Life In Vientiane, Laos during the Vietnam War – Russian Spies and a Hippie Government
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.
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.
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…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.
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
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.
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.
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.
For a modern-day take on the Vietnam War, POWs/MIAs and Adventure Backpackers trekking into the war-ravaged jungles of Asia, see: http://peteralanlloyd.com/back-part-2/backpackers-meet-the-vietnam-war-back-screenplay-finally-finished/
For POWs left behind in Laos, see also:
© Terry Wofford
Peter Alan Lloyd
BACK Parts 1 and 2:
Reviews: Amazon.co.uk: Customer Reviews