Vientiane: the city out of place

In Laos’ remarkably mellow capital it becomes possible to day dream of a simpler past.

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South-East Asia is changing at an astonishing pace. Travelling in China’s slipstream the region has experienced similarly breakneck economic growth. That in turn is pulling people into urban areas at an equally astonishing pace. They’ve not really had time to adapt. As a result South-East Asian cities tend to be crowded, chaotic and noisy.*

So to find a city, let alone a capital city, as relaxed as Vientiane is pretty remarkable. Indeed, it feels less like an Asian city than a modest provincial town in the south of France. It has the requisite hot weather, gentle traffic and with around two hundred thousand people it’s about the right size.But more than that it’s the architecture, the excellent selection of bakeries and brasseries and the fact that most public buildings still have signs written in French.

It is not an exact replica of course. Rather than Catholic Churches, there are some extraordinary Buddhist Temples. And the locals have a decidedly un-Gallic enthusiasm for speaking English. However, overall the preservation is remarkably pristine. The croissants that come out of those bakeries would make any baker from Bordeaux proud. Vientiane thus gives the impression of being more European than Asian despite being located just an hour’s drive from the Thai border.

The reasons for this are routed in a history of French colonialism but that’s not in itself a sufficient explanation. All of what used to be called Indochina (Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam). Yet hardly anywhere is that influence as apparent today as it is in Vientiane. Indeed, my neighbourhood in Hanoi appears more influenced by South Korea than France. The difference is I suspect down to tourism. For backpackers there’s a novelty to finding the Mediterranean on the Mekong, for expats it’s a balm for homesickness and the new middle-class of Asia it is a chance to indulge retro fantasies of an ancien regime.** There are thus good financial reasons to keep the town feeling French.

For me, what Vientiane did was allow for a rather different fantasy. I had arrived in the city from Cambodia where’d I’d visited a number of sites linked with the horrors perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge. These crimes were the apogee of the suffering that the people of Indochina endured during the twentieth century. But in Vientiane all that darkness seemed implausible. Instead, it seemed more realistic to imagine that France and its colony had drifted apart much as Britain and Australia had done. And a result there had been no wars for national liberation, no civil wars between communists and anti-communists, no American military intervention, no botched collectivisation and no helter skelter liberalisation.

Even in Vientiane, that’s a total fantasy. It endured all those things and its people doubtless bear the scars of them. Yet somehow it exudes an ambience that’s so relaxed that it seems to deny the possibility of turmoil and instead indicates that its history must have been perfectly placid.

*There’s a flipside of course. One could equally describe them as bustling, exciting and vibrant.

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