Thursday, February 5, 2015

Vientiane: A Soul-less City?

"Vientiane is a city without a heart or soul"

Harsh words from someone I met at my hostel. Anna and I arrived in Vientiane Tuesday afternoon and spent the day wandering around the city. It was not the charming, European-esque, riverside capital city we had imagined. For starters, the Mekong was quiet dried up, so the "riverside" was about 100+ meters from the Riverside Promenade.

Anna left Wednesday for Myanmar for a 10-day Vipassana course, after which I will meet up with her in Yangon. In the meantime, I am headed to Vietnam! My stay here in Vientiane was a little extended due to waiting on my visa to arrive, which means I will have spent about 3 days here - about 2 days longer than what one should allocate if visitng Vientiane. 

Vientiane itself is not much of a destination but rather a transit point for those traveling in and out of Laos. It's not a pretty city and I left with the feeling that it was a place struggling to build a sense of cultural identity. I have spent my time here wandering the city, learning about Laotian cuisine, and taking the opportunity to catch up on correspondences and emails. These past 36 days have been go, go, go, and you don't realize until you're really alone with your thoughts how exhausting that can be (I'm sure Anna will have more to speak to this after her Vipassana!). I am grateful for this opportunity to slow down, but in a place like Vientiane, I am getting a bit stir-crazy.

The most interesting thing I have experienced here was the COPE Rehabilitation Center (www.copelaos.org). COPE stands for Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise. Founded in 1997, COPE opened a visitor center in 2008 that aims to increase awareness about disability and highlight the work being done to bring quality care to those with disabilities.

For many of my generation, the Vietnam War (or "American War" as it is known here) is an event of the past, something we've read about in school or seen in movies. Another misconception is that the war affected only Vietnam, but here in Laos the effects of the war are still very real. The map below was made from US Air Force data. Each red dot represents a bombing mission. The number of bombs varied, but over 580,000 US bombing missions were carried out over Laos.

The most terrifying thing? Many of the bombs remain unexploded. While there are efforts around the country to detect and detonate unexploded cluster bombs, this is an issue that affects the lives of the people of Laos everyday.
Some facts below:

So while I wouldn't recommend vientiane as a destination, there is much to learn here. For now, it is time for me to move on and say goodbye to Laos. I'll soon be catching a 24-hour overnight bus to Hue, Vietnam. After a night in Hue I am headed to Hoi An, where I plan on spending a chunk of time before flying out of Hanoi to meet up again with Anna. I have heard stories about tourist transit scams in Vietnam, so fingers crossed this bus ride goes smoothly!

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