The old Ho Chi Minh trail passes right by Bui Thi Duyen's doorstep in the hamlet of Doi. The hamlet, quiet and isolated, is of no consequence today, but during what the Vietnamese call the "American War," many thousands of northern soldiers knew Doi, 50 miles south of Hanoi, as an overnight stop on their perilous journey to the southern battlefields. The camouflaged network of footpaths and roads they traveled was the world's most dangerous route. One North Vietnamese soldier counted 24 ways you could die on it: malaria and dysentery could ravage you; U.S. aerial bombardments could disintegrate you; tigers could eat you; snakes could poison you; floods and landslides could wash you away. Sheer exhaustion took its toll as well.
When the war ended in 1975, much of the Ho Chi Minh Trail was abandoned. The jungle pushed in to reclaim the supply depots, rickety bridges and earthen bunkers that stretched more than a thousand miles from a gorge known as Heaven's Gate outside Hanoi to the approaches of Saigon. Hamlets like Doi were left to languish, so remote they weren't even on maps. That North Vietnam had been able to build the trail—and keep it open in the face of relentless American attacks—was considered one of the great feats of warfare. It was like Hannibal crossing the Alps or General Washington the Delaware—an impossibility that became possible and thus changed the course of history.
I met Duyen when I returned to Vietnam last May to see what was left of the trail that bore the name of the country's revolutionary leader. She was sitting under a blue tarpaulin, trying to fan away the breathless heat and hoping to sell a few sweet potatoes and half a dozen heads of lettuce spread out on a makeshift bench. At 74, her memory of the war remained crystal clear. "There was not a day without famine then," she said. "We had to farm at night because of the bombing. Then we'd go up in the mountains and eat tree roots." What food the villagers had—even their prized piglets—they gave to the soldiers who trekked through Doi, pushing bicycles laden with ammunition or stooped under the weight of rice, salt, medicine and weapons. She called them the "Hanoi men," but in reality many were no more than boys.
These days, though, Duyen has things other than the war on her mind. With Vietnam's economy booming, she wonders if she should cut her ties with tradition and swap the family's 7-year-old water buffalo for a new Chinese-made motor scooter. It would be an even trade; both are worth about $500. She also wonders what impact Vietnam's most ambitious postwar public works project will have on Doi. "Without that road, we have no future," she says.
The project, started in 2000 and scheduled to take 20 years to complete, is turning much of the old trail into the Ho Chi Minh Highway, a paved multilane artery that will eventually run 1,980 miles from the Chinese border to the tip of the Mekong Delta. The transformation of trail to highway struck me as an apt metaphor for Vietnam's own journey from war to peace, especially since many of the young workers building the new road are the sons and daughters of soldiers who fought, and often died, on the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
The old infiltration and supply route—which the Vietnamese call Truong Son Road, after the nearby mountain range—wasn't a single trail at all. It was a maze of 12,000 miles of trails, roads and bypasses that threaded through eastern Laos and northeastern Cambodia and crisscrossed Vietnam. Between 1959 and 1975 an estimated two million soldiers and laborers from the Communist North traversed it, intent on fulfilling Ho Chi Minh's dream to defeat South Vietnam's U.S.-backed government and reunite Vietnam. Before leaving Hanoi and other northern cities, some soldiers got tattoos that proclaimed: "Born in the North to die in the South."
During the war, which I covered for United Press International in the late 1960s, the Ho Chi Minh Trail had an aura of foreboding mystery. I could not imagine what it looked like or who trekked down it. I assumed I would never know. Then in 1997, I moved to Hanoi—the "enemy capital," I used to call it in my wartime dispatches—as a correspondent for the Los Angeles Times. Almost every male I met over 50 had been on the trail, and during my four years in Hanoi and on subsequent trips to Vietnam, I filled several notebooks with their stories. They invited me into their homes, eager to talk, and not once was I received with anything but friendship. I came to realize that the Vietnamese had put the war behind them, even as many Americans still struggled with its legacy.
Trong Thanh was one of those who greeted me—at the door of his home, tucked deep in a Hanoi alleyway, with a cup of green tea in hand. One of North Vietnam's most celebrated photographers, he had spent four years documenting life on the Ho Chi Minh Trail and had toured the United States with his pictures in 1991. The images spoke of the emotions of war more than the chaos of combat: a North Vietnamese soldier sharing his canteen with a wounded enemy from the South; a moment of tenderness between a teenage soldier and a nurse who looked no older than 15; three adolescent privates with faint smiles and arms over one another's shoulders, heading off on a mission from which they knew they would not return. "After taking their picture, I had to turn away and weep," Thanh said.
Thanh, whom I interviewed in 2000, six months before his death, pulled out boxes of photos, and soon the pictures were spread across the floor and over the furniture. The faces of the youthful soldiers stayed with me for a long time—their clear, steady eyes, the unblemished complexions and cheeks without whiskers, the expressions reflecting fear and determination. Their destiny was to walk down the Ho Chi Minh Trail. It would be left to their children to be the first generation in more than a hundred years not to know the sounds of battle or the bondage of foreign domination.
"It used to take two or three months for a letter from your family to reach you on the front," Thanh said. "But those were our happiest times on Truong Son, when we got mail from home. We'd read the letters aloud to each other. Pretty soon one soldier would laugh over something in a letter, then everyone would laugh. Then you'd feel so guilty for being happy, you'd cry, and the whole forest would echo with falling tears."