Six weeks in Vientiane.
Given that this was a mere sliver of my time in Laos, I was hesitant to form any particular attraction to the city. After all, I was only there for orientation and was to be shipped down south promptly after the program was over. So my suitcases remained unpacked in our guesthouse. I scavenged for whatever I needed on a daily basis and repacked everything every week or as soon as the overflow began to make the room look too cozy or lived-in. It was six weeks in limbo – working to settle in to this new country and culture while avoiding excessive affinity for the city itself.
In many ways, Vientiane was the perfect city to be living in limbo, itself the emblem of the rift between tradition and modernity Laos currently is struggling to reconcile. Partially, Vientiane still feels unexplored. Compared to South East Asian hotspots, there are fewer kitchy tourist shops and knick knacks at every corner. The number of native English speakers – while only a rough litmus for the level of tourist occupation of a city – is still fairly low. The city moves languidly and at its own pace; it will not be hurried along by Western conceptions of “time as money.”
Yet at the same time, Vientiane represents a breakneck pace of development in Laos in the last few decades. Soon after landing, I borrowed a copy of Another Quiet American from Will. In this travelogue, Brett Dakin reflects on his time in Vientiane, working for the National Tourism Authority through the Princeton-in-Aisa program. He captures the city vividly through his vignettes and as I read I exhausted the rest of my group by excitedly pointing out passages – “Look! We know this place! He’s writing about it in a book and we’ve seen it!” But alas, I cannot just end this blog here and refer you all to the book instead. For all of its familiarity on those pages, Vientiane has undergone a lot of changes since the turn of the century. Dakin’s dirt roads are now paved and the house he lived in and easily described is not easily picked out amongst the plenthora of cafes, restaurants, and guesthouses that now crowd that street. For the lack of native English speakers, falang are not uncommon and the night market caters to the need for souvenirs and bric-a-brac that is not met during the day. Even this little Communist country is not immune from the effects of globalization, reflected in both the political climate and the fact that one night I ate dinner in Vientiane at a Middle Eastern restaurant across from a Chinese temple and down the street from a Dairy Queen.
For all six weeks, I wondered how my next destination, Savannakhet, would differ from Vientiane. I was not short on other people’s interpretations, and from that cobbled together a Frankenstienian portrait of what Savan might be like. At our pre-departure orientation, a former ETA warned us that whiile Savannakhet is technically the second-biggest city in the country, it is by no means a city in the sense that we Westerners picture and feels much more like a large village. I attempted to add to my pastiche of the city with statements from expats I met in Vientiane. These depictions, however, varied greatly, and the reactions I got when I mentioned where I’d be living varied from “Oh, I’m so sorry, there’s no nightlife and not much to do” to “It’s a quiet but charming place, I think you’ll quite like it.” I soon quit this speculation and decided it best to go in with no expections and spend the rest of my time in Vientiane just enjoying where I was.
Because despite being hesitant to lay down roots, at the end of my six weeks, packing up took longer than expected. I had settled in to the space – both the city and my room – and there were far more goodbyes to be said than I had initially expected. We went out for drinks with a group of Lao-American and expat friends in farewell to me, Theresa, and Sam (a LUCE scholar working in Luang Prabang this year). I said goodbye to Koy (coffee lady) and the motherly owner of the pho restaurant where we got lunch at several times a week. It was only after I was upset at not being able to say bye to Gao (fruit shake lady artist) that I realized how much leaving Vientiane felt like leaving a home. Despite my mental reminders to stay aloof, it was impossible not to settle in and make the city feel like home. Just like the five weeks I spent in Japan have left me with a lifetime of warm and fuzzy feelings about Yanai and the country as a whole, orientation in Vientiane has left me forever attached to the city.
Through the kindness of most people I’ve met, it’s easy to find comfort, to make virtually anywhere feel like home. This thought supercedes any impressions of Savannakhet I’ve gotten from others. Currently, I’ve spent more time in Vientiane than Savan, but with each new relationship I forge – be it with a cafe owner or fellow teacher – it feels a little bit more like home. Sean joked that worst case, my time here would be my own personal Walden, a time to live a more simple, slow-paced life to devote to creative pursuits. This might be true; I fittingly even live next to a huge pond. But just as Thoreau’s time at Walden pond was supplanted by weekly visits to his family home to hang out with his family and do laundry and eat fresh-baked donuts, I know I can find comfort and familiarity here in new friendships and friendly smiles.
Though I wouldn’t complain if I found a place with fresh-baked donuts too.