VIENTIANE, Laos—Well, I wanted the adventure of slow travel, and with the Vientiane and the bus ride to Hanoi, I got it.
It’s been a while since my last post. I apologize for that, but I’ve been writer’s blocked something fierce, and have only now started to get my head around the month I spent flitting around Southeast Asia. But now, I hope to get back to a more robust writing schedule.
After a couple of days in Luang Prabang, I hopped a bus to the Laotian capital of Vientiane. The bus ride was about as unexciting as you would expect a bus ride to be. There’s a reason no one writes poetry about bus terminals and the experience of third-world bus rides. They’re both taxing and banal, but with little to note throughout. Yes, it’s bumpy, it’s dusty and the air conditioner is usually set at the “arctic” setting. The seats never lean back properly, and in Asia, they’re not really made to accommodate the hulking frames of Western backpackers. (I’m not that big, and even I was cramped.)
So, after 10 or so hours on the road, we pulled into sleepy—there’s really no other way to describe it—Vientiane, the capital of Lao PDR.
Like the rest of Lao, Vientiane moves at its own pace, which is to say slowly. It’s got to be one of the most laid-back, casual capital cities in the world. It would barely rate a small neighborhood in Bangkok, and feels sedate compared even to Chiang Mai. The highlight of the place, given I spent only enough time there to get a Vietnamese visa, is its lovely riverside park, which offers stunning sunsets and a stone’s-throw view of Thailand, and its French cafes. There are a lot of these, and they’re mostly pretty good.
The one thing that does seem to move quickly is the visa process for Vietnam. My guesthouse handled the necessaries, and I had it back the next day. The owner, a greedy little man whose name I never learned, scolded me and said that if I had gotten to him before noon, he could have had the visa for the same day.
I wanted to like Laos, I really did. It is a beautiful place, thanks, in part, to an almost non-existent economy, and the people are cheerful and helpful. The women charmingly avert their eyes when they see a foreigner, reflecting the conservatism of the place. This is a marked contrast to the open flirtation you see in Thailand and the brusque business attitude in Vietnam. But I’m a city boy. I get a charge out of the energy of a place, and when there’s no spark, I get bored. So while Laos was lovely, I found it unbearably dull. Temples and a slow riverine life just don’t do enough for me, and that lack of buzz was the main reason I ended up leaving as quickly as I did.
I wasn’t even very inspired to take photos:
So, it was with some excitement that I boarded a bus to Hanoi, a city that had seized my imagination since I was kid, growing up following the news and reading up on the Vietnam War. Little did I know what was in store for me with that bus ride—and the city that lay at the end.