Lao, too. That’s how we planned it.
Can you tell us about some of the most interesting encounters which you have made since you opened the café?
Taa: Just pretty much the customer, right? You guys are probably our best interesting customers. You are so nice and so friendly. The majority in here, I think 80% of the customers, are foreigners. Only a few are Lao. And I think the reason is because of the word “Cafe”. Lao people always think it’s more western. Sometimes they don’t want to come in because they don’t know… It’s hard to attract them, to do marketing.
Also, many Lao people do not drink coffee at all, is that right?
Taa: No, there are only a few that they like the freshly grounded and brewed coffee like we sell it.
Dit: Mostly they buy from the food stand. They drink like strong coffee.
Do you like coffee yourselves?
Dit: Yes, I do like my own coffee because we pick the best for the customers and for our ourselves. Some of the cafés use really cheap coffee. I tasted it and I didn’t like it.
Taa: I drink coffee every day, every morning, at least one cup. The price is very reasonable, it’s not too expensive for other people. Some cafés sell their coffee for a very high price.
Dit: Same with food. We also cook for my family, our customers, our children, and ourselves. Whatever I sell here, we eat, too.
Note: Most cafés in Laos, from our ample experience, have served very aesthetic drinks. Latte Art is one way of upgrading the aesthetics of hot drinks which include milk foam being poured in a certain way in order to create a symbol, pattern, or design like the one you can see above and another one below.
What are your best-sellers?
Taa: It depends on the customer. Most expats order the crispy chicken or salmon salad. And we can sell pork belly, sweet and salty.
Dit: The lemon crispy chicken is the most selling. And also the basil stir-fried with chicken, pork, or seafood are good-selling and spaghetti basil. It’s a good-selling one, too. With Thai basil. It tastes different. Mostly, anything with basil. People loves it here. When they come in, first thing they gonna look: Basil stir fried chicken, seafood, pork. That’s how they order.
In Europe we usually use a different kind of basil, the Italian one.
Dit: Oh, if you could use the sweet one, the Italian basil, better. I love that basil so much! But over here, it’s hard to find and it’s expensive.
What are your best-selling drinks?
Taa: We serve one of the best espresso and americano in town. And our green tea latte frappé is really good. We use a premium Lao coffee. Our smoothies are also really good, we use fresh mango, dragon fruit, banana, coconut. They are bestsellers, too. We don’t use powder.
Dit: Our coffee is good because we use the freshly roasted coffee bean. When we order it, they make it fresh for us. We don’t keep our coffee beans for a year, within two weeks we sell it out. Also, we use real green tea matcha from Japan.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
Taa: It’s the customers, the customers make us, make her, want to do it every day. She gets energy to work by waiting for you guys. Once she thought maybe you guys already go home.
Dit: I love talking to people, that’s how I like my job the most. I love to see people enjoy my food. To me, I just feel like, any customer when they walk in, I always welcome them and want to make them happy. I want them to feel free to come in, feel welcome and do their own thing. I love to see customers sit here all day. That’s how I’m happy. I always think: “Ooh, yeah, sit down here.”
What is special about your café?
Dit: I keep on changing a lot. When I look at customer and when they don’t finish this think: “I’m going to change it.” I keep on changing, every customer. Some people think: “If ten people don’t eat, I change.” But for me, one person don’t eat, I change it.
Taa: If something left over she doesn’t like it. “Is my food bad?” (everyone laughs) Also, we do everything by our heart, it’s all about our customers. Like “make your own home”, very casual. We have free WiFi. Some people ask “‘why do you offer it for free?” I mean, we could charge them, but why? We don’t want strict rules, we just want our customers to enjoy themselves.
Where do you see yourselves in 5 years?
Taa: 5 years from now, all will be well if I am of good health, my family, too, and I want my kid in a good school for the next five years, probably send her overseas if possible. The rest, to me, is all about family and work. Taking good care of my family is all I would like to do. I do not set goals for my next 5 years, only for my kids.
What about the café? Where do you see the café in 5 years?
Dit: Ha! In 5 years I want to open a second location. That’s how I planned it, too. But I’m going to change a lot. I might update to something more interesting. Like maybe upgrade the food, dessert, bakery. That’s how I’ve been planning and I might do different presentation, too – everything! Different style but still under Amelia’s name. I’m just planning. If I can do this one going well and then in five years, I can open another one.
Taa: Something unique. Sure, yes, that is on my mind as well.
When we met for the interview with Dit and Taa, our time in Laos had almost come to its end. We were quite sad about having to leave soon. Besides saying goodbye to each other, to our tandem-partners, and to other people who had become dear to us, we also had to say goodbye to our favourite café including its owners. We had spent hours and hours here, working, drinking, eating, chatting with Dit, laughing. Dit always welcomed our feedback and repeatedly specifically asked for it regarding food and drink recipes, opening hours, advertisement, menu choices, and much else.
We wish Dit and Taa and their family all the best and hope to be able to return very soon. Furthermore, we highly recommend to all future teams or other people travelling to Laos to visit the Amelia Cafe. If you do, please say “hello” to Dit, Taa, and their children from their German friends Phi Ha, Jacqui, Laura, and David (Team IX)! We miss them and the café dearly around Karlsruhe, Germany.
Text by P.H. Nguyen & Y.-J. Dyck,
inspired by the questions from the Bacan café post by A. Schuler, J. Unterweger & M. Frahm,
editor’s notes by I. Martin
Interviewees: Dit & Taa Patthana
Photos by L. Jakob, P.H. Nguyen, Y.-J. Dyck, D. Trendl & D. Patthana
1 Editor’s note: It has been breath-taking to witness this change over the last 5 years. When I first travelled to Laos in October 2015 with Team I, there were no western-style cafés in the capital because there were almost no tourists. Coffee was bought by the side of the street, freshly brewed, very sweet, very strong – absolutely delicious – for 5.000 KIP (ca. 45 cents). In the winter of 2015/16, we turned our heads when we saw another white face during our weekend outings to the capital.
2-3 years ago, globalisation reached Laos and the first Western shops opened in Vientiane, i.e. Adidas, Walkman Village, also Amazon Café. Team V was the first team to use a western café near the LGTC as their “home-office” (good wifi, air-conditioned, quiet, comfortable chairs, Americano coffee [more expensive already], not many customers).
Last year, I sighted the first fast-food-restaurant. Also, pizzerias and smoothie-sandwich-shops had proliferated. They cater for tourists. The latest addition was a German bakery.
2 We quoted Dit and Taa verbatim as often as possible. Sometimes we summarised responses which referred to the same topic to improve readability. In some cases we rearranged syntax and grammar in order to improve comprehension.
3 Editor’s note (published first in the post on Bacan Café by A. Schuler, J. Unterweger & M. Frahm): “The common usage of the word developed implies that there is a gold-standard for ‘development’ overall, with a desirable (refined, superior) state of development at one end of the scale and an undesirable (‘raw’, unrefined, primitive, inferior) one at the other. The binary of ‘developed countries’ and ‘undeveloped’ or ‘underdeveloped countries’ is a value statement rooted in eurocentricism and colonialism; the criteria by which a country is deemed developed are chosen by those who deem themselves to be developed.”
Asia News Network (28 May 2019). “Lao Entrepreneurship Day boosts future business prospects”. https://annx.asianews.network/content/lao-entrepreneurship-day-boosts-future-business-prospects-97406 (last accessed on 4 May 2020).
Hunt, Portia (2016). “The Ecosystem for Women’s Entrepreneurship in Lao PDR: Networks, Assosications, and Other Activities and Services That Support Women Entrepreneurs in Lao PDR”. United States Agency for International Development (USAID). https://www.researchgate.net/publication/301498066_The_Ecosystem_for_Women%27s_Entrepreneurship_in_Lao_PDR (last accessed on 4 May 2020).
Maeda, Masataka (11 July 2014). “Dreams of wealth and entrepreneurship in Laos”. Asian Review. https://asia.nikkei.com/Economy/Dreams-of-wealth-and-entrepreneurship-in-Laos (last accessed on 4 May 2020).
Nations Encyclopedia (2020). “Laos – Agriculture“. https://www.nationsencyclopedia.com/economies/Asia-and-the-Pacific/Laos-AGRICULTURE.html (last accessed on 12 June 2020).