Sam Neua is very much off the beaten path for the majority of travellers to Laos, as even the most intrepid traveller rarely gets past Nong Khiaw or Phonsavan. The name means ‘Northern Swamp’ and it is also known as Xam Neua, with no consensus on the correct way to write it.
There is one really compelling reason to make the journey, and that is to discover the secret history embedded in the karst rocks – namely the Vieng Xai War Caves. The caves are a fascinating insight into the Secret War that raged in Laos, in order to quash communism.
Communism is present to this day in the heavily Soviet-themed town centre with a big red structure called the Suan Keo Lak Meung monument on the main roundabout. Despite its small size, Sam Neua is the capital of the Houaphan Province. It has a busy market on each side of the river that hosts people travelling in from neighbouring villages.
It is not too far from the Vietnamese border, so it is inhabited by Vietnamese and Hmong people as well as Laotians. Another unusual element of Sam Neua’s geography is that it’s perched at 1200 m so the weather is quite cold and rainy in the dry winter season. As it’s so sparsely inhabited, backpackers can enjoy views of dark green karst hills on the long and winding road bus journey there.
Where to Stay in Sam Neua
Sam Neua has one street in the centre which has pretty much all the hotels on it, and they’re fairly similar. Sometimes you can pick and choose depending on the rooms and prices available. Most hotel owners do not speak English so be prepared to use hand gestures or a translation app! If you want to stay in Vieng Xai then try and find out which accommodation options are open before you go as a lot closes outside of peak season.
Best Budget-Friendly Accommodation in Sam Neua:
- Chittavanh Hotel is pretty basic but clean with coffee and tea making facilities. The WiFi isn’t great but the rooms are spacious.
- Phasouk Guesthouse is clean with a terrace to sit on, as well as good WiFi and hot water. A room costs around 70,000 Kip.
- Kheamxam Guesthouse is clean, with free tea and coffee facilities, hot water and a good fan. It is cheap but it doesn’t have WiFi.
Things to do in Sam Neua/ Vieng Xai
Visit the Markets
There is very little to do in Sam Neua itself, but travellers are recommended to visit the main market and the food market because they are completely authentic (not touristy at all)! The main market is right in the centre, and the food market is slightly further up the river. The food market is the most interesting of the two as it is heavily influenced by China and Vietnam, with frog, fish, squid and rat meat all for sale.
Hire a Motorcycle
There is a tourist information centre in Sam Neua, near the roundabout, and they can give you advice and maps. The landscape is well worth exploring as it is so beautifully green and dotted with rural villages.
To hire a moped, ask at the Dan Nao Meuang Xam restaurant near the hotel strip. It costs more than you would normally pay elsewhere, (100,000 Kip for moped hire) as there is very little competition. However, if you don’t want to get on a songthaew and can ride competently, it is a good way to explore the local area.
The Vieng Xai Caves
Vieng Xai is the next main town from Sam Neua and it does have some restaurants and hotels, but most of these are only in operation during peak season. It’s about 30 minutes drive from Sam Neua and if you continue down the main street then you will find the cave visitor centre at the end.
Vieng Xai’s natural caves were considered to be an ideal location to create bunkers, sleeping quarters and offices. These sheltered residents during the Pathet Lao communist movement in the Laotian Civil War. This ‘Secret War’ raged from 1964 to 1973, when the Pathet Lao battled against the Royal Lao Government, who gained backing by the US military in a bid to stop the spread of communism in Southeast Asia.
If you’re not hiring a bike and you want to travel to the caves by songthaew (shared taxi), then go to the bus station near the airport. Be aware that this is a different station to the one you arrive in. The songthaew leaves 8 am so you will want to get there early.
Schedules frequently change depending on the season, so check at the tourist information before you go. You’ll also need to check when the bus back to Sam Neua will be, so you don’t get stuck there! If demand is low then there won’t be a songthaew, so you may have to rent a taxi for the day, costing around $25-30US.
I recommend using the offline app Maps.me to get around, as not many people speak English in Vieng Xai. It is only possible to see the caves on a guided tour and they leave twice a day at 9 am or 1 pm. It is 60,000 Kip for foreigners and it includes the audio guide and your map. If you don’t have a scooter or car then you’ll need to hire a bicycle from the visitor centre to travel between the caves as they’re quite spread out.
There are 18 points to visit on the tour, which takes 3-4 hours and someone meets you at each one. They don’t actually give you any information, they just tell you which number to type into your audio guide.
The audio guide is great as it uses documented stories to help you understand what life was like for 23,000 people who made the caves their home. There are chambers for everything that a village could require, including hospitals, offices, party headquarters and schools.
It is was a much more extensive network than you see on the tour, as residents only ever went outside to grow food and find water under the cover of darkness. There were 480 connected caves altogether and they did a great job of keeping people safe during the bombing raids. The theatre cave that you see at the end is still used for events like weddings and cinema evenings.
Hintang Archaeological Park
The standing stones can be found in the Hintang Archaeological Park outside of Sam Neua, but this is located along a rough road that can only be reached by moped or songthaew. The stones are thought to be around 1500 years old and they’re about 3 metres tall. Alongside them, you can find spherical rocks that used to be used for funerary purposes.
Where to Eat in Sam Neua
There aren’t many places to eat and drink in Sam Neua, but these places are great and come personally recommended:
- Dan Nao Meuang Xam Restaurant: for Laotian food (and scooter hire).
- Yuni Coffee: has great coffee and offers a western-style breakfast. They also speak English there if you ever need a taxi to the bus station.
- Many Coffee: on Main Street is a great place for drinks or snacks.
Where to Eat in Vieng Xai
These are the recommended restaurants in Vieng Xai that are open all year round (both can be found on the Main Street):
- Mrs Phoutphone Noodle Shop
- Sabaidee Odisha Indian Restaurant
How To Get to Sam Neua:
- Sam Neua is a 10-12 hour bus journey from Nong Khiaw. The bus leaves at 12 pm from the bus station.
- From Luang Prabang, it’s about a 16 hour journey and the bus leaves in the morning. It’s the same one that goes via Nong Khiaw.
Where To Next?
- Phonsavan and Plain of Jars: The buses from Sam Neua bus station to Phonsavan for the UNESCO archaeological heritage site of the Plain of Jars leave at 8 am and it takes around 10 hours.
- Nong Khiaw: It takes around 12 hours to get to this relaxed and non-touristy town situated in the beautiful valley on the banks of the Ou River. It’s north of the backpacker stronghold of Vang Vieng but much quieter.
- Luang Prabang: Most backpackers in Laos take time to visit the popular city, close to the picture-perfect Kuang Si falls and bear rescue centre. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage site for its charming old town. The journey takes around 16 hours.
- Vietnam – There is a daily bus to Thanh Hoa and from there you can take the bus to Hanoi. The Hanoi bus can be infrequent, and we’ve heard the journey is quite difficult so ask around before you go!