Jan 02 2013
Boat rides, jungle treks, a few waterfalls and the Plain of Jars; aside from these, there really aren’t that many crucial sights to see or things to do in Laos, which is precisely why so many people love it. Travel here is about interaction with people, relaxing in a bungalow, riding the local buses and slowing down the pace of life. There is, however, one fantastic tourist attraction that is not frequently visited that absolutely should be: the caves of Vieng Xai.
Vieng Xai is in the northeast of the country in Hua Phan province, right next to the Vietnamese border and just off the main road connecting Nong Khiaow with Vietnam. This part of the country is famed for being the region where the communist Pathet Lao forces were headquartered during their struggle with the Lao royal family at the same time the American War in Vietnam was raging. So intertwined were the battles in Laos and Vietnam that communist forces from Vietnam regularly travelled through Laos en route to South Vietnam. The American forces also saw these wars as closely related beasts and established a 30,000-strong Lao militia to combat the Pathet Lao and dropped an incredible amount of ordnance throughout the east of the country.
The Pathet Lao leadership and huge numbers of troops lived and conducted daily activities in the caves of Vieng Xai. These caves were equipped with electricity and housed hospitals, bomb shelters, army barracks, printing presses, government ministries and residences. These well-preserved caves are now open to the public and it’s a great lesson in how the war was fought according the Lao communists.
Guides — which are compulsory — are available from the Vieng Xai Caves Visitor Centre about a kilometre from the centre of Vieng Xai. The office charges 60,000 kip per person for a tour which starts at either 09:00 or 13:00 and takes two to three hours. The best part of the guided tour is that the guide simply hands you a set of headphones and tells you when to click onto the next part of the audio tour. The professionally created recordings are a fascinating insight into the lives of the people in this area around the time of the intensive bombing campaign by the Americans.
Most people will get a chance to visit about 10 caves depending on the mode of transport used to get between them. If you choose to use a motorbike, it is much easier to get through all of the caves. Riding a bicycle is the next best thing and they are available for rent at the caves office for 15,000 kip. The last option is to simply walk between the caves, but this will inevitably mean you won’t have enough time to see all the caves.
Often you will be the only foreigners visiting the caves for the day which is slightly disappointing given that this is such a brilliant attraction.
Getting to Vieng Xai is easy, but lining up transport so that you can depart and return to Sam Neua in one day requires knowledge of bus timetables and a bit of luck — it’s better to stay in Vieng Xai for a couple of nights. If you absolutely must go to Vieng Xai on a day trip from Sam Neua and don’t want to rent a motorbike from the shop across the road from the Tourist Office in Sam Neua (70,000 kip per day), then the following instructions are your best bet.
Catch a songthaew from the southern bus station departing at 08:30 and costing 25,000 kip. When we were recently in town, we met a few different people who had been given incorrect information about this songthaew from the Sam Neua Tourist Office. Do not rely on there being more than one songthaew per day between the two towns as these services are largely dictated by passenger numbers and if there aren’t enough passengers, there will be fewer songthaews departing.
Because the 09:00 cave tour will already have commenced by the time you arrive in Vieng Xai, jump off the Songthaew seven kilometres before you reach Vieng Xai and check out Noua Falls and Nok Ann Cave. Both are worth a look. Walk from there into town.
If you still have time, have a bite to eat at the Indian Restaurant next to the Vieng Xai bus station — it’s one of the few places many people will be comfortable eating in in Vieng Xai.
Walk a kilometre down the hill to the Vieng Xai Caves Visitor Centre and hop on the 13:00 tour which finishes at about 16:00.
Walk from the visitor centre to the main Vietnam road about two kilometres’ away. Wait on the side of the road for the 17:00 Vietnam to Sam Neua bus to come by — there should be locals waiting for the same bus as there is usually no other transport option at this time of day despite assurances from the Sam Neua Tourist Office. If you miss this bus, you will have to hitch a ride.
Travelfish.org always pays its way. No exceptions.