(Originally written in 2003 in Laos/recently revised)
I met Harry in a basic ‘restaurant’ in what was then the small town Xan Neuau in the east of Laos, close to the Vietnamese border. He was a big man with short blond hair parted in the middle, blue eyes, and a square jaw. He was a little overweight but certainly not fat.
He was sitting on his own at a rickety wooden table near the open front of a local bar/restaurant sipping a beer and gazing at the traffic: bikes, buffalo pulled carts, a few motor bikes, the occasional motor car.
It was near sunset and the jungle covered mountains on the horizon had turned a deep green, almost black.
I sat down at his table because I didn’t have a choice. The other tables, further back inside, were occupied by locals. We started chatting.
Little did I know that I was going to be there for much of the night, listening to one of the most disturbing stories I had ever heard from any human being.
As two foreigners – Australians – alone in a far flung town, it was natural that the first thing we did was swap stories about where we had been and where we were going. He had come over the border that day from North Vietnam. I was headed in that direction after staying a few days on the Plain of Jars.
Harry and I were travelling in Indochina at a time when the region was opening up to tourism. In the 1960’s, the U.S. had gone to war to stop the advance of communism in Indochina – Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. It had lost that war and the communists, backed by China and Russia, had won. For almost 3 decades, the entire region was hermetically sealed off from the rest of the world.
In 2003, tourists needed a visa and obtaining it was a long winded process and there was a strict time limit on how long one could stay (often depending on where one applied for a visa).
Harry and I discussed the ins and outs of applying for a visa at the Vietnamese border. During our conversation, I found out that Harry was an Vietnam veteran. Done two tours of duty. Not a conscript.
The man had been a professional soldier committed to the anti-communist war.
Later in the night, I discovered that there had been more than duty involved…..