The Hanuman team recently undertook a remote overland trip to remote Hua Phan Province in Northeast Laos, home to the Vieng Xay Caves where the Pathet Lao leadership were based during the US bombing campaign from 1964-73.
The landscape around the Vieng Xay Caves
The Cu Chi Tunnels is one of the must-see destinations in Vietnam, showcasing the incredible tenacity of the Vietnamese people in their long war against the Americans. Many a tourist has explored the enlarged tunnel sites and marveled at the enduring spirit and strength of the people who survived in these conditions. For those that have braved the original, non-enlarged tunnel passages, it is nightmareishly claustrophobic experience that provokes fears of being buried alive. However, there is another Indochina war-era destination that sees very little tourist traffic and is every bit as fascinating, the Pathet Lao caves in Vieng Xay district.
The Pathet Lao (PL) or communist leadership in Laos were given the control of two northern provinces of Laos, Hua Phan and Phongsali, as part of the Geneva Conference resolution of 1954 that temporarily divided Vietnam into North and South. The PL set about establishing a network of bases in the region and as the war in Vietnam war heated up in the 1960s, the leadership decided to retreat into the caves for protection from US bombing raids over Laos.
The caves are set beneath striking limestone karsts, similar to those seen around Yuanshou in China or Marble Mountains in Vietnam. Natural caves were enlarged, connected and reinforced to ensure the communist leadership had a safe haven during the 9-year US bombing campaign. Laos has the unfortunate distinction of being the most heavily bombed country per capita in the world, with more bombs dropped on this small country than all the bombs dropped by all sides during WWII.
The cave experience includes an excellent audio tour put together by Narrowcasters of Australia, the same company that has more recently enhanced the Killing Fields visit in Cambodia. Starting at Kaysone Phomivane’s house and cave, the PL leader who became the first communist prime minister of the Lao PDR after 1975, the tour gives an incisive background to the Lao conflict. Entering the caves, it is possible to visit Phomivane’s office and basic bedroom, as well as the emergency room, complete with bombproof doors and an independent oxygen supply.
The tour includes a number of other cave homes of significant PL leaders, including: Prince Souphanouvong, the so-called ‘Red Prince’, who became the first president of communist Laos; and Khamtai Siphandone, military commander of the PL and later prime minister of Lao PDR. From 1973 and the cessation of the US bombing of Laos, the PL leadership felt sufficiently safe to venture out of the caves and construct permanent houses close by. The style of housing offers an interesting glimpse into the taste of each leader, with PL leader Phamivone opting for an austere, almost-Soviet block, Prince Souphanouvong choosing a more attractive French-influenced villa, and Siphandone choosing a striking wooden stilt house similar to those found in the 4000 Islands region of Champasak, not unlike Ho Chi Minh’s stilt house in Hanoi.
The tour includes the impressive Xanglot Cave that was used mass weddings, political rallies, cinema screenings (not Hollywood!) and theatrical performances. Communist troupes came here from all over the world to rally the PL fighters, including China, Cuba and North Korea.
The audio tour really makes the Vieng Xay caves one of the highlights of rural Laos. Vieng Xay is very remote and only accessible by long and winding mountain roads. In Laos-only itineraries, it is best combined in a long looping journey from Vientiane to Luang Prabang that includes stops at Vang Vieng, Phonsavan and the Plain of Jars and Nong Khiaw along the way. An easier option is to undertake an adventurous overland journey from Vietnam to Laos, starting in Hanoi and travelling via the White Thai villages of Mai Chau, the Vieng Xay experience, the striking scenery and Nong Khiaw and finishing with some well deserved pampering in Luang Prabang at the end. This sort of trip can also be combined with Halong Bay and Sapa for those with more time to explore Northern Vietnam.
There are several flights a week to Sam Neua’s Nathong Airport, 30km from Vieng Xay, but these are in small and ageing aircraft flown by Lao Air. For those longing for the nostalgia of Soviet-era flights, the planes leave Vientiane on Mon/Wed/Fri at 13.00pm, returning at 15.00pm. There are plans afoot to build a new airport with international links using Vietnamese money, but this is unlikely to materialise before 2016.
Hanuman’s Vietnam and Laos Revealed trip offers an adventurous overland itinerary from Hanoi to Luang Prabang via the Vieng Xay Caves: http://www.hanuman.travel/Tours/Indochina/Vietnam_Laos_Revealed.html
For more on the history of the caves, including some excerpts from the audio tour, visit the official Viengxay website: http://www.visit-viengxay.com/viengxay-the-past-voices.html
For more on Lao Air and their schedule to Nathong Airport in Sam Neua, visit http://www.lao-air.com/airline.php