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Digging In

By: Charles Usher Posted: February-26-2008 in
Charles Usher

Vieng Xai is approximately 30 km from the Vietnamese border, 150 km from Hanoi. The town is home to 33,000 people and a great market where you can get a bowl of pho for 5,000 kip. The town is surrounded by green hills and limestone cliffs that house hundreds of caves. Inside these is where the modern political history of Laos began.

Combining proximity to a valuable political ally, a sympathetic local population, and a nearly impregnable defensive position, the Pathet Lao chose Vieng Xai to serve as their headquarters during their resistance against the U.S.

The U.S., not wanting to cede more territory to communism and eager to disrupt the flow of supplies on the Ho Chi Minh trail, "unofficially" dropped more than two million tons of bombs on more than 580,000 sorties. A large percentage of these theoretical bombs fell on Huay Xai. And so, to protect themselves from this threat, the Pathet Lao moved into the caves.

There are approximately 400 caves in Huay Xai district, about 100 in the town's immediate vicinity, and seven that can be visited on tours through the Kaysone Phomvihane Memorial Cave Tour Office. (Tours in English at 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. daily, 30,000 kip/person; +50,000 kip/group any other time; 3 hours.)

Caves that were used by the Pathet Lao leaders include both those that are natural and those that were man-made; dynamite blast holes are visible in a number of them. They served every purpose imaginable, lodging, offices, barracks, meeting rooms, temples, hospitals, markets, printing presses, theatres, gymnasiums. The caves formed a clandestine city, and the capital of communist Laos for nine years.

When the war was over they became the backdrop for the Pathet Lao (PL) leaders' vacation homes, each constructing a house in front of the cave they once lived in.

The most elaborate of the caves is that which once housed Kaysone Phomvihane and his family. The two-level home contained stable-like bedrooms, a storeroom, a dining room, an office, a Politburo meeting room, and an emergency room with a still-functioning Russian-supplied oxygen machine to pump in fresh air in the event the Americans ever dropped gas. Outside, below an overhang is the kitchen area, complete with water tank and stove. Cooking gas was supplied by the Russians and transported from Hanoi to Vieng Xai by the Viet Minh. Food was donated by the local villagers who looked after livestock in their caves and tended rice fields under cover of darkness.

The cave belonging to Khamtay Siphandone, the Pathet Lao's Supreme Army Commander, in addition to being the only one with a bedroom closet carved into the rock, was connected by two flights of stairs to the military barracks, where, a 300 meter long natural cave housed up to 2,000 soldiers. This is also the site of the 'Theatre Cave,' a cavernous space used to host volleyball and table tennis matches, revolutionary films, and touring theatre shows from Russia, Vietnam, and China. Not impressive enough? It comes complete with an orchestra pit.

After nine years of daily bombing, with defeat in Vietnam definitive, the U.S. ceased the military operations in Laos that never were. Protected by earth and stone, the communists had spent the decade relatively unscathed. 30,000 Laotians came out of the caves and forests of Vieng Xai. The Pathet Lao were once again above ground.


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