Published/Last edited or updated: 3rd November, 2018
In one of the hardest to reach corners of the country, the Vieng Xai caves are a testament to the suffering and struggle that gave rise to a new nation. Now open to the public, the caves are one of the most important and remarkable historic sites in Laos, though few travellers venture here to visit them.
At first glance Vieng Xai doesn’t look like much. The sparsely populated, sleepy village sits on a plain surrounded by hulking limestone karst. As unlikely as it may seem, the peaceful landscape played a pivotal role during the Secret War. Concealed in the rock are hundreds of caves, and for almost a decade 20,000 soldiers and civilians survived the intense aerial bombing by living underground in this hidden city, which also served as the command centre for the Pathet Lao.
Displays in the Vieng Xai Caves visitor centre set the stage:
“The Second World War began a long period of turbulence for the nations of Southeast Asia. Japanese intervention had fatally weakened the dominance of the European colonial powers. When France attempted to reoccupy its Indochinese colonies from 1946, national independence movements fought to expel their colonial masters and establish independent nations.”
“In Laos, the dominant nationalist organisation became known as the Pathet Lao (‘Land of the Lao’), a communist movement closely associated with Ho Chi Minh’s Viet Minh in Vietnam. The Battle of Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam brought an end to French control over Indochina. At the 1954 Geneva Conference convened to settle the war, the Pathet Lao gained two northeastern provinces, Phongsali and Houaphan. These became the base area of the Lao revolutionary independence forces.”
Meanwhile, the rest of the country remained with the Royal Lao Government. This led to instability rather than peace, as the US, determined to stop the spread of communism, secretly began to fund and arm the Royal Lao Government. Defying the 1962 Geneva Agreement that declared Laos a neutral country with no foreign soldiers allowed, the US executed covert operations, created a secret army and unleashed intense aerial bombardment in what is now known as the Secret War.
1964 to 1973
By 1964, the Pathet Lao knew their headquarters in the valley plain of Xieng Xeu village would not withstand attacks. But seven kilometres away, the limestone karst of Nakai, which held a vast network of caves, could provide the shelter and defences they needed. For nine years 20,000 people—Pathet Lao leaders, soldiers and civilians, who were mostly poor subsistence farmers—survived and ran the war effort from this hidden city deep underground.
The Pathet Lao established their headquarters in what today is central Vieng Xai. These caves, which are the ones currently open to the public, were occupied by the leadership, staff, soldiers and their families.
However, the network of over 200 caves extended far beyond Vieng Xai and they included leadership quarters, barracks, meeting rooms, a telegraph office, emergency rooms built to withstand chemical attacks, artillery caves, a printing cave to produce newspapers, books and posters, bank cave, radio broadcast station, markets, kitchens, fuel depot, schools, hospitals with operating theatres, small factories, textile weaving cave and a theatre for rallies and entertainment. Water tanks were carved out of the stone and blast walls built in front of entrances to protect against missiles (Tham Piew Cave in Xieng Khouang is a sad reminder of why this was necessary). On top of the karst, anti-aircraft guns could be set up.
Creating an underground city and military command centre is a remarkable feat but so was the daily struggle for survival, living in dark, damp conditions as the enemy blanketed the area with bombs. The Americans did not know the exact location of the headquarters so planes would target any movement or sign of life, be it a person, a fire or light coloured livestock. People had to farm at night (mostly in the forest), returning before the planes that departed from Udon Thani, the coast of Vietnam or secret bases within Laos arrived and started bombing like clockwork. During raids, the caves were so full that there was no space to lie down. People could only stand or sit as they waited for the assault to cease.
The diet was meagre, rations of rice and vegetables supplemented with foraged things and canned meat donated by Vietnam, China and the Soviet Union. To avoid detection, extraction pipes were built in the cooking areas so the smoke would be dispersed away from the caves. Winters were especially tough, as fires were too risky and the population struggled to stay warm.
Visiting Vieng Xai caves
There are harrowing tales of people getting caught outside during a raid and having to stand perfectly still as bombs exploded around them; if they moved, they would have been seen and shot at. Mr Xay’s four children were killed instantly in a single air raid. These survivor stories can be found in “Voices of Viengxay: Stories from the Hidden City”, a book that can be purchased at the visitor centre or Sam Neua tourism office. Part of an oral history project, several of the interviews can be heard on the audio tour.
The caves, which thankfully have been left in their original state except for lights and stairs where necessary, can only be accessed via a three hour tour. A chaperone leads the group through seven cave sites explained through 18 audio chapters (the chaperone prompting visitors when to play). The audio tour is excellent. It covers multiple aspects, the narration made richer with villager interviews.
We wish other sights in Laos were this informative—it is the country’s first audio tour and there’s no other like it in Laos. We saw one visitor vehemently refuse it and insist on hiring a private guide as they thought it would be better. We say: do the audio tour.
There are two public tours a day, 09:00 and 13:00. It costs 60,000 kip per person for international visitors, 20,000 kip for Vietnam, Thailand, China and Cambodia nationals. The price includes the equipment, though it’s not a bad idea to bring your own headphones. You can take a tour at other times during opening hours for a 50,000 kip per group surcharge.
Visitors need transport in the form of a taxi, bicycle or motorbike because the sites are spread out and the group moves en masse. Bicycles are available at the office for 15,000 kip. We strongly recommend anything but walking as those on foot will not be able to do the entire tour and miss out on a number of caves.
To make the tour easier to understand, arrive a few minutes before to read the displays explaining why Laos was at war and the key figures of the Pathet Lao. Check that your audio machine is working before departing the visitor centre.
The full tour includes Kaysone Phomvihane cave site (contains the politburo meeting room); Nouhak Phoumsavan cave site; Souphannouvong cave site (the Prince’s cave, garden and house that was built after the ceasefire); Phoumi Vongvichid cave site; Khamtay Siphandone and Xanglot cave site (the largest natural cave complex, contains the giant theatre which is still used today for important political assemblies); artillery cave site. One of the caves may not be accessible during rainy season.
Visiting from Sam Neua
The Vieng Xai caves can be done as a day trip from Sam Neua. The best way is to hire a taxi for around 250,000 kip roundtrip, the price increasing with more passengers or if including a stop at Nam Nouan waterfall. The driver will shuttle you from cave to cave during the tour.
Using public transport is possible. Take the first songthaew departing from the Nathong bus station, four kilometres east of town. It departs around 09:30 or when there’s enough passengers—do verify the current schedule and arrive an hour before the departure time. The trip costs 20,000 kip and takes one hour. It’s also possible to take the local bus to Xamtai (Samtai), it passes through Vieng Xai. If planning to take the public bus back to Sam Neua, let the guide know and they’ll keep it in mind, finishing the afternoon tour in time. Venture to the main road and catch the bus coming from Vietnam, which passes through Vieng Xai around 17:00 (25,000 kip).
Cindy Fan is a Canadian writer/photographer and author of So Many Miles, a website that chronicles the love of adventure, food and culture. After falling in love with sticky rice and Mekong sunsets, in 2011 she uprooted her life in Toronto to live la vida Laos. She’s travelled to over 40 countries and harbours a deep affection for Africa and Southeast Asia. In between jaunts around the world, she calls Laos and Vietnam home where you’ll find her traipsing through rice paddies, standing beside broken-down buses and in villages laughing with the locals.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
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