If you come to SN from other Lao provinces you'll be entering Sam Neua through the gate in the shape of heart. Your bus will leave you at the hill overlooking SN and you'll have to take tuk tuk to the town or walk 2 kilometers - ain't far but if it rains you'll get wet in minute - and it does rain often in the Northern provinces. Before you leave the station you can enjoy the view over the wet rice fields.
Upon leaving towards Viengxay you'll again go through the heart shaped gates. Normally, in Lao traditional villages gates symbolize 'cleaning' the visitor of bad spirits and if there are any gates in places you're about to visit you're required to go through it. Not doing so is a big offence for the certain villages and its spirits and it will then take complicated ceremonies to 'clean' the village again. In the animist villages these gates are simple and wooden with few animist signs. But those in SN are of modern material, concrete with words of welcome. Eventually as SN is historically important place they will not want you to bring bad luck to the town.
As not a lot of tourists come here you will get some looks. It was strange in the beginning but then I just thought to myself, since I grew up in a small town in Massachusetts...imagine if a foreign person had come to look and observe life in Chicopee MA, well of course as a child I would have stared and been just fascinated. In any case, it's a nice kind of looking and the people are always happy if you stop and chat so don't be afraid...as in all of Laos there is a gentle kindness.