Our trips to Vientiane were always quick. They seemed to have been mainly business…and therefore mandatory…and any time spent in the city was spent on foot. Thai immigration always gave us a fit and never gave us much time to leave Thailand, where Peg and I taught English. It would have been easier for us had our employers in Bangkok…Thamasat University and the English America Association…would’ve acknowledged to the government that we were working for them. This fact was interesting because they told Peg that she had a knack for teaching and was one of the best English teachers they ever had. This fact was also unsettling and time consuming; it meant a long bus ride to Thai-Laos border: we did this nine times. Many times we’d cross the Mekong, get our visas renewed, and head straight home. When we had more time and our obligations allowed it, we would eat and sleep in Vientiane. And so it happened that there was war going on, and this was not the quiet and relaxing “village-capital” you’d find today. Though if you could ignore the dust and hustle of war, you could walk around Vientiane in those days without any bother and, of course, eat. Vientiane was the place for French food and for running into French people. (Yes, still then.) Other Americas were generally too busy and secretive for us.
Memories only fade. The Champs Elysees of the East, a long, wide boulevard, with a concrete mockup of an unfinished Arc de Triomphe, didn’t have the shops, or buildings even, that you might’ve expected. Memory can have holes in it, but it seems as if this main boulevard then was made out of dirt, and had just been laid out, but surely not. I do know that Vientiane in the days of “US imperialism” was dusty. This wasn’t Paris, not even Paris of the Orient. Wartime called for sandbags and machine guns on the outskirts. And it was inevitable that open trucks filled with men speeding somewhere would break the peace and disturb the birds. Hustle, and no where was that more true than in and around the huge American Embassy compound. (In contrast, the “red” Chinese had a house for their embassy.) It was what you might’ve expected, when we were at war, but in Vientiane you could still enjoy the city without the bustle and buses that clogged other capitals such as Bangkok or Manila. Your time there could be relaxing. You could sit and have a leisurely lunch or supper in an open-air café; it was one of things you did there. Eat and hear French. And walk around the morning market. Buy something if you had the money. By walking you could easily see Vientiane, with remnants of its colonial past.
It was unlikely that we saw everything; after all (again because of our jobs) we had to do our business and run. Our business, however, wasn’t secretive or, as for many other Americans there then, war related. Yes, the war was near, but we always felt safe. Thailand, after all, was just across the river. And soon it would be over for the US but just the beginning for the Laotians. (Now I’ve learned America has contributed to their war museum. Again I may have this all wrong.) Now, after purges and changes of events, peace has returned. Once again, I hear, Americans can freely walk around. Contact with native people was always friendly, though there were limits I’m sure, more due to language than anything else. And now you don’t have to rely on a ferry to cross the Mekong; now you can follow Freedom Bridge across. As when we were there, you can then wander around.