Vieng Xai is a very small town set among ponds, greenery and karst rocks. It is famous for the limestone cave system used as a shelter from American bombing during the Vietnam War by the Laotian communist guerilla fighters. The Pathet Lao created in the caves entire settlements for thousands of people, much like Viet Cong’s Cu Chi tunnels in Vietnam. It’s worth to pass by Vieng Xai if you’re heading to northern or central Vietnam but due to poor roads, this route should be avoided in the wet season.
Phonsavan – Sam Neua – Vieng Xai
The only way to reach Vieng Xai is from Phonsavan via Sam Neua. Sam Neua is, from the tourists point of view, a totally unexciting place. It makes sense to stay here overnight before carrying on to Vietnam or Vieng Xai but not much beyond that. As in any place where tourists aren’t common, the prices of food in the market are very low, though.
Not so easy to get to Vieng Xai
The English- speaking staff at the tourist information centre in Sam Nuea advised us to take a morning bus to Vietnam from the long-distance bus station and get off in Vieng Xai. Clearly, they were not very well informed…
No bus to Vietnam
Although we arrived 45 min ahead of the schedule, the bus never arrived. Once we found somebody who could speak English, we learned that the bridge was broken and the buses weren’t running for a week – with no prospects of change.
We were told that the only way to get to Vieng Xai would be hiring a tuk tuk for 300 000 kip return or 150 000 one way. It was insanely expensive so we had to find some alternative.
A bus and a hitch-hike
Without much hope, we took a tuk-tuk to the short-distance bus station at the other end of the city. There weren’t any songthaeows or buses to Vieng Xai but talking to the local men we got to know that the bus standing at the station was going in the direction of Vieng Xai and could drop us at the crossroads in Ban Hang Long/ Samphan Xai, 8.5 km from the town, for just 20 000 kip.
Without much thinking, we boarded the ancient bus. We arrived at the crossroads in Ban Hang Long in 45 minutes of a snail-paced journey. Luckily, we hitched the ride on the second pick up van we waved at.
The road to Vieng Xai was the worst road we had seen in the entire Laos and we couldn’t imagine that this poorly maintained dirt road was the only way to get to the Vietnam border, neither could we believe any bus could take it. The landscape was really pretty, though, with karst rocks springing up from the rice paddies.
Vieng Xai on a budget
Searching for the most affordable accommodation in the town, we came across a row of newly built bungalows near the Vieng Xai market. The standard of the bungalows was very good and the price was decent but for inexplicable reason, all the porches and windows were facing the parking site instead of the paddy field, ponds and karst rocks spreading just behind them.
Apart from meagre food we could find at the small morning market, we had all our meals at the Indian restaurant nearby. It was the best restaurant in town serving cheap, delicious and authentic Indian and Lao food. The Indian owner spoke good English which was additional advantage.
Vieng Xai Caves
We arrived at the visitor centre, located at the southern end of the town, on time for 1 pm tour of the caves so we were a bit surprised that the ticket seller was sleeping when we entered. We must have been the first visitors in a long time. We hired on the spot good quality mountain bikes as we had read that without a bike we wouldn’t be able to see all sites during a 3-hour tour.
The tickets we got stated clearly an audio-guide was included. We had heard lots of good things about the quality of the audio-guide and were looking forward to get to know more about Lao’s history. Alas! The audio guides were broken and we were given a guide instead. He arrived on a motorbike promptly.
We followed him on our bikes to the first cave. He apologised for not speaking English well. Indeed, his language skills were rather poor. He would just open the gates to the caves and lead us through the caves but wasn’t much of a help in terms of explaining what we were looking at. That made the tour rather monotonous and very swift.
Every cave had a similar layout: a bodyguard lookout, a concealed entrance, an office or a meeting room, a bedroom which looked like a prison cage, an anti-bombing shelter and a kitchen outside. Some caves didn’t have electricity and we were exploring them in the light of the mobile.
All we got to know from our guide and from the scarce written information on site was that each cave was reserved to one of the Lao communist guerilla leaders. They stayed there for 9 years due to intensive bombings of the American army.
We later read in Wikipedia that 480 caves were used by the Pathet Lao- the communist party of Laos – during the Vietnam war. Although they fought the Lao royalist forces, they hid in the caves not from them but from the US bombings. Up to 23,000 people lived in the caves, which apart from Pathet Lao headquarters contained a hospital, a school, bakeries, shops, and even a theatre. Vieng Xai was chosen as a base for the communist forces because it was close to the Vietnamese border and they received a huge support from Viet Cong.
The guide finished his ‘tour’ after around 1.5 hour. The ride through the countryside was nice in itself due to karst formations. Still, I felt very disappointed as I could have got much more from that trip and it didn’t deliver what was promised (especially for that price!). My advice would be to make sure the audio guides are available before making the journey to Vieng Xai (mind that whoever picks up the phone at the Visitors Centre might not speak English!) or download the transcript from here
Other things to see in Vieng Xai
Due to fast approaching visa expiry, we didn’t have time to visit Tham Nok Ann cave, located 5 km outside Vieng Xai in the direction of Sam Neua (it’s market on Maps.me). It is a large cave with rich rock formations through which a river flows. It used to be possible to take a boat trip deep into the cave – so long as you could find a driver. Lonely Planet hints that nowadays due to few visitors only walking through the cave and up the stairs to the war-time hospital is possible. The entrance is just 10 000 kip.
Onward journey – backward journey
Our initial plan was to take a bus from Vieng Xai (or – to be on the safe side- from the bus starting point, Sam Neua) to Than Hoa in Vietnam, crossing the border in Nam Neo/Nam Xoi.
Unfortunately, the small Nam Neo crossing was closed. After a few days of waiting for a miracle, we were forced to come back where we came from – Phonsavan – and take a bus to Vinh in Vietnam from there. We were not particularly pleased with the extremely long journey ahead of us but had no other choice as our visas were about to expire.
How to get to Vieng Xai?
The only way to get to Vieng Xai is by road, via Phonsavan and Sam Neua. It is impossible to get there in one day- you would need to stay in Sam Neua for a night. It it a very long journey and makes sense only if you carry on to northern Vietnam via Nam Neo/Nam Xoi crossing. Not recommended in the monsoon season due to road conditions.
A local minivan from Phonsavan to Sam Neua takes min. 10 hours.
From Sam Neua bus station (same where the minivan from Phonsavan arrives) you can take a morning bus to Vietnam and get off at Vieng Xai.
Travelfish reports that there are songthaews from Nathong station (4 km east of Sam Neua) to Vieng Xai and buses to Xamtai which stop in Vieng Xai but we can’t confirm that.
Alternatives are: hiring a tuk tuk (very expensive) or taking a bus from Nathong to Ban Hang Long/ Samphan Xai (8.5 km from Vieng Xai) and hitchhiking from there. Vieng Xai centre is 1 km walk away from the main road and the Cave Visitor Centre – 2 km.
Getting a songthaew from Vieng Xai to Sam Neua is a bit easier. They stop near the gas station on the main road, 1 km from Vieng Xai market but don’t expect adhering to the schedule.
Prices in Sam Neua and Vieng Xai [in Laotian kip, as of September 2018]:
130-150 000 private hire tuk tuk Sam Nuea-Vieng Xai
80 000 minivan Sam Neua- Phonsavan
75 000 guided tour of the caves + bicycle rental
60 000 a small cottage in Vieng Xai
60 000 en-suite double room in Sam Neua
30 000 shared tuk-tuk Vieng Xai – Sam Neua
20-25 000 meal at the Indian restaurant in Vieng Xai
15- 20 000 simple meal in an eatery in Sam Neua
1 000 deep fried sweet at Sam Neua market