Houaphanh’s Top Attractions
Investigate the Hintang ancient burial site, or take the Night Safari to search for wild animals. Discover the heritage, culture, and nature of this rarely visited province.
A walk around Xam Neua Town reveals its past dating to the 16th century. In the centre of town straddling Phati Road, a pair of ancient stupas remain standing, having withstood US bombings. However, the attacks destroyed the nearby temple.
North on Phati Road, Independence Monument sits on a hilltop. Laos built the shrine in 1978, as a testimonial to the nation’s liberation.
Further along the main road, Vat Phoxaysanalam houses a Buddha statue dating from 1565, and weighing 3,850 kg. Stupas and monks’ houses also sit on the grounds.
At the southern entrance to Xam Neua, the town erected Souankeolakmeuang Monument in 2007. The four-pronged pillar topped with a “gemstone” adds a modern art touch to those driving into town. Stop and have a look at the nearby Culture Hall.
Travel 30 km east of Xam Neua on Route 6 to reach the provincial highlight, The Viengxay Cave City, home to the Lao liberation movement. The Cave City houses scores of caverns, each with its own purpose, and a tour shows life in a cave during the Indochinese War.
You’ll see President Kaysone Phomvihane’s house and cave office, and the Politburo Meeting Room. Look around founding father, Nouhak Phoumsavan’s and Prince Souphanouvong’s houses and caves. Other caves on the tour include hollows for a school, hospital, military communications, soldiers’ barracks, artillery storage, and even entertainment.
Ponder the 2,000-year-old “Standing Stones” at the Hintang Archaeological Site south of Xam Neua just off Route 6 at Ban Phao. The “Menhirs” – long, narrow rock slabs standing upright in groupings, with the tallest in the middle – date to the Bronze Age, and mark burial sites. Archaeologists first discovered the chambers in 1931. They accessed the cavities, drilled deep in the bedrock, through chimneys covered with massive stone disks. Inside, they discovered a few artefacts such as ceramic urns and bronze bracelets, which predate the Plain of Jars.
Inspect the defunct Royal Lao Government’s airbase, known as Lima Site 36, in the province’s far west on the Luang Prabang Road near Viengthong Town. The turnoff to Ban Nakhang leads to the former military base and its airstrip. Nearby, you’ll find 10,000-litre fuel tanks and the remains of road work equipment. Further north, you’ll uncover a shell launcher hidden in the overgrowth. Nearby, Ban Nakout villagers used “war junk” as building materials and to make farm tools.
The 50-km drive east on Route 6 from Viengxay to the Vietnam border follows scenic rivers, and you’ll find four caves used by the Pathet Lao during the war. Many think the Lao Cuba Friendship Hospital Cave is the most impressive of grottoes in Viengxay’s cave complex. It houses one ward for men, one for women, and another for intensive care patients.
To streamline clothes and uniform production, the Pathet Lao set up the Sewing Cave in 1969, at Ban Som. In 1973 a factory was constructed outside the cave, which operated around the clock with 200 workers until 1986. Textiles can still be purchased directly from local people.
Established in 1966, to meet the demand for clothes and uniforms, the Textile Cave is located about 1 km off the main road, 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.
Located in Ban Xieng, about 50 km east of Viengxay, the Steel Cave 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.
A short stroll around Xam Neua Town opens the door to priceless slices of the local culture. In the town’s north across Phati Road from Vat Phoxaysanalam, you’ll find a cluster of weaving houses using generation’s-old weaving methods. They create high-quality cotton and silk textiles, many of which are exported to Asian markets such as Singapore and Japan.
Head to the steel suspension bridge and walk south along the Nam Xam River Promenade, where you’ll see vendors selling clothes, fresh food, and other goods. Cross to the eastern bank and stop at the Xam Neua Market, where you’ll find locals haggling over a range of products including silk textiles and ethnic minority clothing as well as vegetables, meat and other food products. Further along, visit the Chinese Market, and then cross west over the river at the Viengxay Road and look inside the Cultural Hall across from the Souankeolakmeuang Monument at the city’s southern entrance.
Northwest of the city, you can follow the Xam Neua Cultural Bike Trail that runs on a nice dirt road 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, meet locals at the Hmong village of Ban Sivilay, and Ban Samakkhixay, home to Khmu people. At Ban Tham, you can examine the village’s temple, stupa, and nearby Buddha Cave. Motorcycle rentals are available in Xam Neua.
The Viengxay-Vietnam Trail, a 50-km drive east on Route 6 to Vietnam’s border checkpoint, presents several towns maintaining their cultural roots. Stop first at Ban Poung Nakhao, before checking out Ban Phieng Ban and Ban Phoun San, home to some of Viengxay’s most skilled weavers.
Xam Tai has a reputation for weaving the best quality silk and cotton textile products in Laos, and visitors can follow this fascinating process that uses natural dyes to create intricate traditional designs at a number of the district’s villages. Sizeable wooden waterwheels irrigate Xam Tai Town’s rice fields.
Inspect “Tin Drum Village” (Ban Nakout), where Tai Phuan villagers rebuilt their houses with war scrap. Seven families, who migrated from Xieng Khouang in 1865, established Ban Nakout in Houaphanh’s west near Viengthong. Today, the village has some 100 households, and you can watch them process silk, create natural dyes, and weave textiles. They are also known for blacksmithing, and they use these skills to forge tools from the war’s leftovers.
Bamboo villages dot Route 6 on its 50-km run from Viengxay to the Vietnam border, as this section breeds 30 species of bamboo, some of which grow up to a metre a day. 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. They all use bamboo to build houses or make tools, mats, hats, furniture, water pipes, lampshades, toys and baskets.
Pull into Bang Kang Muang, about 20 km east of Viengxay, where the Phou Tai first planted red tea trees in 1828. Originally grown for local consumption, the tea’s distinct flavour began attracting buyers in the 1980s. Today, the Tai Daeng live in the village, and grow and harvest the tea from the 100-year-old trees. Locals say the soil of Ban Kang result in the smooth, delicate flavours suitable for export.
The adjoining National Protected Areas (NPAs) Nam Et-Phou Louey cover approximately 3,380 km2 of rugged mountainous terrain in the province’s west. Its peaks reach 2,257 metres, and are forested with mixed deciduous and evergreen trees. Key species include clouded leopards, tigers, and other large cats. You can access Nam Et from Viengthong, though the road is rough. Entry to Phou Louey is easier via an all-weather road from Route 1.
Looking to spot rare wildlife while in Laos? The Nam Et-Phou Louey NPA and Ban Son Koua villagers are now offering a two-day, award-winning Nam Nern Night Safari with an evening boat ride up the Nam Nern, and then quietly floats back down river as you to try and catch a glimpse of rare animals including tigers.
Also at the NPAs, you’ll find locals bathing and washing clothes around the Viengthong Hot Springs. They believe the waters in this vast hot springs area in a bucolic setting have medicinal qualities, but be careful where you take a dip as the temperature of some springs can reach 100º C.
Close to the Viengxay Caves, head to the Nam Noua Waterfall as it plunges in a mist from an 80-metre-high ledge over two tiers and through a rocky, tree-lined trough to its rocky bottom.
Just south of Xam Neua off Route 6, the Nam Muang Hot Springs sits in a serene valley, and makes for a relaxing stop. Nearby, you can view Houei Yad Waterfall crash over sloping rocks to a pond, where the waters enter a small river. From here, take a short walk up a mountain ridge to Houei Yad Village, known for recycling crashed aircraft.
Continue south of Xam Neua on Route 6 to a flat trail that leads to the tree-lined Phonxay-Saluey Waterfall. The cascade tumbles some 100 metres over rock slabs to a final leap into a relaxing pool and on to a calm stream. A trail alongside the falls takes the adventurous to the top.
The 1,734-km2 Nam Xam NPA is home to endangered species including tigers, gibbons, and elephants, as well as several threatened birds. Its steep hills, climbing to 1,800 metres, are covered with mixed deciduous and semi-evergreen forests, and its streams feed two main rivers: the Nam Xam and Nam Niam. Access is via a track from the Vieng Xay-Vietnamese border road.