Vieng Xai - The hidden city of the Pathet Lao during the Secret War

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June 29th 2009
Published: July 3rd 2009
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Day 363: Saturday 27th June - The hidden city of the Pathet Lao during the Secret War

The bus pulls into Sam Neua bus station at 2:30am. I spend the next 3 hours trying to get some sleep on the cold concrete floor in the bus station. Oh how times change! When I do wake up I try to fathom out the next stage in the journey. I want to visit Vieng Xai, which was the Pathet Lao hideout during the Secret War. It is a 40 minute journey from Sam Neua. Is it best to stay in Sam Neua and do a day trip or travel on to Vieng Xai? I choose the latter, based on the descriptions in the guide of the respective towns but I can’t manage to find someone in the bus station that speaks English until 6:30am. When I do, they tell me that I have to go to Sam Neua’s other bus station, 4 kilometres away. The only frustrating thing so far to travelling in Laos is the location of the bus stations - out of town, and most small provincial towns seem to have two. The sawngthaew drivers want an extortionate 25000 Kip (£2) for the journey, which I manage to split with a Japanese girl. The view from the bus station, which is perched on top of a hill to the paddy fields below is just incredible as are the views of the limestone hills and rice paddies on the ride up to Vieng Xai. Arriving in Vieng Xai I notice a sign in the bus station which states that there are two English speaking tours to the caves per day, one in half an hour at 9am and the other at 1pm. Feeling jaded and in need of a rest I find the first guesthouse and spend the morning relaxing.

Vieng Xai is now a sleepy town of 3000 people, but in 1964 when the US began an intensive bombing campaign against the Lao revolutionary movement (Pathet Lao) base in Xieng Khouang (now Phonsavon) it became the headquarters of the Pathet Lao. Between 1964 and 1973, the Pathet Lao directed a long struggle against the US-backed Royal Lao Government from Vieng Xai. The area was chosen for its remarkable landscape of limestone karsts, honeycombed with caves surrounding a small plateau which proved an inpenetrable stronghold. During nine years of constant bombing, around 30,000 people sheltered in 200 different caves as well as forests, leading their lives mostly at night. Schools, hospitals, markets, government ministries, a radio station, a theatre and military barracks were all built inside the hundreds of caves of the ‘hidden city’ where weddings were held and babies born. Anti-aircraft guns were sited on top of the karsts and in the caves. After the 1973 ceasefire, the Pathet Lao moved out of the caves and built houses. The town was named Vieng Xai (city of victory) and Vieng Xai became the capital of the liberated zone. In 1975 when the Lao PDR was declared, after the Pathet Lao began to dominate the coalition government the capital moved to Vientiane and the Vieng Xai caves once more became quiet and empty.

The tour of the caves takes us to the caves of several of the key leaders of the Pathet Lao: Kaysone Phomvihane (second president of Lao PDR 1991-1992 and leader of the Lao People’s Revelotionary Party who established Pathet Lao HQ in Vieng Xai); Nouhak Phoumsavan (minister for Finance during the Secret War, third president of Lao PDR 1992-1995); Prince Souphannouvong (first president of Lao PDR 1975-1991, born into the Lao Royal family; and finally to that of Khamtay Siphandone (fourth president of Lao PDR 1995-2006 and supreme army commander during the Secret War). These four men were part of the seven man Politburo, the key leadership group of the Pathet Lao. The Pathet Lao are still the only party in this one party communist state. Communism is into its fourth decade and the Lao PDR on to its fifth president but the people seem very contented with their one party state. Maybe communism can work? My view is altered after actually visiting one of the five communist countries left in the world (Vietnam, China, Cuba and North Korea are the others) rather than listening to the western biased propaganda in the media.

The natural caves were enlarged by hand and tunnels blasted with dynamite. Five feet thick blast walls were built to protect cave entrances and to prevent rockets and guided missiles from entering. Supplying the headquarters in Vieng Xai with food, building materials, weapons and ammunition during the conflict was an enormous task. Trucks transported goods from the Soviet Union, China and Vietnam through North Vietnam into Laos at the border, 55km from Vienxai. As most bombing occurred during the day, the trucks drove at night. In 1970, emergency rooms were built in many of the caves, and fitted with an air filter machine because of the fear of chemical attack.

The six of us on the tour (an English couple, a French couple and the Japanese girl) all agree that it was fascinating to see this ‘hidden city’. We meet for dinner in the evening. On the way to dinner, I stop to take photos of some locals playing petanque. They beckon me over, give me a beer, offer me dinner and I talk to Keo who works for the provincial environmental department for a while. I tell him that I think Lao people are the friendliest people of any of the countries I’ve visited. I mean it, they are just so hospitable. Over dinner, it is interesting to learn that the French couple have cycled 5000km so far on their trip, and I get some good tips for Cambodia and Vietnam from the English couple. I feel for the Japanese girl whose English isn’t great, which for me is the key prerequisite if you want to travel just about anywhere in the world on your own. It must be hard, and at times a lonely existence.

Trying to get an early night proves harder than expected as a local disco blares out some horrible Lao pop tunes (add that to the bus stations as the only two things I don’t like about Laos) until midnight.

Day 364: Sunday 28th June - A long journey back west

Being only 50km from the Vietnamese border, it would seem that it would make more sense to cross the border, rather than make the 16 hour journey back west. It would if I wasn’t entering China in two months or so, but as I am doing Vietnam south to north is better than north to south, which is what I’d be doing if I went across to Vietnam now.

I have plenty of time to think on my journey. Was it worth all the effort and inconvenience of three long bus journeys spread over just four days? In Thailand I thought it wasn’t worth while making a side trip east but in Laos that is certainly not the case. I have learnt all about Laos’ modern history and been touched by the terrible injustice of the Secret War the devastation the US wrought on this innocent and unassuming nation just because they had differing views on political ideals. The people of Eastern Laos are still faced with a deadly legacy today due to the contamination of much of the rural land with unexploded ordnance. I believe strongly in how wrong the Secret War was, and equally it has ignited a passion to contact several organisations in Vientiane next week to learn more and see what I can do to help.

I finally arrive to a deluge in Vang Vieng at 1:30am. I had imagined that it was going to be a second night in three spent sleeping at the bus station but thankfully a sawngthaew meets the bus and takes me to a nearby guesthouse. The bus journey has been one of the toughest journey’s I’ve done. It was cramped in the bus as five people were packed to each row, with one person sat on the cargo in the aisle. Not many foreigners venture to the East of Laos because of this but they should. It is somewhere special to get to grips with the modern history of Laos.

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