Take a leisurely walk through Xam Neua Town, or head further away on the Xam Neua Bike Trail. No trip to Houaphanh is complete without going on the Viengxay Caves Tour or visiting the Hintang Archaeological Park with 2,000-year-old burial sites. The Viengxay Bike Loop to the Vietnam border opens the way to local culture, while the Nam Nern Night Safari takes you deep in the jungle on a boat to look for wildlife.
Xam Neua Town Walking Tour
Stroll through Xam Neua Town and discover pleasant slices of life. This walking tour stops at religious sites, national monuments, weaving houses, and a market, and includes a pleasant saunter along the Nam Xam River Promenade. The tour can also be taken in reverse.
Start at the northern end of town on Phati Road, and visit Vat Phoxaysanalam, Xam Neua’s most sacred temple. It houses a Buddha statue dating from 1565, and weighs a massive 3,850 kg. Stupas and monks’ houses (kuti) also sit on the grounds.
Cross the road to inspect the Weaving Houses Cluster, a number of houses where people from around the province weave high-quality cotton and silk textiles, many of which are exported to Asian markets.
Head back towards the town’s centre, and have a look at the Independence Monument built on a hilltop in 1978, as a testimonial to Laos’ liberation.
As you near the town’s hub on Phati Road, examine a pair of historic stupas that withstood US bombings. Unfortunately, the war took its toll on the temple next to which they stand.
When you reach the steel suspension bridge that crosses the Nam Xam River, wander on the path south along the waterway. You’ll soon reach the Nam Xam River Promenade, where vendors sell clothes, fresh food and other goods. Picture-takers can pause for great village shots.
Cross the next bridge near the Visitor Information Centre to find the large Xam Neua Market on the east bank. Here, you’ll uncover a range of goods including silk textiles and ethnic minority clothing as well as vegetables, meat, and other food products.
Continue to the southern entrance to Xam Neua Town to view the Souankeolakmeuang Monument inside the intersection. Inaugurated in 2007, the four-pronged city pillar topped with a round “gemstone” stands as a modern landmark and makes for a great photo opportunity.
Xam Neua Bike Trail
Hop on a bike or motor scooter and follow a nice dirt road northwest along the Nam Hang and Nam Xam Rivers. Stop at Ban Poung and Ban Kan to view the ruins of a temple and historic stupas, and watch villagers distil rice alcohol.
Further along, visit the Hmong village of Ban Sivilay and neighbouring Ban Samakkhixay, home to Khmu people. Further along at Ban Tham, you can visit the village’s temple, stupa, and nearby Buddha Cave. To view the hidden waterfalls further northwest, you’ll need a guide from the Visitor Information Centre.
Bicycles are available at several establishments in town, and motorcycle rentals are available at a shop about 100 metres south of the Visitor Information Centre on the west-side of the main road.
Viengxay Caves Tour
Serving as the Pathet Lao revolutionary movement’s command centre from 1964-1975, Viengxay’s “Cave City” housed some 20,000 people, government offices, temples, markets, schools, hospitals, theatres, and factories. Book and start a tour in the garden of the Cave’s Visitor Centre, and be sure to grab a guidebook for the 15-plus caves and sites you’ll see.
The first stop is the house of Laos’ first President Kaysone Phomvihane. While standing in his peaceful garden, you’ll hear how the cave’s early residents became the centre for liberation and describe early air attacks.
Next, you’ll enter Kaysone’s Cave Office, the complex’s largest cavern. View foreign gifts such as a statue of Lenin and collection of books, while learning about Kaysone’s vision for Laos.
Step inside the Politburo Meeting Cave, where the leaders debated policies and major decisions. You’ll see the table where the politburo set policy, while discovering how they created solidarity among the people.
When peace came, leaders built homes in front of their caves. You’ll learn about the area around Nouhak Phoumsavan’s House and Cave, where one of Pathet Lao’s founding fathers lived.
At Prince Souphanouvong’s House & Garden, you’ll find out about the “Red Prince’s” love of planting trees, flowers, grapefruit, and bougainvillea, and his morning exercise regime. Unable to cremate the dead because the smoke could attract enemy attention, Prince Souphanouvong built a stupa to place the remains of his son, Ariya Thammasin. Inside the prince’s cave, you’ll learn about the intense US bombardment, and how locals learned to distinguish among spotter, bomber, and fighter planes.
Education played a prominent role during the war years, and the school was in Phoumi Vongvichid’s Cave, where politician and historian Phoumi Vongvichid’s created the curriculum and ran the school system.
Visit Sithone Kommadam’s Cave for stories of this fierce fighter for the Pathet Lao.
At the Small Hospital Cave, you’ll hear doctors, nurses, and residents explaining what medical care was like in the caves during the war.
A stop at Khamtay Siphandone’s House will teach you about the Pathet Lao’s Commander in Chief and how he motivated young students to move to the caves. Inside Khamtay’s Cave, locals describe the military communications, which were based in the cave network, and overseen by General Khamtay.
Visit the Soldiers’ Cave Barracks, where ex-soldiers tell of life in the caves, which included preparing for battle, teaching farming, protecting the village, and entertaining the troops.
At the Artillery Cave, you’ll see where the Lao revolutionary troops manned heavy anti-aircraft artillery and scanned the skies for enemy planes.
For special events like weddings and festivals, soldiers and locals headed to Xanglot Cave to celebrate.
Viengxay Bike Loop
Hop on a motorbike tour and inspect the many heritage and cultural sites that dot Route 6 towards Vietnam, as the road meanders through the mountain scenery during a 50-km one-way ride to the border checkpoint.
Start at the Lao-Cuba Friendship Hospital Cave, one of the most impressive grottoes in the area. The hospital cave houses one ward for men, one for women, and another for intensive care patients.
Moving east, you’ll reach a series of Bamboo Villages, which are giving Viengxay a growing reputation for quality bamboo handicrafts and baskets. Stop first at Ban Poung Nakhao, before checking out Ban Phieng Ban in Muang Kang and Ban Phoun San, home to some of Viengxay’s most skilled weavers.
The Phou Tai first planted red tea trees in 1828, in Ban Kang, about 20 km from Viengxay. Originally grown for local consumption, the tea’s distinct flavour began attracting outsiders in the 1980s. Today, Ban Kang grows and harvests (March-August) tea from 100-year-old trees. Be sure to enjoy a cup.
To streamline clothes and uniform production, the Sewing Cave opened in 1969, at Ban Som, about 500 metres off the south side of the main road. In 1973, a factory was constructed outside the cave, which operated around the clock with 200 workers until 1986. Textiles can still be purchased from the locals.
Established in 1966, to meet the demand for clothes and uniforms, the Pathet Lao opened the Textile Cave about 1 km off the main road some 1.5 km east of the Sewing Cave. In 1972, the USSR outfitted the cave with equipment to produce large quantities of cotton materials, towels, and mosquito nets. The cave ceased production in 1986. Access requires a local guide.
The final stop is the Steel Cave, which began manufacturing and selling shovels, hoes, picks, watering cans, knives, nuts, and bolts in 1968. By the early 1970s, the USSR had delivered machinery, and at its peak the cave employed 250 workers before closing in 1989. You’ll find it close to the Vietnam border in Ban Xieng, about 2.5 km northeast of the main road.
The Hintang Archaeological Park and Walking Trail
Spend a day examining the Hintang Archaeological Park, and its menhirs (standing stones), which pre-date the Plain of Jars and mark burial sites. Located along a 12-km mountain ridge south of Xam Neua, these long, narrow rock blades and stone disks, first examined in 1931, raised archaeologists eyebrows, as they hid Bronze Age trinkets.
To reach the main stone group at San Kong Phan, travel on Route 6 to the turnoff at Ban Phao, and take a 6-km dirt road to the site. You’ll find clusters of the upright cut schist, with the tallest in the middle, scattered among burial chambers drilled deep into the bedrock. Archaeologists access the compartments via ladders that descend conduits covered with large stone disks. Though the origin of these ancient remains are unknown, artefacts found inside include ceramic urns and crude bronze bracelets.
After visiting San Kong Phan, head out on the Hintang Walking Trail, a 2-hour trek along the mountain ridge that leads to more burial sites. Among them is the largest, known as Keohintang. The trail reaches the main road at Ban Tao Hin. You can also take this trek in reverse, starting from the main road and finishing your visit to Hintang at San Kong Phan.
The Nam Nern Night Safari
Embark on a journey of a lifetime: the award-winning Nam Nern Night Safari. This 24-hour, boat-based tour delves deep into the core of the Nam Et-Phou Louey NPA. The tour’s highlight is trying to spot endangered wildlife at night as your long-tail boat drifts down the Nam Nern River.
Tour activities include bird watching, wildlife tracking, and night-time wildlife spotting, as well as seeking medicinal plants during a daytime hike. Accommodation is in a two-person traditional Lao bungalow overlooking the Nam Nern River from the forest’s edge.