I'm in Vientiane, a sleeping beauty just starting to wake up. I'm typing this at Spirit House, because it's quiet. Three tables away sit two middle-aged monks. Checking their smartphones, they're just chilling. Puffing a cigarette, one flashes his purple nipple episodically.
In his cage, a crested bird whistles, while others, flying freely, chirp. The Mekong is within sight but barely trickling. There are too many dams upriver, most of them Chinese. With its hand on the spigot, China has much of Southeast Asia by its yellow balls. It's always soothing to watch the red sun set, right from here.
After spending a week at the Davika Hotel, in a windowless room costing $20 a night, a bit too much for my taste and welfare, I'm now contentedly tucked into the alarmingly named Mixok.
My barred window looks into a narrow and pleasantly noisy alley. This is the tropics, man, where men, birds and/or insects are supposed to generate an unceasing cacophony. Within shouting distance, there's the Lao Poet Hotel, but that costs $90 a night, and at the far end, there's La Cage du Coq. It's not a whorehouse, cockfight club or mixed martial arts gym, but merely a French restaurant, where entrees hover around nine bucks. No, thanks.
Traveling alone, I'm accompanied by a French corpse. Montbe'liard-born Henri Mouhot (1826-1861) wrote wonderfully in English, "It is only in the solitude and depth of the woods that one can fully admire and enter into the sort of harmony and concord which reigns in the songs of the various birds, forming such a pleasing kind of symphony that the voice of one is rarely overpowered by that of another; one can enjoy at once the general effect and the melodious note of the particular winged musician we prefer. Scarcely does the sun begin to gild the tops of the trees, when, alert and gay, they commence their morning hymn. The martins, the warblers, the drongos, and the dominicans, respond to the turtle-doves' cooing in the highest branches. Music of a less dulcet nature is discoursed by the aquatic and rapacious tribes, such as cranes, herons, and kingfishers, who from time to time utter their piercing cries."
Before dawn, orange clad, barefoot monks in single files make their rounds to exchange chanted blessings for food. Waiting for them on sidewalks, the devout sit on straw mats or low stools. In front of them are woven baskets and aluminum or wooden bowls containing sticky rice, bananas, money and/or bottles of water. Lao and Thai monks are forbidden to eat after noon, so many down soft drinks all day long, resulting in more than a few turning into virtual Buddhas, in form if not spirit.
Also out are whores with verifiable snatches and ladyboys, trawling for drunk farangs. Seeing me wandering, a smiling beauty puts her hands together and stands on one foot.
I had wanted to come earlier, but flights from Saigon were indirect and surprisingly expensive, and there were no vans or buses from Ea Kly, where I also lived. This time, taking a bus from Da Nang to Savannakhet cost me just $17.30, but I almost didn't make it to the station.
The hired driver freaked when I spoke to him in Vietnamese, on the phone. Soon after hanging up, he texted, "I'm sorry, brother, but I don't drive Vietnamese or Viet Kieus. You should contact the travel agent for a refund."
At least he answered my call. "Brother," I pleaded, "I've already booked a hotel in Laos, and I've returned my room in Hoi An. I'm standing in the dark, with my bags. Not all Viet Kieus are the same, and you don't even know me. Just do me a favor, brother, and take me to Da Nang."
After fifteen minutes of haggling with him and the travel agent, the crank finally showed up, but only on the condition that he wouldn't charge me anything, just to show that this was never about money. He just hated his fellow Vietnamese, at least as customers.
With relief, I entered his car. As dawn paled, however, I got a closer look at this man's face and realized, with renewed anxiety, that we had met days earlier.
I had walked into his travel agency after seeing a board listing bus rides into Laos, "Brother, I have an American passport. Do I need a visa for Laos?"