When American air force Chief of Staff General Curtis LeMay jested that the United States would bomb the enemy “back to the Stone Age”, what he hadn’t realized was that living like cavemen would prove to be the key to the survival of the North Vietnamese Army and Pathet Lao during the heaviest aerial bombardment in history. Like Vang Vieng in central Laos and Mahaxai in the south, the limestone karst formations in the valleys east of Sam Neua are pockmarked with caves and crevices – which proved a perfect hideout for the Pathet Lao’s parallel government. Viet Minh army units began using the caves and enlarging them in the early 1950s while fighting the French in the days before Dien Bien Phu. Soon, the Lao leftists had joined the Vietnamese underground, and by the middle of the 1960s, Vieng Xai and the surrounding area had become a troglodyte city of thousands living in the more than one hundred caves. The caves – some at the foot of hills, others high up, hidden by surrounding escarpments and accessible only by scaling steps cut into sheer rock faces – were an impregnable fortress, but even poking your head outside could prove deadly as craters near the caves attest.
The inhabitants of the caves followed a routine of sleeping by day and working at night in the fields outside (animals had to be dark-coloured in order to remain undetected by the enemy) or in the caves themselves: caverns held weaving mills, printing presses and workshops where American bombs and worn-out trucks were upgraded into farming tools and appliances. On Saturdays, adults would take a break and attend classes consisting of professional, cultural and political courses as well as lessons in algebra, geometry and geography.
The conclusion of the war didn’t bring the hardships experienced in the caves to an end: what changed were the inhabitants. After 1975, the caves became a “re-education camp” for functionaries of the Royal Lao government – from the lowliest foot soldier to the former king.
Seven caves are now open to the public, and the guided tour takes about two hours. Each of these caves, most named after the Pathet Lao leaders who lived there, had multiple exits, an office and sleeping quarters, as well as an emergency chamber for use in case of chemical-weapons attacks (these chambers were kitted out with a Soviet oxygen machine and a metal door of the sort you’d find on an old submarine). Tours often begin with the large cave of Kaysone Phomvihane, who became leader of the Lao communist movement at its formation in 1955, and remained unchallenged in his post as head of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic from its inception in 1975 until his death in 1992. Born in Savannakhet of a Lao mother and a Vietnamese father, Kaysone spent far more time in Vieng Xai than the Pathet Lao’s face man, Prince Souphanouvong. While the Red Prince was off playing Vientiane’s game of cat-and-mouse politics, Kaysone stayed in Hua Phan, attending frequent meetings in Hanoi – a risky two-day journey from Vieng Xai – with North Vietnamese leaders Ho Chi Minh and General Vo Nguyen Giap, the legendary military strategist behind the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu.
One of the most fascinating caves is Xanglot Cave, a huge natural cave which housed a large concert hall where rallies and meetings were held, alongside festivals and musical and dance performances. It’s fascinating to imagine the residents attempting to maintain some semblance of normal life while living in these extraordinary conditions.