Vietnamese boom town

Set in the Xekong river valley in the southeastern corner of Laos, wedged between Sekong province to the north, Champasak province to the west, Cambodia to the south and Vietnam to the east, languid Attapeu is as frontier as it gets. Welcome to the deep dirty south of Laos.

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For anyone who has spent some time in Laos, the province’s reputation precedes it. We’ve heard fantastical tales of mining towns that are like the wild wild west, complete with saloons with swinging doors and patrons open carrying arms. We’ve heard whispers of a secret five-star resort in the middle nowhere, a pleasure palace catering to foreign businessmen and their mistresses. There are murmurs of a lake that yields diamonds, currently under heavy guard by the Vietnamese army—it takes a month’s time and many connections to obtain permission to visit. Is it true?

Not your average province. : Cindy Fan.
Not your average province. Photo: Cindy Fan

The average intrepid traveller who ventures to Attapeu won’t see gunslingers, prospectors or painted ladies. You’ll glide along a virtually traffic-free scenic sealed road down from the Bolaven Plateau, and in the provincial capital you’ll see the fisherman casting his net, farmers harvesting rice, a woman guiding her buffalo home and kids splashing in the river at the end of the scorching hot day. You’ll see men gathered on low stools for coffee—a street scene that belongs in Vietnam, not Laos. Many of the signs and buildings are Vietnamese. Hotel and business staff often can’t speak English or Lao.

The Vietnamization is Attapeu’s current narrative and their legacy for years to come. Once a fertile land rich with forests, minerals and wildlife, in just one decade the province has undergone horrific deforestation, both systematic and illegal, namely by two Vietnamese companies. One of the kingpins is Hoang Anh Gia Lai (HAGL), with hefty investment help from Deutsche Bank and the International Finance ... Travelfish members only (Full text is around 1,500 words.)

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