A travel tip for visitors to Laos
Vientiane, the capital of Laos, is a fading one-time French colonial outpost on a spot where a bend in the Mekong River makes room for a large tear-shaped island directly opposite the centre-ville, which runs only far enough back from the riverbank to allow a few commercial streets. The new bridge to Thailand is a short distance way. Thai-style wats and other temples, minor and major, are everywhere. Otherwise, barring the usual joint-venture hotels and such, the architecture is either Chinese-style shop-houses, many of them quite elderly, or French buildings remaining from the old days. The latter include the Presidential Palace, formerly called the Royal Palace, and large French villas, expropriated at Independence but left to ruin because no new use for them, or money to maintain them, could be found. They stand in overgrown lawns, their windows shuttered or punched out.
The most bizarre architectural remembrance of the French century is the Patuxai, or Victory Gate, a copy of the Arc de Triomphe but with enormous Buddhist spires on top. It sits at the end of the local equivalent of the Champs Elysées, which is shown on old postcards and such as being well paved but is now macadamized only with sticky red mud or a dusty crust of reddish dirt, depending on the season.
M and I found a room in a Russian-built hotel with a view of the river’s south channel, with the Thai shoreline in the distance. This was in July when the dry season was still playing itself out, though the monsoon rains of late afternoon and early evening brought temporary relief from the humidity while softening the rugged clay soil for tilling. So the water still being low, the bank was planted in corn, which was about chest-high despite not being well hoed. We saw no commercial or passenger traffic whatever on the river.
We strolled the length of the town, the river on our left, the commercial strip—with the inevitable massage parlour, mini-mart and open-air Chinese restaurant—on the right. More subtly so than the Patuxai, the buildings reveal the long war between opposing traditions that never quite reconciled but only declared a truce. There are ornate French grilles on windows that have never looked out on France but only on what their builders must have seen as the steady encroachment of native ideas. M, who has spent time in West Africa, said that the streetscape would fit perfectly into the Côte d’Ivoire. But the faces of course are Asian, except for the French faces, which are the same on both continents.
The hotel room had a strange old piece of wooden furniture about four feet high. The top third of it was a glass-fronted box with a decorative handle for opening the glazed door. It suggested a cabinet of curiosities or perhaps a place to exhibit a wreath made from the hair of a deceased loved one, or some other proof of lachrymose nineteenth-century sensibilities. In fact, it turned out to be the primitive forerunner of the mini-bar. This one bit of morbid charm aside, the room was true to its roots in the era lasting into the late 1980s when design and construction projects in Laos were undertaken routinely by experts from the Soviet Union. The Soviet way of doing things is also preserved in the system of vouchers, chits and receipts employed at every opportunity, such as in what should be the simple matter of getting breakfast in the auditorium-like dining hall ( “Performance from 0600 hrs”). Riverfront roosters had ensured that we were there in plenty of time.
While waiting for our connection to the desolate north, we found a tiny “antiques” shop called Indochine, a term now becoming current again, shucking off decades of negative connotation. No doubt, we thought, we’ll find the detritus of French colonialism there and thus benefit from a few minutes’ tactile understanding of the old empire. No, the shop was chock-a-block with broken picture frames and purported silver flatware made of aluminum. And there was a bin full of cigarette lighters: replicas, shall we say, of the sort purchased by uncountable numbers of American soldiers and marines during the Vietnam War. They were universally called Zippos, after the Zippo Manufacturing Company of Bradford, Pennsylvania. During General Douglas MacArthur’s occupation of Japan after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, zippo actually became the Japanese word for cigarette lighter, but the things were even more ubiquitous among the next generation of U.S. troops in Asia.
Such lighters were available at every PX (post exchange) at $1.80 apiece. Six million American military and naval personnel served in the former French Indochina during the Vietnam War. Many hundreds of thousands of them carried Zippos, which curb-side artists would engrave for them with regimental crests or, more commonly, with protest slogans, to be kept in one’s pocket, out of sight. The wording on these ranged from bellicosity to bravado to well-articulated fear. Examples include: “Give Me Your Hearts and Minds Or I Will Wreck Your Fucking Hut,” “Stolen From a Gook 5 11 67,” “35 Kills If You’re Recovering My Body Fuck You” and “When I Die I’ll Go to Heaven Because I’ve Spent My Time in Hell.” Inevitably, there were occasional outbreaks of complete nihilism as well, as with the Zippo that bears this sentiment: “Fuck Ho Chi Minh / Fuck Communism / Fuck Democracy / Fuck Uncle Ho / Fuck Uncle Sam / Fuck lbj / Fuck V.C. / Fuck Santa Clause [sic], Fuck You Too.”
I take these representative texts from Sherry Buchanan, an independent scholar who for her excellent book Vietnam Zippos: American Soldiers’ Engravings and Stories 1965—1973 (University of Chicago Press) has studied important U.S. collections of the genuine article. Which we could tell instantly the ones at Indochine were not, being made of the cheapest tin rather than steel and with the words stencilled not engraved.
Browsing in the shop, M and I could see the two apparent co-proprietors in the back room watching television cartoons, one on the sofa, the other on a straw mat on the floor. We had been there quite some time before one of the men bestirred himself to welcome us. He was Vietnamese, by ethnicity if not by nationality. His eyes were mournful. He was in his twenties and had some English, whereas his much older partner (they’re cousins, we discovered) spoke a little Russian.
And here lies the practical lesson we learned in Vientiane and took with us far upriver. Everyone in Laos seems to have a bit of a second language. With young people it’s English, with their parents it’s Russian, with their grandparents it’s French. “Listen,” I said to M, who had never been in the region before. “When it looks like we’re getting into trouble—and we will—I’ll grab the first kid I see and you find a grandmother quick.” I pass along this travel tip to you. It worked every time.