Life In Vientiane, Laos during the Vietnam War – Russian Spies, Hippies and The Third Eye.

Life In Vientiane, Laos during the Vietnam War  – Russian Spies, Hippies and The Third Eye.

Above Photo: Terry Wofford collects safe drinking water during the 1971 flooding in Vientiane (Robert L. Wofford, uwdc.library.wisc.edu) 

The below are some of the recollections of Terry Wofford, a British woman who arrived in Vientiane in 1968 during the Vietnam War, and who married an Air America pilot, Robert L Wofford, in Nong Khai, Thailand. Terry was interviewed by Peter Alan Lloyd as research for his novel BACK.

What made me go to Vientiane

I found an unusual guide book while I was working as a commercial artist in Hong Kong in 1967. It was called ‘the Golden Guide to South and East Asia‘. The following quote is from an early version of the guide.

“Lan Xang, Land of a Million Elephants, was founded in the thirteenth century..: Even today the Kingdom of Laos is preeminently a land of uncertainty and vagueness. For some foreigners who live there almost everything about Laos is farcical, for others the country is of strategic importance. Others again find it an excellent place in which to cast aside conventional restraints, to indulge a talent for cloak and dagger work and get rich quickly. A few even see it as a field to do good.”

“USAID wives in flowered dresses mingle on the streets with dark-suited diplomats, shady Corsican drug dealers, pilots with the CIA’s secret airline and international hippies. Yet behind this facade of newcomers and largely indifferent to it, the gayest, most charming and friendly of peoples goes its immemorial way, composing songs, worshiping Buddhas and making love.”

I had to go.   I  immediately applied for a visa at the French Embassy. It took ten day to be approved, and another ten months of working my way through Cambodia, Singapore, Malaysia & Thailand until I finally boarded the night train to Nong Khai and crossed the Mekong river to Laos.  

It was exactly as described.

Undiplomacy

On our first date, Bob was shocked when I asked about Air America’s connection to the CIA, which I had learned about in the guide book. (It was still very hush hush.) He wanted to know what kind of guide book published something like that, and I figured I’d blown it, and that he was now convinced I was a Russian spy…

Boatmen push their passengers past the North Vietnamese embassy in Nong Duang. 1971 [ADD FULL CREDIT INFO]

Boatmen push their passengers past the North Vietnamese embassy in Vientiane. 1971 (© Terry Wofford, uwdc.library.wisc.edu)

Everyone rubbed shoulders with everyone in Vientiane, except the Communist North Vietnamese and the Pathet Lao delegations. Their legations were heavily shuttered and guarded. The North Vietnamese Embassy was on Nong Duang just a few hundred yards from my home and suffered a grenade attack while we were there so we had a road block and the Lao army to contend with for weeks trying to get in and out.

North Vietnamese Embassy, Vientiane, 1969 (Terry Wofford)

North Vietnamese Embassy, Vientiane, 1969 (© Terry Wofford, uwdc.library.wisc.edu)

The Russians

Air America flight Information Officer Phil Newell and his wife Joanie had made social contact with a Russian general and high ranking diplomat with the Soviet Embassy and his wife – their first names were Vladimir & Galena, but I forget their last name.

I remember one dinner party a large group of us including Vladimir and Galena were dining at a large table in a private room at the Tan Dao Vien restaurant, which was a large establishment with excellent Chinese food.

We all got pretty tipsy on Russian vodka and the new French wine in cans, and ended up pelting each other with wet dish cloths. (Everyone agreed the world would be a better place if all diplomacy was conducted that way).  

Vladimir and Galena came to a party at our Nong Duang home, and wanted one of our dachshund puppies, but then found out they could not take it back to Russia.

Another time a group of us were invited to the Russian Revolutionary Celebrations at the Russian Ambassador’s residence in 1970. Then two hours before we were due to arrive, we got a message from the U.S Embassy that no Americans could attend. The Russians had abducted two American Generals in Turkey, taken them back to the Soviet Union and were refusing to release them.

After a few drinks, Phil Newell went to Vladimir’s residence and pounded loudly on the door yelling “Give us back our Generals, Give us back our Generals!”   Some years later, Joanie told me everyone in Vientiane was spying on everyone else. Obviously their friendship had been approved, or at least, not discouraged by the Embassy.

The Hippie Scene in Wartime Vientiane and The Third Eye Nightclub

Third Eye Nightclub, Vientiane (© Terry Wofford, uwdc.library.wisc.edu)

Third Eye Nightclub, Vientiane (© Terry Wofford, uwdc.library.wisc.edu)

Many of the international hippies had come overland from Europe. They preferred to be called “Travelers” not hippies, a term many found offensive.

The Third Eye was the only hippie-owned bar in town. Hippies worked at the Third Eye for $1.00 a day (500 kip) and all the hashish they wanted, usually sharing a Lao bamboo water pipe in the back. It was on Don Palang, or The Strip, or the “Street of a thousand Pleasures,” so named for the opium dens there.

Most of the other bars in Vientiane were girlie bars or brothels. The Third Eye was really the only place in town a “respectable” woman could go alone and feel comfortable. (Remember this was the 60’s and the morals of a woman alone in a bar anywhere were suspect).

I had a favorite side table near the stage (where I took the above photo) and I would sip free iced tea and listen to the live folk music at night after my class at the Lao American Society. The decor was cheap and affective. Cut-out Chinese parasoles were layered below colored lights on the ceiling and moved with the breeze creating a marvelous psychedelic affect.

Folk Singers at the Third Eye, Vientiane

Folk Singers at the Third Eye, Vientiane (© Terry Wofford)

Beautiful silk scarves were wrapped around bamboo fish traps as lamps. The food cooked in a ramshackle kitchen in the back was very good too. Hippies who were really broke could bunk in the rear.

Air Americans and USAID employees and their wives, Embassy types and others also frequented, (and usually got very drunk and would commandeer the long center table, much to the disgust of the travelers who felt that table was their “scene”) but they made their income from the bar drinks.

And it was there I met Bob, the same day he was transferred back from Vietnam.

The hippies almost got themselves thrown out of the country for joining a procession of Buddhist monks during a Lao festival. Local officials were outraged, closed the Third Eye and started to run some of them out of town. Then prince Souvanna Phouma’s son purchased a half interest in the club and reopened it.

As he explained to his irate father “What do they do? They have long hair, they like music and opium, and they make love. And after all, we Laotians have been doing the same thing for thousands of years.”   So the Third Eye was saved, and both he and his mother the Queen could on occasion be seen there.

French Hippie House, Vientiane (© Terry Wofford, uwdc.library.wisc.edu)

French Hippie House, Vientiane (© Terry Wofford, uwdc.library.wisc.edu)

Hippie Houses in Vientiane

 The car house on Dong Palang (above) had a very small entrance – the car door, through which one had to crawl, and then crawl onto a rattan mat as there was no way to stand up and no furniture.

It was very gloomy inside with one ornate Indian brass lamp with a candle hanging almost to the floor in the middle of the tiny room, casting bizarre shadows through the grill-work, and a heavy aroma of incense fogging the room.

Another hippie home, a Lao stilt house, the residence of a  young hippie woman, leaned precipitously to one side as though it could fall at any moment.  Inside was like a fairground crazy house, completely disorienting with the sloping  floor and red chintz curtains hanging into the room from a sloping wall.   I remember a very crowded party with a bonfire outside and people sitting on the edge of almost room size opening on the downslope side of the house, their legs hanging over the  edge, smoking pot and watching the fire.

Hippie Government Recognised

A notable character in Vientiane at that time was Sheldon Holtz, the self-styled “President of the United States, Living in Exile.”

The following is from a news wire that made it around the world:

HIPPIE GOVERNMENT RECOGNISED

The Free Government of the United States of America has attracted the attention of Moscow, and the Russians appear to be quite serious about it. Soviet Radio announced the existence of the FGUSA in April but gave no indication of its location other than it was headed by a “Dr. Sheldon Holtz,” the Afro-Asian News Service reported. Apparently the radio was referring to the “psychedelic” organization set up in Vientiane by New York psychiatrist ex patriot Sheldon Holtz. It reported that other nationalities were in the organization which has become truly ‘international’ in composition. Other reports from the Laotian capital indicate these are mainly members of Vientiane’s flourishing hippie colony.”

Following this report Sheldon’s paranoia about a CIA plot to assassinate him grew and he only went out hidden behind various disguises, eventually withdrawing completely behind the shuttered windows of his large house near That Dam.

I have no idea what happened to him in the end.

See the trailer for our new film, M.I.A. A Greater Evil. Set in the jungles of Laos and Vietnam, the film deals with the possible fate of US servicemen left behind after the US pulled out of the Vietnam War.

For POWs left behind in Laos, see also:

© Terry Wofford

Peter Alan Lloyd

BACK Parts 1 and 2:

Reviews: Amazon.co.uk: Customer Reviews 

UK: Amazon.co.uk: BACK Parts 1 and 2 

US: Amazon: Back Parts 1 and 2

Smashwords: Back Parts 1 and 2

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/peter.lloyd.94064?fref=ts

Website: www.peteralanlloyd.com

Twitter: @PeterAlanLloyd

Front cover of BACK Part 1.

Front cover of BACK Part 1.

Front cover of BACK Part 2.

Front cover of BACK Part 2.

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11 Comments

  1. Wolf

    Do you happen to have a photo of Vientiane’s The Third Eye from the outside?

    Reply
  2. gerald stulc

    Did you happen to know Roxanna Maude Brown, a young journalist who stayed in Vientiane during that time, and frequented the Third Eye?

    Reply
    • J Garbo

      I worked with Roxanna in Bangkok in the 1990s at Media TransAsia. We edited different publications there. She died in police custody in the US in 2008.
      BTW I lived in Vientiane in 1968 and often went to the Third Eye.

      Reply
      • dr gerald stulc

        Thank you for your comments. Do you happen to know what publication Roxanna edited in the 1990’s? She was an editor of Arts in Asia in 1970’s, Living in Thailand in 1980’s before her accident. Can you give me any recollections of her personality or incidents involving her? I greatly appreciate anything you can relate to me. dr gerald stulc

        Reply
        • J Garbo

          We worked together on various projects. MTA was very ad hoc. I also edited LIT for awhile, plus the RBSC golf magazine and special one-off jobs. Eventually quit – of course – as we all did. Management was medieval.
          We were drinking together at the FCCT club at the Oriental plaza the night of her accident. We said good night and left on our bikes. I didn’t see her for two weeks. Finally found her at Bangkok Nursing Home, leg lost, crushed chest. Her mother had come over.
          She returned to work on crutches. She was tough. But the boss, an awful Indian woman, forced out because she didn’t want a “cripple” in the office. As I say, medieval.
          We lost touch after that. She was great fun, very bright, too good for MTA. I was shocked when I heard of her death.
          HTH
          J

          Reply
      • dr gerald stulc

        Dear Sir,
        Can’t thank you enough for your information. I just need clarification on a couple of items.
        You stated in your blog that you saw her very shortly after her accident, was mistaken for the surgeon, had to call around to get consent for her amputation. Is that correct?
        Was she in a coma at first and was she on a ventilator to breath for her at first?
        Lastly, what is “MTA” and did you both work there?
        Very best wishes for a wonderful Holiday season and New Year.
        Respectfully,
        gerald stulc

        Reply
        • J Garbo

          There’s some confusion here. I worked with Roxanne at Media Transasia (MTA), often collaborating on projects. We had been drinking together at the FCCT (Foreign Correspondents Club Thailand) and separated when we left, both on motorcycles. We weren’t drunk. I got home all right. Roxanne was apparently hit from behind by a car that didn’t stop (quite common here), then as she was getting up hit by a 10 wheel truck, which also didn’t stop. Some locals put her in a taxi and took her to BNH (Bangkok Nursing Home). I found her about two weeks later.
          As the surgeon part I don’t know. I guess the surgeon would amputate to save her life regardless of permission. The ventilator is probable, since her chest was crushed.
          She came back to work about a month later but was soon forced out because our boss, a bitch from Hell, didn’t like cripples.
          HTH
          JG

          Reply
          • dr gerald stulc

            Yes, you are correct, sir. I had confused a missive from Harold Stephens, who saw Roxanna the afternoon before her accident about an article for “Living in Thailand,” and went to the hospital that night, being mistaken for the surgeon.
            Any personal insights you may recall regarding Roxanna’s personality, work or appearance would be most helpful. Thank you!
            Wishing you the best for the Holidays,

            gerald stulc

          • J Garbo

            I know “Steve”, and used to edit his awful “Tales of the South Seas” stuff when I was Man. Ed. at LOOKEAST magazine in BKK.
            It’s OK, he’s agrees he’s a better sailor than writer. A shame he didn’t have his Boswell along on his travels. He’d be famous. He has a ranch somewhere in California, if he’s still kicking.
            As for the rest, I suspect you’re eliciting free information for some project.
            Aloha and have a nice day.
            JG

          • dr gerald stulc

            Yes, sir, perhaps I’ve failed to mention that I’m writing (almost finished) writing a biography of Roxanna Brown that is a narrative woven into the history of Asian porcelain. Any other insights or anecdotes you may have concerning her to add to the book would be most welcome. I spent time in Thai;and last year, mainly in ChIang Mai, met her son and friends such as Patricia Cheesman and John Shaw, have interviewed Roxanna’s brother and aunt.
            Best for the New Year!

            gerald stulc

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