Bad Boys’ Guide to Vientiane

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In the late 1960s-early 1970s, Vientiane was renowned for its raunchy bar scene. Some of the old places are remembered in the new novel Hustle the East.

The French Officers’ Mess was a popular spot for a tasty but memorable meal.

At twilight, the moist garbagey smell of the Mekong marked the way to the French Officers’ Mess. A vestigial organ of the French Foreign Legion, the declining dining hall had become a culinary pit stop on the Hippie Trail. The menu was in French, but a Royal Air Lao wall poster proclaimed in English: “Let It Happen to You in Laos.”

Everyone who enjoyed the famous three-course meal at the Mess also enjoyed a carafe of red wine. With the carafe, the bill for dinner came to two dollars.

Every memoir of Vientiane mentions the White Rose.

The White Rose had the blackest reputation of any bar in Vientiane. It was a bar that gave good brothels a bad name. Those men who were not supposed to patronize the off-limits premises, nor discuss it in polite company, referred to it by the code-nameWhisky Romeo.

The cavernous bar’s windowless walls were covered in split bamboo and draped with dust-encrusted Christmas lights. In the semi-sweet darkness, I could make out male and female shapes ensconced in booths, wrestling in what passed for passion. Here and there on the concrete floor was a Mondo Cane of activity crude enough to make a congressman blush. Eager hostesses were mastering the art of licking the enlarged members of large men who might pass muster as master sergeants. In wartime, loose lips sink ships but in a whorehouse they’re busy all the time.

Nothing I’d learned at the university prepared me for the sights and sounds of my first night at the White Rose. It was a graduate-level course in Debauchery. The bass line of the club’s jukebox was pounding rhythm like railroad spikes into my brain. Steppenwolf was imploring: “Get your motor runnin’. Get out on the highway.”

Nearby was another popular pub called the Purple Porpoise.

The pub was warm with body heat. Egg crates were tacked to the ceiling and clamshells were pasted on the walls. A mock travel poster advertised Fly Heroin Airlines. The classic zinc bar was littered with well-thumbed issues of Playboy and Penthouse. Younger crewcut men ogled shots of nude coeds in the magazines and shot glances at the barmaid Pornthip, who was as shapely as Asian girls get. Older men who wore tailored pilot shirts, sported heavy gold bracelets and watches busied themselves playing poker and shooting dice.Though it could not be confirmed nor denied, one might take a flier and guess the barflies at the Purple Porpoise were Air America pilots, sheep-dipped military technicians, Marine guards at the U.S. Embassy, and spooks who kept secrets that predated the C.I.A. Laotians were not admitted to the gin-soaked sanctuary unless they were top-echelon officers in the Royal Lao Army.

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About a mile from town, the sleepy district called Dong Palane had a bar scene of its own.

Dong Palane was a patchwork of bars, empty fields and rice paddies. One of the more popular dives on the Strip was The Third Eye, where travelers could crash, smoke hashish and listen to folk music. The Third Eye had the distinction of being the only hippie bar financed by the Crown Prince and occasionally visited by the Queen Mother. Once the King asked his son why hippies came to Laos to smoke opium and laze about listening to music. “Because they are like Lao people,” said the Crown Prince.

We made a beeline for the swinging boîte called Le Spot. Clueless Americans called it The Le Spot. A hangout for the capital’s demimonde of pimps, prostitutes, English teachers and the naughty daughters of Vientiane’s high society, the club was famous for Sunday afternoon tea dances where the lights were turned down low and everyone inside pretended day was night. The house band was The Big O, fronted by a big-fronted German singer, who wailed and spluttered in soulful homage to Janis Joplin. She sang with an East Texas twang but spoke with a heavy Teutonic accent. Four Filipino musicians backed the fraulein with the deep décolleté front. They took turns covering top hits by American bands. They were mighty good at what others did. When it came to “Band on the Run” and “Kung Fu Fighting,” they were fast as lightning.

 I had to shout to be heard over the music.

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