When developers proudly promise their efforts will shortly transform the sleepy Lao capital of Vientiane into a Hong Kong on the Mekong river, the future looks bleak for the city’s dwindling roster of French colonial villas that grace the tree-lined boulevards.
Vientiane, perched on a bend of the Mekong, is the little sibling of a trio of historical cities of French Indochina (1887-1954) that includes Phnom Penh and Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon. The communist rulers, who took power in 1975 following a civil war, have maintained a degree of economic and cultural isolation. While this has hobbled development, it has also helped to ensure that Vientiane’s wide avenues, laid out in classical French style, have mostly survived.
Sixty years have passed since the colonial French left, however, and time is taking its toll. Some of the mansions once occupied by the French and Laotian elite are crumbling from neglect. In the recent rush for development, others have fallen to the wrecker’s ball.