Getting to know about Sam Neua town, Hua Phan province, Laos

Tucked away in a long, narrow valley formed by the Nam Sam at about 1200m above sea level, Sam Neua is so, far one of the country's least visited provincial capitals. Verdant hills, including the pointy Phu Luang, overlook the town hut other than the natural setting there's not a lot to write home about. Residents are mostly Lao, Vietnamese and Hmong, along with some Thai Dam, Thai Daeng and Thai Lu.

Tucked away in a long, narrow valley formed by the Nam Sam at about 1200m above sea level, Sam Neua is so, far one of the country's least visited provincial capitals. Verdant hills, including the pointy Phu Luang, overlook the town hut other than the natural setting there's not a lot to write home about. Residents are mostly Lao, Vietnamese and Hmong, along with some Thai Dam, Thai Daeng and Thai Lu.

Things to See & Do

For local residents, Sam Neua boasts what is perhaps the largest and fastest-growing market in the region. Products from China and Vietnam line up beside fresh produce and domestic goods. Sam Neua-style textiles can be found inside the main market building; prices can be very good, although quality is generally not up to the standard of markets in Vientiane. Local Hmong, Thai Dam. Thai Daeng and Thai Lu frequent this market. Connoisseurs agree that the Thai Daeng weave the most attractive textiles. Along with textiles you'll find field rats (live US$0.90, skinned a bit more), banana leaves stuffed with squirming insects and forks and spoons made with aluminum salvaged from war debris. One vendor can make and custom-fit a silver ring in about 10 minutes.

A 1979 independence monument mounted by a red star sits on a hill at the northwest edge of town; it's an easy climb, worthwhile for the modest view. From this hill you can continue walking to Wat Pho Xai, a distance of around 2km from the market. The only monastery in town, with only five monks in residence (the minimum needed for holding the monastic ordination ceremonies), the wat features a small sim that was destroyed in the war and rebuilt in 1983. Two small thaat to be seen on the way to the independence monument are the last remnants of local pre-war temples.

Places to Stay

The town rat problem we mentioned in the last couple of editions seems to have been dealt with, as we saw no evidence of them in any of the lodgings this time around. We did notice boxes of green pellets placed conspicuously near the rooflines of several buildings, however.

Kheam Xam Guest House (312111) Rooms US$2.25-3.40. In front of the market, diagonally across from the Lao Houng Hotel, the Kheam Xam is a fairly new three storey cement place. Rooms are very clean and come with mosquito nets, sinks and toilets, though hot shower facilities are shared. The rooms on the 3rd floor cost more, though they are essentially the same as those below. On the ground floor is a cafe with TV and VCR.

Phanh Sam Guest House (312255) Rooms without/with bath US$2.25/3.40. Around the comer from Lao Houng on a street up from the market, the Phanh Sam is a two-storey cement building with a balcony on the upper floor. The 20 small rooms are bare save for a few sticks of wooden furniture. The staff are friendly and an attached restaurant serves simple one-dish meals.

Keomany Guest House (3/2142) Singles/doubles US$2.25/3.40. The Keomany is a shophouse-style three-storey building with average two-bed rooms with shared toilet and shower.

Lao Houng Hotel (312018) Singles/ doubles US$3.40/4.50. Lao Houng, near the western end of a bridge that spans the Nam Sam near the market, is crumbling Chinese/Vietnamese-style place built around a couple of courtyards by the Vietnamese in 1975 - though it looks much older. Although plenty of Lao government officials and businessmen stay here, it's difficult to understand the attraction since the guesthouses in town have better rooms at lower rates.

Places to Eat

Sam Neua has never been known for its cuisine, although in the last couple of years the selection has decidedly improved. For cheap file, the market is the place to go; it's open roughly 6am to 6pm daily.

Chittavanh Restaurant Dishes US$1-2. Open 7am-llpm. Next to the Kheam Xam Guest House, the friendly Chittavanh . serves the usual roster of noodle and rice dishes, as well as Western breakfasts, at nice wooden tables.

Vieng Sill Chan Restaurant Dishes US$1-2. Open 7am-9pm daily. This place is next door and very similar to the Chittavanh, with the addition of decorative textiles.

Mitsampanh Restaurant Dishes US$0.50- 1.50. For a variety of Lao dishes try the Mitsampanh, about 20m down a side lane between the bus terminal and market.

Houa Phanh Restaurant Dishes US$2-6. Open 7am-11.30pm Men-Sat, 6pm-11.30pm Sun. This pleasant cafe with softer lighting serves an extensive menu of French, Lao and Thai dishes. At the back is a well-stocked wooden bar. The owner speaks fluent French and English, and says he plans to eventually open a 12-room guesthouse upstairs.

Getting There & Away

Air Lao Aviation has daily nights between Vientiane and the renovated airport at Sam Neua (US$70, 75 minutes). Flight scheduling is irregular due to the shortage of available aircraft - only the smaller Y -12 can safely make the impressive descent through the narrow Sam Neua valley.

The airport lies around 3km from the area of town where the market and most of the guesthouses and hotels are. A motorcycle taxi from the airport to any lodging in town costs US$0.50 to US$J. If you need something larger for your luggage, you may be able to arrange a pick-up truck or jumbo through Lao Aviation. From the market in town, however, it's easy to hire jumbos or sawngthaew to the airport.

Bus Sam Neua can be reached by road from both Xieng Khuang and Udomxai Provinces. Rte 6 from Xieng Khuang is quite good by Lao standards between Phousavan and Nam Noen, a small truck stop near the junction of Rtes 6 and I just north of the Hua Phan Province border. Between Nam Noen and Sam Neua it's a steep, winding and rough but highly scenic dirt road that passes through numerous Lao, Hmong and Khamu villages. It's usually necessary to change buses (actually large converted Russian or Chinese diesel trucks) in Nam Noen. From Phonsavan to Nam Noen takes four to five hours and costs US$2.60, while Nam Noen to Sam Neua takes six hours and costs US$1.70. Occasionally - perhaps once a week - there's a direct passenger truck between Sam Neua and Phonsavan for US$4.60, but total travel time still involves six to eight hours.

South-cast of Sam Neua, Rte 6 joins Rte 1 from Nong Khiaw (Luang Prabang Province) and Udomxai (Udomxai Province). To/from Nong Khiaw also involves changing buses in Nam Noen. The Nong Khiaw to Nam Noen leg costs US$4.50 and takes eight to nine hours (longer with breakdowns, which are normal) along winding roads and brilliant scenery, passing many Blue Hmong villages along the way and an international narcotics control project in the district of Vieng Thong (also known as Muang Hiam). In Nam Noen you must switch to a Sam Neua-bound truck - often this means spending a night in Nam Noen.

The Vietnamese border at Sop Hao is open to Vietnamese and Lao nationals, and it is unlikely that a foreigner would be allowed to cross here - travel in this area is restricted probably because it's one of the last surviving nodes in the Lao PDR's post- Revolution gulag. The road from Sam Neua to Sop Hao is reportedly quite good, so if the border opens to foreigners Hanoi would become a logical Hua Phan gateway

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