The guidebooks don’t want to say Vientiane isn’t interesting. Words like “incongruous” and “laid-back” lead the summaries of South-East Asia’s smallest capital. But I think that’s what they’re getting at.
To us, Vientiane seems neither one thing nor the other. You couldn’t imagine the swarms of scooters that terrorise other Asian capitals buzzing down its neat French-designed boulevards. While (as in Luang Prabang) there are some great cafes and bakeries, the gastronomic options spoiling Bangkok, Singapore and Hanoi residents are nowhere to be seen either. Kaili and I visit a half-hearted night market: I can’t even see trousers with elephants on for sale! We pass the dribble of BBQ stalls on our way back to last night’s Vietnamese place.
As in other parts of Laos, signs abound boasting of foreign investment. Chinese dams, Korean vehicles, Japanese public buildings. The effect is a patchwork that makes it difficult to understand the country we are in. Sure it’s laid-back and incongruous, but isn’t there anything else?
The COPE Visitor Centre does provide some answers. It reminds us that Laos remains the most bombed country on Earth. The exhibition details COPE’s campaign to clear the countryside of the unexploded bombs that were dropped by the US with so many others that did explode during last century’s Secret War. It also profiles many villagers working on the land who have inadvertently provoked an explosion. COPE’s prosthetic limbs help them to live a better life.
It’s great work, although much of the prosthetics (according to a note buried in the exhibits towards the end of the tour) actually serve victims of road accidents. A more balanced introduction featuring more twisted motorbikes and fewer bomb encasings may have been farer.
But I’ll leave it to the Victory Gate at the end of Lane Xang Avenue, surrounded by a China-funded park, to sum up the…well…I give up: the incongruity. An awkward concrete crown seems too big for the squat arch it adorns. Modelled on the Arc de Triomphe, it has come out as one of those tacky replicas you might find in a Parisian souvenir stall. Maybe if you turned it upside down, confetti would fall on it. There’s more: the concrete was donated by the US, but intended for a runway. If you don’t trust this nonplussed blogger, consider instead the Laos Tourist Board’s own plaque on the underside of the arch: