That’s what everyone said about Vientiane, Laos.
And by “everyone,” I include the Rough Guide to Southeast Asia.
But I still wanted to go. One of my close friends and former roommates, Vatsady, is Lao, and I’d heard so much about Laos over the years and enjoyed so much of Vatsady’s pho that I couldn’t pass up a chance to go. I didn’t particularly want to take a 24-hour bus ride there from Hanoi, which was why I was flying. (If I’d done more research I might have discovered that Luang Prabang—a town with a much better reputation among backpackers than Vientiane–has an airport as well. Let that be a lesson to you: research, research, research!)
I had asked Vats to see if her aunt, who lives in Vientiane, might be available to have lunch or dinner with me while I was there, and Vats had replied asking for the details of my stay. I had sent her the dates I would be in the city and my flight info but I didn’t hear back, and, being me, I was too distracted by all the sights and sounds of Vietnam to remember too follow up.
In fact, I was so bad at planning that even though I had read that I would need photos of myself and U.S. dollars to get a Lao visa at the airport, I didn’t have either one with me when I stepped off the plane. I approached the visa counter with trepidation, but figured that I couldn’t be the only idiot to arrive unprepared. They had to have some sort of work around, right? Right?
The work around turned out to be having a guard escort me out of the secure area and bring me down to the main concourse, where there was an ATM and a currency exchange counter. I handed the guy behind the counter piles of Vietnamese dong to change into dollars. He ignored it and informed me coolly that he only accepted Lao kip. I couldn’t believe that a money changer in an airport in a country adjoining Vietnam would refuse dong, but given the fact that I had an actual guard guarding me, I decided not to debate the point. I went to the ATM, took out Lao currency, and handed it back to be transformed into US dollars. (Again: why the hell do they require US dollars in Laos?!) Anyway, in the end I got my visa, but it was a long process. A long process made even longer because after I had finished I went to the ladies room, changed my dong at a different counter that wasn’t so snobby, and chatted with some Australians (they made my week by asking which country I was from, and when I told them, they turned to each other and said, “We both lost!” I asked where they had guessed I was from and they said “various European countries.” And I was wearing sweats and sneakers! Clearly, my light cannot be hidden under a bushel.)
Anyway, the point of all this is that when I walked away from the Aussies, having just wondered aloud where I could find a tuk-tuk to my hostel, I was totally shocked to see a very pretty, elegantly dressed woman holding a sign with my name on it.
Actually, my first thought was that perhaps the hostel had sent her. (I was picked up at the airport in Hoi An by someone from my hotel.) But, as you have doubtless already deduced, it was Vatsady’s aunt. Not only had the poor woman come all the way to the airport to get me, she had waited for an eternity for me. I felt so bad!
She was very cheerful and sweet about the whole thing—much like Vats—and immediately brought me out to her car. She apologized for her limited English, and I assured her that I was very impressed that she spoke as much as she did. She drove me through Vientiane, which was much prettier than I had expected given the reviews. Sure, it didn’t look like a city, but it looked like an expensive suburb. (An expensive suburb with lots of Buddhist temples.)
Sone (Vatsady’s aunt) took me to a nice, sunny restaurant with two floors and a room devoted to a very elegant buffet. I recognized a lot of the food but there were some things that I had never, ever seen before, like the desserts, which seemed to be some sort of jell-o/fruit combo. She offered me some papaya salad—an iconic Lao dish–but I told her regretfully that I really can’t eat anything that spicy. While I was eating she stood up and walked away—I thought to the bathroom—but when it was time to go she informed me that she had already paid the tab! I protested, saying she had already done so much for me, but she replied that if she ever comes to Boston, I can treat her. I assured her that I would, but given the unlikelihood of that ever happening, I resolved to send her a thank-you gift.
After lunch Sone took me to her office. She runs the Lao lottery. It was interesting going to an office where everyone leaves their shoes at the front door. Most of her employees sit in an open space on the ground floor (that is not air conditioned—poor bastards!) Her office is upstairs and nice and cool. She let me use a computer on another desk to check my email while she worked. Her work seemed to involve processing lots of cash—perhaps from individual lottery ticket purchases? It was a Friday, and Friday nights they have the live drawing of the winner’s name, so she couldn’t have dinner with me, but she did agree to meet me at my hostel at 5:00pm to take me to see the sun set over the Mekong. In the meantime, she called a taxi to take me to a local tourist attraction—a park full of Buddha statues. It sounded kitschy but I was willing to try. But when she told me that the cab driver wanted $20 to go there I said forget it—I’ll just check into my hostel and nap.
Which is exactly what I did.
While I was waiting for her to show up I saw a familiar red beard appear at the front door. Ludo, was supposed to be in Luang Prabang, had evidently been put on the bus to Vientiane instead. He was as grouchy as you’d expect someone who had just spent 24 hours on a bus to the wrong destination to be, but I was still happy to see him.
At 5:00 Sone came to pick me up and we drove around the block to the Mekong. Many people were already strolling along the banks. The river looks completely different from the way it looks in the Delta; in Vientiane, at least when I was there, the riverbed is very, very wide, but the river itself was much narrower. Because the water was so low we were actually strolling quite a ways from the water itself; many people left the concrete walkway to run down to the water, but we stayed on the prescribed path.
After we watched the sun set for a while we strolled through the stalls that were closer to the street. I was impressed at how fashionable the clothes that the offered were; all the stalls in Thailand seem to sell the same cheap clothes. Vatsady’s aunt bought some shorts for her daughter. I asked what happened if they were the wrong size. She replied that she could exchange them.
Sone asked me if I wanted to join her on a business trip she was taking for the weekend to southern Laos. I asked how much it would cost and she said about $200 for the plane ticket—way over my budget. I expressed my regret and she said that if I wasn’t going to come with her, I should probably go to Vang Vieng. If even she thought Vientiane was too boring, I decided to take her word for it. I would take the morning bus to Vang Vieng, a small town famous among backpackers because you can go tubing down the river—and stop at multiple bars to drink along the way. (Sounds like me, right? But I had heard a lot about Laos’ natural beauty, and I wasn’t going to see much of it in Vientiane, so I decided to go for it.)
When Sone headed off to supervise the lottery drawing I went back to the hostel to see if I could find some people to eat dinner with. As luck would have it, I struck up an immediate conversation with a French guy named David who was smoking on the stoop. I soon met all his friends, Thibaut (a law student studying in India), Veronique (a nurse’s aide of African descent), and a few others whose names have since slipped my mind. We ended up going around the block to a place that reminded me a lot of the garage-style Vietnamese restaurants—except instead of kindergarten-sized plastic furniture, it was adult-sized plastic furniture. There was also an animal nailed to the wall that we could not identify—it was brown and very furry, including the fluffy tail. One of the French people suggested it might be a raccoon. I assured them it was not!
After we ordered (I got some sort of noodle soup) the Lao men from the adjoining table tried to engage us in conversation. Then one of them came over, stood next to Veronique and posed for a photo, complete with fingers in a peace sign. This soon became a trend. Veronique looked uncomfortable—I felt uncomfortable for her! They were posing with her as though she were a mountain or a statue. I told her that she didn’t have to let them, but she said it was ok. Fortunately the ordeal didn’t last long.
Over dinner they began asking me about guns in the United States. They told me that they didn’t understand our gun culture and I said that I couldn’t understand it either. Then they asked me if I had a gun. I couldn’t believe they were asking me that after what I had just said. So I replied, “Of course! I never go anywhere without at least one or two.” I gestured towards my purse. “Want to see?” Most of them eagerly leaned in closer, but David said, “Oh—I thought you were kidding!” And I said, “Of course I’m kidding!” The whole exchange depressed me a little; it showed that no matter what I said, stereotypes were stronger. (I mean, did they really think I had crossed half a dozen international borders with a purse full of guns?! Sheesh.)
I was really exhausted from all the traveling I had done, but it’s hard to go to bed when people are urging you to stay up. Thibaut in particular (who’s an absolutely hilarious guy) would not let me go to sleep. It was also hard to leave such interesting conversations–though it became tricky when people who could not speak French tried to join in. One very loquacious South African guy went on at length about how excited he was to be in a place where race was not so important—and Veronique and the other French girl looked totally, totally lost the whole time. Which was a shame, because what he was saying was really interesting; he said his father was actually tried by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission for his role in the 1976 death of 13-year-old Hector Pieterson (this is an infamous story in South Africa–I have been to the Hector Pieterson Museum in Soweto), and since his own last name is notorious, he (the son) cheerfully apologizes to people every day for the sins of his father. He was one of the most upbeat people I have ever met, actually. But very hard to understand if you didn’t really speak English to begin with, so the French people were very confused! Since I was so tired and the South African guy did not seem like he was going to give me an out any time soon, I was finally forced to sneak away without saying goodnight—and was very mad at myself in the morning when I realized that they were gone and I didn’t have their contact info. I especially liked Thibaut and David, and would have liked to stay in touch.
A two-hour bus ride later, I found myself in Vang Vieng. The mountains alone were worth the trip—they framed the small town beautifully. A free songthaew from the bus stop brought everyone to a hotel that I suspected was the most expensive place in town. I was about to grab my backpack and start looking for a cheaper place when my nose started to bleed.
When I was younger I got nose bleeds all the time—from stress, dry heat, you name it. I don’t get them so much anymore, but I am still so used to them that they don’t faze me at all. This hotel had an outdoor table and chairs, so I sat down with some Kleenex I had with me and prepared to wait it out. They usually only last a few minutes, so I figured I’d be up in no time.
After a few minutes a middle-aged white woman came out of the hotel with some gauze. She explained to me in heavily accented English that I should put it up my nose and pinch the bridge. I told her that I could speak French (it was becoming clear to me that almost everyone in Laos is French) and asked if she were a nurse. She said yes. In all my years of nosebleeds no medical professional had ever told me to stuff anything into my nose, but I figured it was worth a try. The nurse told me that I was probably exhausted and needed to get some more rest. I mentally shook my fist at Thibaut.
At about this point she went back into the hotel and one of the hotel employees came out, took one look at the blood on my face and hands, blanched, and begged me to go to the hospital. I assured him that I didn’t need to go but he kept saying, “It’s only five minutes away!” I told him not to worry—it would stop any minute.
But it didn’t. The nurse came out a second time and was surprised to see that it was not clotting. She said that if it didn’t stop soon I may indeed have to go to the hospital for them to give me “an injection.” I had read about hygiene in Southeast Asian hospitals and I silently decided that unless I were fainting from blood loss, I was not going to the hospital. It didn’t help that the nervous hotel employee came out a second time urging me to go to the ER!
After about an hour of this the bleeding seemed to be reaching an end. I gave up any idea of moving and decided to stay in the hotel, since they had put up with me scaring away other customers for so long. The man at the front desk told me, “I will put you near the nurse.” My room was pricey for Vang Vieng ($10!) but the high cost came with one major perk: HBO. Since the nurse had told me to rest, I spent the next two hours in bed watching “Two Weeks’ Notice.”
After that, feeling both sufficiently rested and starving, I went out in search of food. Everything in Vang Vieng was, unsurprisingly, geared towards tourists. All the restaurants were open air, and most of them had miniature beds instead of seats. I walked until I found the river and had some chicken fried rice with a view.
By this time the sun was nearly setting, so I headed down to the river, crossed a narrow bridge, and walked along the bank. When I reached the end of the path I found myself chatting with a middle-aged man who was also standing there. Of course, he was French. Philippe was from Paris, and celebrating his retirement. His wife of 40 years did not enjoy traveling as much as he did, so she was going to join him in Vietnam for two weeks of his three months in Southeast Asia. Since we were both alone and we both wanted to do something fun the next day, we decided to look into tours together. We found a place that offered both caves and tubing. When I heard the price I did some math and thought it seemed reasonable. But it turned out my math was wrong—I thought it was about $8 but it turned out to be $20! By the time I realized it Philippe had already paid, so it was too late to negotiate. (I can see how it seemed reasonable to him, having just come from Europe, but for someone who had spent $24 for a two-day trip to the Mekong Delta it was highway robbery.)
Philippe would have liked to go out to dinner but I needed to go straight to bed. We said goodbye and planned to meet the following morning for our tour.
The other people on our tour added some diversity by not being French, but French Canadian. They were three very young looking guys that I was surprised to learn were celebrating one of their 39th birthdays. (Strictly speaking, they weren’t on our tour—just sharing the same songthaew. They were going to fewer caves than we were, and kayaking instead of tubing. In my weakened state I was very glad not to have to paddle!)
After about half an hour the truck stopped and Philippe, our guide, and I hiked off towards the mountain through picturesque fields. We passed some cows, and a large calf approached me, clearly wanting to be petted. I hesitated, remembering the water buffalo in Hue, but I couldn’t resist, and fortunately, this one had no horns!
The mouth of the cave was down a short flight of rickety wooden stairs. Our guide gave each of us a head lamp and told us to watch our steps. After the cave in Halong Bay, this cave, with its low ceiling and lack of colorful lights wasn’t very impressive—but it was fun to turn our lights off when another group came in and then jump out and scare them!
The second cave was barely a cave at all, but it was interesting because it had been turned into a Buddhist temple, complete with large statue. The bell it used to call people to worship had been made from an unexploded American bomb—a sobering reminder of the horror we had unleashed on Laos during the Vietnam War. (Guidebooks still warn you not to stray off the beaten path, since there are so many unexploded mines.)
The third cave was the most interesting—a river ran through it, so you entered it on an inner tube and pulled yourself along using a system of overhead ropes. The water was absolutely freezing, though, so at first I found it difficult to pull myself along while balancing as far out of the water as possible. Eventually I gave up and froze. After a few hundred meters the water became too shallow and you had to walk and carry your tube. Then it got deeper and you could float again. It was so long and so dark that I marveled at the bravery (idiocy?) of the people who had explored the cave.
After the caves we were rejoined by the French Canadians (whom I confess I found very difficult to understand—not because of their accents, but because they used so much unfamiliar slang). Then we piled back into the songthaew and went to the river for tubing. Philippe and I climbed into tubes and headed into the river. (Our guide followed in a kayak with our things, stuffed into waterproof bags.) Philippe and I soon found that we would be separated unless we held on to each other, so he hooked his legs over the edge of my tube so that we could talk while we floated.
He told me the story of his life. He had five children—four with his wife, and one he had fathered at age 20 with a thoroughly unsuitable girlfriend. She was so unsuitable that his daughter had nearly died when he had left her in his girlfriend’s care. More than forty years later, the memory still made him choke up. He obviously adored his wife and children and was really looking forward to celebrating his big wedding anniversary with all of them when he got home.
As we floated, we saw Lao people fishing with rods and underwater traps of some kind, and sawing off tree branches. We also saw lots of young Europeans floating by with beer cans, and then pulling over to run into the next riverside bar. Since we weren’t into that, it was a rather long experience (maybe three hours?) And it was just a little too cold—at least as far as I was concerned. By the end I was shivering and very glad to get out of the water and go change into some warm clothes.
We met up with the French Canadians for dinner, and were joined by more and more French speakers. We were also joined by an older American who as luck would have it has been teaching in China for almost ten years. I told him what I was planning to teach and he looked at me and said, “Unless your students are the top half of the top one percent of all students in China, there is no way they are going to understand that.” Which was a little discouraging. But he also gave me lots of helpful advice.
I was just thinking that it would be nice to go to bed early when who should show up but Thibaut! Once again he told me that I couldn’t leave—but this time I told him a French nurse had ordered me to get some rest. I took his email address and said I would get in touch so we could meet again in Singapore—which I am very ashamed and disappointed to say I totally forgot to do.
The next morning I caught a bus back to Vientiane, and booked an overnight train to Bangkok. At the station I met an American named Matt who is also teaching in China. He was with a young Chinese couple he had met on his travels and was helping since he spoke better English and they weren’t very experienced travelers. When we got to the border (just across the river) they were distressed to find that the woman was not allowed to continue, since apparently Chinese nationals need to get visas at the Friendship Bridge before boarding the train. For some reason the man was exempt. He boarded the train but was wracked with guilt. Finally he told us that he had to go find her and left. Matt, who had been planning to travel with both of them throughout Thailand, was distressed. But a few moments later the train started to move and the man reappeared, since he hadn’t been allowed to leave the moving train.
Unlike my glamorous train car in Vietnam, this train consisted of two seats under a bunk. At night the seats were transformed into a bed by the porters. The locals bought cheap food offered by vendors who appeared and disappeared very quickly at stops. Us foreigners got soaked by expensive menus offered as soon as we got onto the train by porters. I spent $10 on two meals—way too much for Lao and Thailand. Especially since the breakfast I had chosen turned out to be four cookies and a few pieces of fruit. But it was better than starving, which as far as I knew when I ordered was my other option.
I do wish I had had more time in Laos. As sleepy as it was, I would have liked to see more of Vientiane. Vang Vieng was very geared towards the young and perpetually inebriated, so it wasn’t really my cup of tea. Luang Prabang actually sounded the best of all the attractions to me, but it was too far to realistically go in the time that I had.