First Person

Shadowplay, 1975

Death hovered over Vientiane on the night Saigon fell, but I didn’t see it. In retrospect, April 30, 1975, should have been the day my generation began waking up, but it wasn’t.

I left Sydney for Luang Prabang early in 1975. I don’t remember the dates. There was a plane flight from Sydney to Singapore and then a train journey to Kuala Lumpur, Penang and Bangkok. The latter stop was only for a brief transfer to another train to the Lao border. All I remember of Bangkok is of men in an open workshop in a narrow street making coffins. After crossing the Mekong by boat I stayed at the Constellation in Vientiane.

My voyage was bookish and the Constellation was one of its objects. It was one of the romantic destinations of Asia, for those who found romance in tales of spies and bullet-dodging foreign correspondents. The bar was dim and mournful, littered with electric fans and papered with maps of Laos and Vietnam. There was a colourful tourist poster of a lake in Siberia, courtesy Aeroflot. There was a restaurant in a room at the back of the bar where I think I never ate. The bar served as money changer, mail box, hotel reception and grog dispenser. Upstairs were the rooms. Those on the left were disaster: small, airless and hot. On the right they had tiled floors, a toilet, and a shower with a tap marked hot that didn’t work. The rooms here were windowless but had walls that finished some distance below the ceiling to allow air to circulate. Nothing was private and if anyone in a room beside you decided to leave a light on through the night then your room was also lit up.

In this hot season of sorrow and approaching death I was impervious to the warning signs. Being an Australian traveller back then had its own innocence and stupidity. We came from somewhere that no one knew much about and we travelled with a sort of goodness; innocent travellers from a good land, for we hadn’t then had our past despoiled by the current historiographies of self-hate. My ignorance of the real meaning of events in neighbouring Vietnam was profound. I had been educated in stupidity and gratefully filled myself with lies and idiocy. We wanted the communists to win in South Vietnam and our wish was about to be granted. When it happened our minds changed tracks and turned to other objects to despoil.

At night, my room in the Constellation filled with running geckoes. Heat rose from the floor and fell from the ceiling, great slabs of hotness tumbled from the walls crushing me under their weight. I lay sleepless in the hot, noisy night. A fan swung its head from side to side at the foot of my narrow bed, lifting and rustling papers on the other empty single bed and then putting them down as it swung back then back again to lift and rustle the papers once more. The draft touched my body for a moment, cooling my sweat, then swung past me to search the room and so it swept back and forth.

The shower dripped erratically during the tropical night in this restless hotel. Lights were switched on and off. I bought a writing pad in that strange town emblazoned with a pen company slogan I had never seen before and which I then found very mysterious: “They came as a boon and a blessing to men, The Pickwick, The Owl and The Waverly Pen.” This was the world and the time John le Carré later used as his setting for The Honourable Schoolboy.

The flight from Vientiane to Luang Prabang was in an old Royal Air Lao Caravelle; an airline so murderous that, it was said, foreign diplomats had been ordered not to use it. At some point during the flight a hostess walked through the plane carrying an open white cardboard box of honey golden cakes. These were served to the crew, who sat about eating as we watched.

The Auberge Nah Khan was Lao style. In fact it was a wooden upper storey built over a concrete bricked base. The upper rooms were small, low ceilinged and hot. Small shuttered windows did not allow for much circulation of air. The downstairs rooms had thick walls and managed to be slightly cooler. A high wire fence surrounded the front of the hotel and in a small entrance courtyard were four concrete tables and stools with beach umbrellas. They gave off a cool garden feeling, sort of. Near the bottom of the stairs was a green scented tree that seemed to breathe in the night air and to breathe out perfumed puffs of fragrance. Small geckoes chased insects around the walls and occasionally called out in the night.

The small hotel stood in a busy street, and its inhabitants could sit in the garden watching the changing life outside and playing their own parts in the theatre inside. Beggars crawled, hobbled or limped in to kneel at their feet and put their hands together in prayer or supplication. The men selling their opium pipes sometimes almost queued up to show off their toys. The man with the snares patiently set up his trap and released it with a snap. Women with baskets of weaving came in and sat together and pulled out and spread out their work lovingly. An old woman, anxious to sell, leant forward and set swinging at an arc from her bosom her golden Buddha on his golden chain, tethered, for now, to her withered neck.

Boys from the street called in to look at the Western girls, to talk of their loves, to play, to sing as small children, practising film version kung fu, falling with regular thuds on their heads, and older sisters chased trouserless, dummy-sucking younger brothers.

In the noodle shop next door a pretty girl ladled out soup from the dirt and watched life passing by her family’s shop. Pay for your steaming bowl and her elder sister took out a wad of notes from under her dress and counted out the change. The boy waiter was seventeen and smart; from six in the morning till after midnight wiping down the greasy tables, carrying in the iced tea, running out for beer, playing in the drain with a stick, blocking and unblocking the black mess. He wore one of two shirts; his other trousers torn down the seam, he sat down patiently to mend them. He was too young yet even to eye the passing girls, and working every day he didn’t seem to have any friends.

The boy they called the hotel manager was very tall, very vain and had very bad teeth. He had decided to become manager on the day he found that manager had a better ring to it than receptionist. Le Receptionist sounded good but Mr Manager had a firmer, a solider sound to it. A little less French, a little more English. He put a sign on his door saying THE MANAGER. He was very new, for he was Vietnamese from Vientiane and only recently arrived, and he said, “On the plane coming here I hoped it would crash and I would die. The French say ‘A man without love is like the day without sun’. I am a man without love.”

The girl in the noodle shop’s name was Tip. The Manager said, “I think I shall marry Tip.” He spoke to her all day. Her played the guitar for her at night. He talked to her and about her. Then he decided he didn’t like her. “I have my reasons,” he said. He sat at his manager’s desk and with his manager’s pen spent hours writing his name. Then he would open his album and look at the photos he had of himself, all with his mouth closed. He sang many songs about love, “I’m just a poor lonely boy.” He thought he didn’t love anybody but perhaps he did.

The hotel ran itself. If the guests complained there was always someone else to blame. It was a cheap hotel. The guests were here today and doped in Kabul tomorrow. A disaster was a disaster and almost brought on tears but was quickly forgotten.

In this town, politics swirled mysteriously about, all of the time just slightly present and out of focus. The King lived here, his royal palace a walk away. At times black cars with curtained windows raced through the streets. They seemed curiosities, not serious. Luang Prabang may be the most beautiful city in South-East Asia.

Walking, I saw a film being projected in a narrow lane onto a small temporary screen. It was a Chinese propaganda film on tunnel warfare. I met a Pathet Lao soldier. Officer or ordinary soldier, intelligence mission or simply curious, I don’t know. He had a controlled air of authority. We drank a bottle of Mekong whiskey with many friendly toasts and later I wondered at the untrustworthiness of a smile. Probably, only a short time later when the communists took power, my companion would have calmly ordered a wandering innocent to prison or death. Below the surface of ordinary things were very bad things almost ready to break forth.

New year came on; Pimay it is called. The celebrations included much throwing of water and tearing of old shirts. Ordinary people, about to be toppled into a deadly whirlpool, laughed and smiled. An ex-policeman sold pipes and silverware on the streets. On parting he shook hands with a firm grip, his little French, his Lao greeting “sam-by-de”. He had a moustache and always wore a hat. At Pimay he shaved his moustache, got rid of his hat and dyed his hair.

At some point I went with the King to the Pak Ou caves. We all went in boats on the river. At Pak Ou there are caves filled with thousands of small images of Buddha. You climb up inside a hill to the very top of a narrow cave and there was a small pool of water or damp sandy soil. That day we played in the shallows, swam and raced in the deep waters. There must have been food and surely banana-leaf-wrapped packages of sticky rice. The King would die in a prison camp. It must have been one of his last happy memories.

For some reason I flew back to Vientiane and then travelled by road to return to Luang Prabang. The transport was a small van with a canvas-covered back section where we sat on wooden seats on either side. The tail gate was down and a spare wheel was strapped to it. Between the seats, and at our feet, was a heavy boat motor that was being sent to Luang Prabang. The road was the old Route Coloniale 13 built by the French. We lay in a hot village overnight. Before darkness we walked about. A very small snake writhed across the road. It looked dangerous and wild and furious in crossing our path: so small, so black, so lethal, so uncaged. There was a meal. The gong in the temple was sounded until late. Nothing disturbed our mosquito netting. I woke several times but was wakened at morning by a cock crowing just behind the thin woven wall.

I remember, I was imagining taking a shower, of ladling cold water from a barrel over myself, and planning what I would order to eat that night. Then we turned a corner on the mountain road. The truck went fast and faster and drove off the side of a steep bush-covered slope. The loose motor inside the van tumbled murderously about. I had started the day seated on the spare tyre but been dispossessed by a young woman and her baby. They died. We were all spread around the slope where we had been littered and had to pull ourselves upwards towards the road. The two Buddhist monks ignored us all and retired to a slight cave-like indentation at the side of the road as we others crawled about finding out if we were dead or alive. I think it rained a little. Some Meo tribesmen arrived out of nowhere to loot or aid us, I’m not sure which. One tribesman had my writing case, which held my passport and money and the souvenir photo of Marlene Dietrich she had handed me at the end of one of her concerts, tucked down the back of his costume. He held a rifle. It seemed wiser not to do the outraged-tourist number. Somehow transport arrived and we were taken down the mountain to Luang Prabang. Some went to hospital, a place of dirty beds and filthy toilets. Medicines and meals had to be procured outside in the town and brought to the patients. We others went home. My aching leg was only bruised and I was too stiff and sore to enjoy either shower or eating. I have always wondered what happened to the Dietrich photo.

Passport and travellers cheques could only be replaced in Vientiane and I needed to post a document that had to be photocopied. The only place I could think of with a working photocopier was at the USAID office. There a woman appeared from a back office to check me out. She had been in Canberra the week before. The only spook I have ever met turned out to look like someone’s grandmother.

For a while I stayed on in Luang Prabang. With money gone I worked a little for the Vietnamese man who owned the Nam Khan hotel. This was not a good idea. I woke people in the morning when they wanted to be called, told the cleaning girl which rooms to clean, hauled the one-legged kitchen boy off the table beside the bathroom window whenever a woman wanted to take a shower. The atmosphere was not so friendly.

The return to Vientiane was difficult. By now it must have been late April. Phnom Penh fell on April 17. I tried to leave by road but we were turned back because of reports that Lao communists had cut the highway ahead. Commercial flights were disrupted or overbooked. I found that exit was possible with the Royal Lao Air Force. On a blisteringly hot day I waited among the crowd in the open beside the tarmac. Somehow someone introduced me to an air force officer. He took absolutely no notice of me until the very moment when, crowding around the open back of a transport plane, he gave a curt sign that led to a hand being extended to help me aboard. On this seatless plane we sat on the floor, filling all the empty spaces with our bodies and bags. Airborne, that fat little thing sometimes seemed to lurch and slide sideways in the air on the flight back to Vientiane.

Le Carré’s Honourable Schoolboy stayed at the Constellation, but I didn’t see him. In the room next to mine this time was a mad American. He screamed about dollars and drink in a high-pitched squeal and lurched about the streets of the town with a shopping basket in his hand searching for ice. His wispy bearded face went into contortions as he fought out his hotel bill and squealingly reasoned that he couldn’t have drunk so many goddamned cups of coffee and it must have been her—his Lao girlfriend. He pulled out a tattered exercise book to show how many nights he had been staying and just how much he had been paying. At night he slept, when he wasn’t holding a monologue or being yelled at by his drunken American friend, with a light burning, and as we shared a common wall topped by empty space my room was always in a sort of dawning. Only sometimes did I wake to find darkness. Perhaps, like all of us in this hotel, he suffered from faulty wiring. At other times I woke thinking it was morning only to find that his fluorescent light had fooled me again.

On the night that Saigon fell, Vientiane was quiet and dark. In the almost deserted pastis-stained Bar du Mekong was an American. He was fiddling with the radio on the bar. He paused, his head on one side, and listened intently. “That’s China,” said the Vietnamese barman, explaining the martial music from Peking. He was searching for Voice of America or Radio Free Asia, “Not that there’s much of that left.” He was on his way to South America. “I was in logistics. Six years in Vietnam,” he told us. In Sydney I would have known all about the end of Vietnam, here I knew little until days later I tried to puzzle out reports in just-arrived copies of stale Le Mondes.

On May Day I followed, at the tail end, a demonstration around the streets. I think it was mainly bicycle-pedalling trishaw drivers. Of all the things to remember I recall treading around puddles of water and mud. In that dry season, unbearably hot before the monsoon, there must have been an overnight fall of rain. I was still there on May 9 when there were demonstrations in which shop signs in English and French were broken. I watched them smash signs saying Café de la Pagode and Patisserie. The word “Enter” was scratched from a shop doorway. I thought it had something to do with nationalism.

During these protests the crowds parted to allow a motorcade to get through on its way to the airport to meet the King. I believed that after the demonstrations kindly Pathet Lao visited the vandalised shops and gave the owners assurances that the government would pay all damage costs—God knows where I picked that up from. I had noted that the demonstrations were obviously tightly controlled but did not understand what this meant or see the real fear in front of me. When you are Left you are blind. I didn’t understand, then, that every cry from the demonstrators, every broken sign, was destroying a real person’s security and life. When I got to Paris I found the gangs of Leeds football thugs, then roaming the streets and Metro, more frightening.

After Saigon fell the exchange rate for dollars jumped from 1200 to 2000 kips and above. My travellers cheques were replaced and I was proud of having a passport issued in Vientiane, until I lost it in Oran. I had enough money for an Aeroflot ticket to Paris. The plane on the first part of the journey hobbled into Leningrad, from where I was expelled shortly thereafter for doing the complaining tourist thing and complaining loudly that I wasn’t being allowed to visit the city, as I had been promised in Vientiane. Instead of leaving me to fume for the next nine hours until my scheduled flight, heavies flung me aboard a jet for France. It was a comfortable plane full of Huma-reading Parisians and we were served caviar and wines as soon as we were in the clouds. It was all very pleasant.

Late that afternoon I was in Notre Dame for an organ recital. Outside the cathedral were two boys with long black hair in dark blue suits wearing dark caps with peaks, like Dutch boatmen. Between them was a hunchback on crutches also wearing dark blue and a large beret that hid most of his face. With his guardian angels he seemed like a gargoyle come down for a Sunday stroll.

Michael Connor is the editor of Quadrant Online

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