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.
There were caves for living quarters, markets, printing presses, hospitals and government bureaucracies. They are well preserved and little work has been done since they received heavy usage during the war years of 1964-1975. The Pathet Lao leadership all had homes here and lived and directed the war from the caves. The caves themselves were used during the daily heavy aerial bombardment, but once the aerial onslaught finished in 1973 (with the US leaving the combat theatre), houses were built outside the various leaders' caves which were then used to command the final stages of battle against the Royal Laos/Hmong forces. Eight caves are open to the public now, with plans to open more. The four major caves have houses built outside the caves for the Pathet Lao leaders who occupied them. There is also a major cave structure with a theatre and army barracks.
The first cave, closest to town, is Kaysone's. This cave contains meeting rooms for the war Politburo, resting rooms, kitchen and dining facilities as well as emergency bunkers. These caves are extensive and are the best example of living and working during the war years. Kaysone had a large house built outside his cave complex on the termination of the US bombing in 1973.
The second major cave is that of the Red Prince Souphanouvong. In his cave complex you will see a garage for his car, meeting rooms and living quarters for him and his family. It is an interesting side note that the prince was allegedly the first person to gain contacts, and ultimately aid and help, from the Viet Minh Communist forces in Vietnam. His wife was Vietnamese and he started working in Vietnam after he graduated (civil engineering) from a French university. The prince is often cited as the driving force behind the communist movement in Laos but was sidelined in later years after victory had been won.
Other caves of interest are the so-called Theatre Cave (headquarters to Phoumsavang, the army commander) and the deepest cave of Tham Xieng Muang. The Theatre Cave was the setting for the massive army barracks which housed more than 2,000 soldiers and was the headquarters of the Pathet Lao military effort. The theatre featured performances from visiting artists from Russia, Vietnam and China. It also acted as a secure meeting point for large party gatherings.
Until relatively recently, these caves remained secret. The Lao government didn't acknowledge their existence, however recent moves have made the caves a tourist attraction and are a vital source of tourist revenue in the province. Many tours arrive from Vietnam and there are a growing number of Western tourists heading toward the town for a look.
The caves are all within walking distance of town; however you must get a guide to show you around the various sites (not least because they are protected by gates and locks nowadays). Guided tours can be found at the Vieng Xai Caves Visitor Centre.
Tours cost 60,000 kip and take between two and three hours. Bicycles are available for hire at the office for 15,000 kip. To get value for money we suggest that you go on a bicycle tour. Just walking around the site you will miss out on a number of caves as the area is too large to cover in the time limit.
Tours depart at 09:00 and 13:00. Outside of these times you can pay an additional fee to ensure a guide will break for lunch to accompany you. The cost of this varies, but budget for 50,000 kip for the additional cost. Guides do speak English, but these days they are largely sidelined by an excellent audio tour which really does allow one to slip into the dark years of the war when military aircraft regularly flew overhead and dropped bombs on absolutely anything that moved including ducks, cattle and people.
Getting to and from Vieng Xai from Sam Neua in one day is a bit of a hassle and it is much better to stay in Vieng Xai for a couple of nights. But if you absolutely must do this on a daytrip, catch a songthaew from the southern bus station at 08:30 (25,000 kip).
Because the songthaew arrives in Vieng Xai after the 09:00 tour has commenced, it's best to get off the songthaew at either Noua Falls or Nok Ann Cave, seven and six kilometres outside of Vieng Xai respectively, where you can kill some time at some fascinating attractions before walking into town to catch the 13:00 tour.
The tour finishes at 16:00 which gives you enough time to get to the main road where the bus from Vietnam passes at 17:00 (25,000 kip). Don't rely on a songthaew heading back to town after the 09:00 tour as there often isn't any, despite information displayed at the tourist information centre in Sam Neua saying otherwise.
By Adam Poskitt
Last updated on 23rd August, 2015.