So when I think of Vientiane I remember these things
1) Guay - a wonderful young man working at our guesthouse
2) The most beautiful sunset over the Mekong
3) A Letter to the Editor in the local paper
One of the most echanting characters we met was a young man named Guay (not Kwai as I pronounced it which means Buffalo, while Guay means Banana, which is apparently highly preferable?)
The 29-year old, with the face of a teenager, works at the Villa Manoly - a mid-range hotel we splurged on, knowing we were headed for another few days of huts and villages and hard travel.
It seemed people speak less English in Vientiane, a small capital which is little more than a stopover for tourists heading further south (or north) in Laos, crossing the border with Thailand or heading to Hanoi in Vietnam.
When we arrived at the Manoly, the young girl at reception just smiled, nodding yes or no to our questions at random, obviously with no clue about what we were asking. She scurried off and returned with Guay, who later told us he is often called on weekends and days off for this purpose.
He speaks slowly, measuredly, thinking and savouring each word before it is uttered in some of the best English I have heard in Laos.
"Excuse me, where are you from," he asks us - the stock question. Dutifully we reply Belgium and South Africa respectively. He begins chattering away about the Belgian football team.
"Man-ches-ter United" he sounds out in the careful yet eager manner of someone keen to practice his English.
He was such a chatterbox we had to carefully extract ourselves from the conversation to get that much-needed sleep!
The next day we asked him where we could rent bicycles, a good way to explore the small city. He eagerly told us about his two private bicycles. One brand new which cost $278 - months and months of saving, he told us. He is now saving to buy a helmet, which at $55 will take at least 3 months. But he is slowly trying to build his business and it's important his clients are safe.
He promises to draw a map to his father's house where we can pick up the bike. His father speaks 7 languages he says proudly, including French, Lao, Thai, Vietnamese, English, Chinese and Japanese.
We were wondering what was taking so long and he arrived some time later with a painstakingly drawn map showing his father's house only one street up.
The house, like many, is a small shop in the front with living space behind it. An older version of Guay emerges with a slight limp. The man squints as he looks at the map, nodding his approval at his son's handiwork. His English is good. As we cycle back to the hotel, Guay strikes up another conversation with us.
He learned his English from his dad, one or two hours a week at school is not enough, he says.
But it was someone from Holland who taught him his pronounciation.
"Listen," he says. "some- THing, that is very important, before I say someTing. THird, birTH, THing," he lists carefully, focusing on the TH sound.
He tells us he practiced this every day.
"I practiced in the shower and when my mother walks past she says 'you crazy man'.
"Something else that helped me learn..." he says as he pulls out his cellphone.
We were standing in the reception foyer, expectantly, as the strains of the Beatles Yellow submarine emerge from the phone. We all started singing along.
"In the land, where I was born, lived a m-a-a-an who sailed to sea..."
I am sure we startled the French and German families sunning themselves around the pool.
He then played us "Hey Jude" which we seem to hear everywhere in bars etc.
Guay tells us he plays electric guitar in a band.
Music brought him out of a month-long coma about a year ago after a drunken driver hit his motorbike, killing his friend who was driving.
"I got a second life," he smiles.
Apparently threee weeks in, the doctor told his friends to do something he would like, and they played him his favourite Thai rock band.
"My feet went like this," he said, moving his hands up and down to indicate the movement.
A week later he was out of hospital.
It is hard to meet and get to know people here, with the language barrier, and Guay totally charmed us with his eagerness and ambition in a country where often there are many obstacles to rising above your poor background.
2) Vientiane is famous for stunning sunsets over the Mekong... we raced to catch this in time
3) Sitting in a cafe for breakfast one morning, I picked up a newspaper (something I have studiously avoided doing as a journo on vacation) and was in stitches of laughter over the following letter. Gender Equality still has a ways to go in Laos methinks.