The remote northeast of Laos was, until recently, difficult to reach, due to mountainous terrain and poor roads, which largely kept it isolated from tourism. Despite great improvements to the infrastructure – it’s now possible to reach Sam Neua in less than a day from Luang Prabang, with no change of bus – the region remains one of the least-visited parts of the country due, partly, to being short on typical tourist sights, and because it doesn’t fit too neatly with the typical north–south itinerary. However, there’s a real frontier friendliness among the inhabitants, who come from more than two dozen ethnic groups, and it’s a great area (especially north of Phonsavan) in which to feel as though you’re getting off the beaten track. In addition, history, both ancient and modern, feels particularly tangible in the area.
Topographically diverse, the northeast region extends from the towering peaks that border the Vientiane Plain, across the Xieng Khuang Plateau, over the jagged backbone of the Annamite Mountains, and into the watershed of the Nam Xam River, which flows into Vietnam. The area encompasses Hua Phan and Xieng Khuang provinces, and part of northern Luang Prabang province. Historically, this swath of Laos was the domain of two independent principalities – the Tai federation of Sipsong Chao Tai in Hua Phan and the Phuan Kingdom of Xieng Khuang. Sandwiched between expansive empires to the west and east, both entities struggled to maintain their sovereignty until the late nineteenth century, when the French finally folded most of their territory into unified Laos.
The kings of the defunct royal house of Xieng Khuang came from the same family tree as those of Luang Prabang, both kingdoms claiming descent from Khoun Borom, the celebrated first ancestor of numerous Tai–Lao legends. Yet, unlike in Luang Prabang, few physical traces of Xieng Khuang’s splendour survive. In the place of the distinctive Xieng Khuang-style temples are bomb craters doubling as fishing holes and houses erected on piles crafted from bomb casings – reminders that this was one of the most heavily bombed pieces of real estate in the world, and a testimony to the rugged perseverance of the Phuan, Black Tai, Hmong and Khmu peoples who inhabit the province. Much of the bombing was directed at the strategic Plain of Jars, which takes its name from the fields of ancient, giant funerary urns that are the northeast’s main tourist draw. For most visitors a trip to the region means little more than a flying visit to Xieng Khuang’s provincial capital Phonsavan to see the Jar sites, sometimes coupled with a quick side trip to nearby Muang Khoun, the former royal seat of Xieng Khuang, where a handful of ruins whisper of the kingdom’s vanished glory.
It’s remarkable that even with greatly improved roads, few travellers make the journey to Hua Phan, an impenetrable sea of rugged green mountaintops lost in mist and shallow valleys, far from the Mekong River and the traditional centres of lowland Lao life. The only provincial centre in Laos east of the Annamites is Hua Phan’s capital Sam Neua, a frontier town closer to Hanoi than Vientiane, a proximity that lends it a distinctly Vietnamese flavour. This lightly populated region is home to more than twenty ethnic groups, most of them Tai, including the Black, Red and White Tai, all of whom share a distinctly Hua Phan character – a fortitude shaped by the remote mountainous terrain and by years spent living in the heart of the Pathet Lao’s liberated zone. After the Pathet Lao rose to power in 1975, the communists further exploited Hua Phan’s isolation by transforming their liberated zone into a massive prison camp. Thousands of former Royal Lao soldiers were interred in the province’s notorious re-education camps. Hua Phan’s wartime history has been etched into the land at Vieng Xai, a short ride from Sam Neua. Dozens of caves hidden in the sawtoothed limestone karsts of Vieng Xai served as the headquarters for the Pathet Lao during their Thirty Year Struggle.