With its distinctly Soviet aesthetic and remarkable “hidden city” tunnelling deep into the mountains, this former communist HQ is a relic of revolution set against a backdrop of some of Laos’s most remote and beautiful scenery.
High in the mountains of northeastern Laos, at an altitude of 1,200 metres, Sam Neua is one of the most remote and little-visited areas in the country. The rugged and mountainous setting contrasts with the spartan appearance of the town itself, which wouldn’t look out of place in an old Soviet republic – complete with concrete apartment blocks and old men in Russian hats. There’s a good reason for this: during the US's illegal bombing of Laos during the 1960s and 70s (a campaign now known as The Secret War); this was the headquarters of the communist Pathet Lao. To survive the bombardment, 20,000 local people built a “hidden city” deep inside the limestone mountains outside of town, complete with schools, hospitals, markets, a radio station, and the communist headquarters. These caves are the main reason visitors stop in Sam Neua today, and a guided visit provides an absolutely fascinating look at a dark chapter in the world’s history.
Sam Neua town centre gets a bad rap from travellers who want picturesque – but don’t judge a book by its cover. This is a refreshingly un-touristy place to experience ordinary daily life in Laos, and its market is one of the most authentic we’ve found. There's a bit more buffalo bile, fresh frogs and dried rats than you might need – but hunt around and you’ll find banana fritters, tofu with hot ginger syrup and warming noodle soups, too.
For an alternative destination with a thoroughly local vibe, amazing wartime stories, and a fabulous mountainous setting, we love Sam Neua.