Thirty-two years is a long time, and all I remember is breakfasting with my new friend, touring the Buddhist temples of Vientiane with her, and the desk clerk at the hotel handing me a farewell note from Phaly, whose helicopter I could not see off because I’d arranged to interview the Bishop of Vientiane, Apostolic Vicar Jean Khamse Vithavong, for the National Catholic Register newspaper.
As my cyclo driver pedaled me through the city enroute to its main Catholic church, as I wrote in my book about my time in Laos, Tears Across the Mekong, in 2015, “Throughout the city, loud speakers mounted strategically on decrepit telephone poles, looking like they’d emerged from the French era (which, like the telephones they connected, they indeed had) blared the latest edition of Marxism/Leninism Lao style while thousands of electrical wires meshed overhead in total chaos.”
When my cyclo driver deposited me at the Church of the Sacred Heart, I was confronted by a structure badly in need of a new coat of paint. Its leaning steeple reminded me of Italy’s Leaning Tower of Pisa.
Inside, however, a warm Bishop Vithavong, clad in a blue jumpsuit, greeted me and welcomed my questions about the state of the Catholic Church in Laos. He confessed to me that since 1975, when Laos, like neighboring Vietnam, fell to communism, there had been a “brain drain” in the Church because so many priests and nuns had fled the country in fear for their lives.
I was to meet one of those priests, Father Lucien Bouchard, whom I interviewed for Tears Across the Mekong, 25 years later. But for the most part, the bishop told me, everything was “Bo Pinh Yan.” A typical Lao expression meaning “Everything is okay.” He did, however, admit that the government placed certain restrictions on worship.