Hillary Clinton Confronts Vietnam War Legacy In Laos

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Laos Wednesday as part of her current tour of southeast Asian nations. Laos is not a country that receives much attention from Washington these days, but it is still recovering from the days when it was massively bombed by the U.S. air force during the Vietnam War.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The small country of Laos in Southeast Asia was one of the dominos that Washington feared would fall to Communism back in the 1960s. During the Vietnam War, the U.S. dropped millions of tons of bombs on Laos. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton confronted that history yesterday on a visit to Laos. She met some young people who've been maimed by unexploded U.S. ordinance. The U.S. is hoping to forge a new relationship with Laos, which is something of an economic backwater these days.

Reporter Michael Sullivan was there during Secretary Clinton's visit and he sent this postcard.

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MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: A new bridge over the Mekong linking Laos and Thailand is set to open next year. But for now, Huay Xai is the main northern border crossing between the two countries. It's not a tourist destination, more of a transit point, really. Both for cargo loaded onto ferries and carried across the Mekong on trucks like these, and for tourists, who come across from Thailand to catch the slow boat down the Mekong to Luang Prabang, or to travel overland deeper into Laos.

Once the cargo, tourist or trade is sent on its way, though, the town pretty much shuts down shortly after sunset. But the locals still manage to squeeze in a short but exuberant happy hour.

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SULLIVAN: Like these men sharing a plate of sausages, each other's company and several frosty Beer Lao on a sidewalk in the center of town.

In this communist, one party state, few people are willing to talk politics in public - any politics, especially with a foreigner. But that didn't really seem to be the issue today. The Clinton visit may have been news in Vientiane, but here, from far from the capital, the dozen or so people I asked about the trip really didn't seem to know about it or care.

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SULLIVAN: As anyone who's visited Laos knows, things move at a slightly slower, less frantic pace here than in other parts of Southeast Asia, even tonight at least, at evening prayers at Huay Xai's hilltop temple.

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SULLIVAN: By the time the monks finally settled in, it was well past the customary 6:00 start time. A sliver of fading sunlight snuck in through the nearly shut front door, illuminating the monks' bright orange robes and bathing the temple walls in a kaleidoscope of color.

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SULLIVAN: This part of Laos was spared the intense bombing other areas endured during the Vietnam War; a war most here were either born after or are too young to remember. And while the legacy of that war remains - unexploded ordinance perhaps the most concrete example - people up here at least seem more focused on the future than the past. And that future, despite the U.S. pivot towards Asia, seems more regionally centered.

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SULLIVAN: In Huay Xai, there's lots of new construction, guest houses like this one and a huge new hilltop hotel aimed not just at Western visitors, but those from neighboring Thailand and increasingly China. These projects are proof that people here believe their town can become a destination in its own right. The new bridge over the Mekong, financed with help from both of its neighbors, may help them make that belief a reality.

For NPR news, I'm Michael Sullivan on the Mekong near Huay Xai.

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