City of Victory
Vieng Xai is the living time capsule of a grandiose moment in Lao history: the victorious culmination of a three-decade Communist insurgency that cut the country from 200 years of Thai and French colonialism.
It is also, by any stretch, a ghost town worthy of the Twilight Zone crumbling with vestiges of jingoism and failed pretensions to Soviet grandeur.
The town's central monument - a prematurely ageing cement statue of a rifle-toting female farmer, a soldier and a worker whose foot rests triumphantly on a bomb marked "USA" - has the flimsy amateur feel of a backdrop in a school play.
Weeds and piles of rubbish overrun the courtyard in the boarded-up cultural centre, while the giant circular Party emblem mounted above the centre's entrance is flaking apart, its faded Lao flag barely recognisable and the star on its wreath dangling by a nail.
It's hard to imagine how this loop of streets once merited the distinction "City of Victory", or even just "city", much less that leaders of the Lao revolution envisaged it would become a remote cultural oasis and symbolic cradle of Marxism in Laos.
Of course, these were men who barely saw a full day's sunlight in more than a decade. Then again, maybe this is an apt symbol.
Lying at the base of a limestone mountain range between Xam Neua and the Lao-Vietnamese border at Nam Meo, it was from Vieng Xai that the Lao Communist Party (the Pathet Lao) waged its "30-year struggle" against a succession of coalition governments and US-backed Royal Lao forces that ended in 1975.
For ten years starting in 1963, when relentless US air strikes began showering northern Laos with cluster bombs, Pathet Lao leaders lived in an extensive network of limestone caves, effectively operating a shadow government from a hidden city.
Though farmers spent the war years in and out of the hundreds of caves speckling the town's environs, only caves five make up the official tour of Vieng Xai. Well-preserved, if a bit spartan, the quintet served as the headquarters for the masterminds of the Pathet Lao.
From outside, the town tourist centre didn't inspire much hope. Neither did its interior.
The airy white cement building seemed to house little more than a table, telephone, washed out photos of nerdy farang on the walls and a permanent bunch of locals hanging out and drinking tea in cotton pyjamas.
There were no maps of the caves, no handy brochures and, apparently, no way to navigate the cave's vast interiors without the watchful eye of a government tour guide.
Luckily, the trio of chatty English-speaking guides on staff has the sort of laidback provincial charm you pray for when face-to-face with uniformed officials. We landed the soft-spoken Somkhit Boua, who for 9,000kip each (about 90 cents US) took us on a more than two-hour tour romp to the caves by motorbike.
First up was the war-time dug out of Khamtay Siphandone, the country's sitting president.
Almost invisible from the outside, the cave's mouth leads to a narrow whitewashed corridor that winds past a series of "meeting rooms" with wooden walls before arriving at Khamtay Siphandone's bedroom and that of his nephew.
Sandwiched between the bedrooms lies an "emergency room": a cemented bunker built in case of chemical warfare that was outfitted with a Soviet-grade, wooden oxygen pump that looks 13th-century at best, and sealed with a 2-inch-thick, airtight submarine door.
The safety measures in the officers' quarters seemed to borderline on the paranoiac to us: Surely the apocalypse-ready bunkers in each corner and the legions of bodyguards camped out at every entrance were a stretch.
But consider that a brisk breather outside in daylight could cost your life, that a son of the party leader was assassinated in Vieng Xai in 1967, or just that the US was dropping napalm on neighbour Vietnam with the rabid enthusiasm of a schoolboy on a sugar high - and all the precautions don't seem so unfounded.
Beginning in the mid-1940s the Pathet Lao lived in the forests around Vieng Xai, most of the time hooking up with Viet Minh troops. They only moved into the caves when US bombing began in 1963, Mr Soumkhit explained.
Then when US President Lyndon Johnson called off air strikes over Northern Vietnam in 1968 - rerouting the planes to carpet bomb targets in Laos - the Pathet Lao never left the caves.
For 24-hour living quarters, the caves are also striking in their complete lack of privacy. Paper-thin walls divide the carved interiors, never fully sealing a room or quite reaching the ceilings.
Descending a dimly lit staircase through another submarine door we arrived in the second cave, in reality a kilometre of linked passages, open grottos and one particularly massive amphitheatre-like cavern where acrobats once staged circus performances.
The soldiers' caves have none of the whitewashed smoothness of the dynamite-blasted officers quarters, instead relying mostly on jagged natural formations and sheer size to awe visitors. So much so, it's easy to forget the purpose of your tour was to marvel Lao ingenuity (and that of Soviet and Chinese friends) and fortitude, and not to snap up shots of pretty moss-covered stalagmites and stalactites.
Home to 2,000 soldiers during the war, the second cave has a mini water reservoir for bathing, the closest the caves got to indoor plumbing, and was fitted with electricity in 1971.
For all their engineering might, though, the Pathet Lao never managed to prevent floods from rendering half of the caves uninhabitable at the peak of the rainy season, Soumkhit told us. We hiked up our trousers and pushed on.
We headed next to the pink house belonging to the public face of the Pathet Lao, Prince Souphanouvoung.
Better known to the world as the "Red Prince," Souphanouvoung was the youngest of three influential brothers who, together, dominated Lao politics after World War II, starting in 1945 when they dethroned the pro-French king (their uncle) and set up the first "Free Lao" government.
While his brothers eventually took up more moderate approaches to ousting the colonisers, the single-minded Souphanouvoung was influenced early on by the Viet Minh, who supplied him with the troops and cash to fight the French from 1945 onward. In 1950 he founded the Pathet Lao with the men who would later form the party's inner circle.
But for all his passion for an independent, Socialist Lao state, a visit to Souphanouvoung's well-manicured pad indicates maybe the French-educated prince had a bit more difficulty shrugging off the comforts of colonialism than its politics.
Replete with tennis court and swimming pool (built out of a bomb crater barely 10m from his front door), the villa grounds are smothered in fiery fuchsia plants and lined with gnarled pomelo trees that lend it a breathtaking and unmistakably Mediterranean air.
An trained engineer and architect, Souphanouvoung apparently decided to drop survival-camp-chic and go for a breezy holiday home look that left us longing for lounge chairs and bloody marys.
The interior of his tiny dugout cave, by comparison, held little interest, save the inclusion of living quarters for an in-house medical staff and the patio-like kitchen area.
The Pathet Lao engine
Like with the Red Prince, it's easy to see where Kaysone Phom Vihane got his influence - or, at least, where the party wants us to believe he did.
The effective engine behind the Pathet Lao, Kaysone is regarded as the country's Uncle Ho, a humble worker bee who directed the Socialist revolution and then led Laos as president from 1975 until his death in 1992.
His cave, set high on a hill not far from the royal villa, served as the meeting point for the Politburo, whose six other members slept side-by-side in stark twin beds lined up Orphan Annie-style (though with decidedly less sun) in the cave's front room.
Kaysone, our guide insisted, was a simple man with a brilliant, multi-lingual mind.
To prove this, he pointed to a desk in Kaysone's quarters, where a desk sits completely bare except for five exceptionally stale-looking yet immaculately piled books, ranging in topic from Leninism to the writings of Ho Chi Minh. Apparently Kaysone's only light entertainment came in artwork, and a ledge by the window (a hole in the cave wall) doubles as a display for gifts from foreign bigwigs - most notably a portrait of Che Guevera as a young man that was carried by the Cuban foreign minister on a visit to the caves in 1969.
Across the street lived Kaysone's right-hand man, the restless Nouthak Phovan Savane, whose miniscule one-bedroom, one-oxygen-machine cave reflects the ascetic lifestyle of a man whose life blood apparently was the party. A Savanakhet native, like Kaysone he was one of the founding members of the Pathet Lao, having worked closely with the Viet Minh in the 1940s and representing his party at the 1954 Geneva Accords.
Despite his role in the country's history, the only thing of note in the former president's home is a mint 1950s Toyota Land Cruiser, gingerly parked out in a shack next to his post-war, Dallas-style ranch.
But like all things in this area, which saw 2 tonnes of bombs fall from the sky per capita, that it exists at all is a feat in itself.
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Located on Route 6 about 26km south of Xam Neua and 55km north of the Vietnamese border town of Nam Meo (Thanh Hoa Province), most travellers reach Vieng Xai by bus over a spectacular 280km ride from Phonsavan (Plain of Jars). With the Nam Meo crossing recently opened to foreigners in April, tourist flow is certainly to increase from Vietnam.
Vieng Xai can also be reached by air via the "airport" in Xam Neua, which runs flights to and from Vientiane aboard Lao Aviation's trusty and slightly rusty fleet of 15-seat Yun-12 propeller planes. One-way tickets for foreigners cost US$71.50, or $130 for a round-trip. The fare is well worth just the views over the emerald mountains encasing the Plain of Jars and over the pastel-coloured banks of Ang Nam Ngum.
Though the occasional teachers' conference rolls into town, forcing travellers to stay in Xam Neua, for the time being the town's very limited and no-frills accommodation more than meets the needs of tourism.
About 750km from the market, the family-run Naxay guesthouse offers four basic double rooms in a stilt house for 20,000kip (about $2) and serves the town's most edible and varied dishes. The guesthouse's badminton court doubles as the local dance club, so if you are not keen on taking part in - or trying to sleep through - all-night, lao-lao (rice whisky) fuelled karaoke sessions, stay away on May Day and other national holidays.
The other option is the modest Vieng Xai hotel: an almost crestfallen guesthouse once in the day built to billet foreign luminaries, though the exiled Lao royal family and their re-education camp-bound followers may have been the Vieng Xai's best customers. Now looking more like a hospital than a four-star hotel, rooms go for $2-3 and can come with breath-taking views of the limestone mountains and the cluster of Hmong houses next door.
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Published on 6/7/04