Since ancient times Houai Xay, the provincial capital, has been the disembarkation point for travellers and traders from Yunnan Province in southern China on their way to Thailand. It is still a popular town for trading in Chinese goods. Wat Jom Khao Manilath, a teak Shan-style pagoda built in 1880 houses a stele that dates back to 1458. Fort Carnot, a remnant of the French colonial period is still standing but is closed to visitors, as today the fort is occupied by the Lao army. Just south of the main town it is possible to visit one of the main sapphire-mining areas in Indochina.
For the energetic visitor or for those heading up to Luang Namtha, stop in Vieng Phoukha to organize a one, two or three day guided trek to local Khamu, Lahu and Tai Lu villages. In the Nam Kan Provincial Protected Area one of the few remaining populations of Black-cheeked Crested Gibbons can be found, singing their eerie and beautiful early morning songs during the cold season from November-February. If you are interested in archaeology visit the ancient city of Souvannakhomkham near Ton Pheung District just north of Houai Xay. River trips to the far north can be arranged from Houai Xay, either on the Mekong or the smaller Namtha River. Travel north on the Mekong, terminating at Xieng Kok in Luang Namtha, where you can then easily proceed overland to the historic town of Muang Sing. The two-day journey up the Namtha requires an overnight stay in your boatman’s village, a memorable experience for those seeking an off-the-beaten path adventure.