Hua Phan and its capital Sam Neua rival Phongsali for the title of Laos' most remote province. Mountainous and particularly scenic, the province has a mish-mashed network of dirt and sealed roads and lacklustre public transport to match. Hua Phan is all about slow travel.
During Pathet Lao times, Sam Neua (also spelt Xam Nua) and the nearby caves at Vieng Xai formed the Pathet Lao capital, and it was here and in equally remote Phongsali, that the Pathet Lao forces regrouped after the Geneva Accord.
Sam Neua is primarily visited by those travelling to or from Vietnam, a shame as this province is worth a visit even for those not planning to head to Vietnam, especially when combining it with a visit to Phonsavan to make a loop that heads through Nong Kiaow.
Sam Neua sits in a small picturesque valley, a town of white concrete houses topped with red roofs, surrounded by the vibrant green of young rice fields and the grey-green of the mountains. The town is famous for two major reasons.
Firstly, for the beauty and originality of the locally-woven fabrics, which are sought after across Laos and considered the most eye-catching and beautifully crafted pieces in markets and shops.
Secondly, Sam Neua is perfect as a base for exploring nearby Vieng Xai, where from 1964 to 1975 the Pathet Lao lived, worked and ran the war from inside caves deep in stunning karst limestone cliffs. A number of these caves are open for visitors, so with an official guide you can see their stark living environments and the dark, damp conditions they had to put up with to avoid being bombed. This is a truly special part of the country.
After the war, a number of so-called re-education camps were established in the region, where members of the old regime were "rehabilitated"; most camps were closed down by 1989. Seeking information about these camps is not recommended, as they remain a taboo subject for the Laos Government at both a national and local level.
A growing number of foreign tourists visit Sam Neua and infrastructure has developed to the point where accommodation is now to a good standard, but strangely the food situation has not caught up with plenty of noodle shops and not much in the way of tourist food.
Shops, markets and basic amenities are in plentiful supply and you can find enough to see and do for a couple of days -- enough at least to make your journey worthwhile. Finding good food is not that easy and there is really only one place in town that most tourists will visit and it can quickly become boring if staying in town more than a day or two.
The tourist office in town is one of the best tourist offices you will find in Laos, with great brochures and a bunch of detailed information about transport throughout the province. They have really gone out of their way to be helpful and the main tourist brochure in the office is a beauty. Inside you will find a walking tour which takes in Sam Neua's sights, including some weaving houses where expensive fabric is sold, and a couple of memorials.
The tourist office can also arrange private tours to many of the province's natural sights, but the prices in some cases are prohibitive. Be aware that some of the bus information provided by the staff and brochures at the tourist office is incorrect. We heard reports of missed connections to Vieng Xai because of this.
Irrespective of these few negatives, the staff at the office speak good English and can provide information on some of the more remote towns and attractions in the province. We were particularly impressed with their knowledge of the entire area, unlike many staff at tourist offices in other parts of Laos.
WiFi internet is available in many of the guesthouses and often there is a spare computer for those wishing to use the internet. If you're staying in a place without WiFi, there are number of internet cafes in town including one on the main road about 800 metres up the road from the big roundabout away from the bus station. As is the case these days in most towns of any size in Laos, 3G internet access is very good.
By Adam Poskitt