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Vieng Xai, Laos

In the northern stretches of Laos, close to the Vietnam border, Vieng Xai today is a dusty rural outpost almost lost in the thicket of greenery around a dramatic karst landscape. But during the middle part of the 20th century, it played a pivotal, if grim, role in modern Laos history.

Located in a striking narrow valley hemmed in by jungle-capped towering karsts, the town itself has a quiet, laid-back feel that belies its war-torn history. Those limestone protrusions are riddled by caves that acted as bomb shelters and headquarters for the Pathet Lao, making Vieng Xai a compelling stop on a tour of the northern reaches of Laos or an overland trip into northern Vietnam.

Vieng Xai CavesPathet Lao fighters, their families and thousands of local people worked and lived here during Laos’ struggles against the French Colonial powers, Lao Monarchy and the Americans. Though few make the trek to this remote locale, a visit here rewards your efforts with a searing glimpse into the everyday travails of the war. The sprawling cave system was kept secret until 2007, when it was opened to the public for the first time.

To learn more, you can join one of the official tours, which will take you through a handful of the many spaces that were in heavy use from about 1964 until the mid-1980s. The audio guide explains the difficulties of living life underground, emerging only at night to evade American bombardment. Even the farm animals had to have brown or black coats to avoid being spotted in the dark.

You can see the caves where the guerrillas set up mills, presses and workshops for adapting abandoned war material into tractors and farm tools. The largest cave is named after Kaysone Phomvihane (a Lao communist leader from 1955 until his death in 1992) and you’ll get to see the still-working Soviet-made air circulator that was kept in reserve in case of chemical weapons attack.

The enormous Xanglot Cave is a natural cavern that was used as a concert hall and meeting space. Despite their nocturnal life, the workers held rallies, meetings, music festivals and dance performances here.

You can stay in town if you like, though the few hotels offer only basic amenities and the food is purely local fare. We can also arrange a visit as a daytrip from Sam Neua, located about 30 km (18 miles) away.

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