"The soldiers became my family," Huy, 74 and retired from his civilian medical practice, told me. "The most terrible time for us was the B-52 carpet-bombing. And the artillery shelling from the coast. It was like being in a volcano. We'd bury the dead and draw a map of the grave site, so their families could find it. Our equipment was very simple. We had morphine but had to be very economical in its use. Soldiers begged me to cut off an arm or leg, thinking that would end their pain. I'd tell them, 'You should try to forget the pain. You must recover to finish your job. Make Uncle Ho proud of you.' "
Trying to stop the infiltration of men and supplies into South Vietnam, the United States bombed the Ho Chi Minh Trail for eight years, setting forests ablaze, triggering landslides, denuding jungles with chemicals and building Special Forces outposts along the Laotian border. The Americans seeded clouds to induce rain and floods, launched laser-guided bombs to create choke points and trap truck convoys, and parachuted sensors that burrowed into the ground like bamboo sprouts, relaying data on movement back to the U.S. surveillance base at Nakhon Phanom in Thailand for evaluation. But work never stopped, and year after year infiltration into the South increased, from 1,800 soldiers in 1959 to 12,000 in 1964 to over 80,000 in 1968.
After each aerial attack, hordes of soldiers and volunteers scurried to repair the damage, filling craters, creating bypasses and deliberately building crude bridges just beneath the surface of river water to avoid aerial detection. By 1975, truck convoys could make the trip from the North to the southern battlefields in a week—a journey that had once taken soldiers and porters six months on foot. Antiaircraft artillery sites lined the road; a fuel line paralleled it. The trail made the difference between war and peace, victory and defeat, but it took a terrible toll. Upward of 30,000 North Vietnamese are believed to have perished on it. Military historian Peter Macdonald figured that for every soldier the United States killed on the trail, it dropped, on average, 300 bombs (costing a total of $140,000).
As my interpreter and I headed south along the new highway, there was nothing beyond tidy, manicured military cemeteries to remind us that a war had ever been fought here. Forests have grown back, villages have been rebuilt, downed fighter bombers have long since been stripped and sold for scrap metal by scavengers. The mostly deserted two-lane highway swept through the mountains north of Khe Sanh in a series of switchbacks. In the distance flames leapt from ridge to ridge, as they had after B-52 strikes. But now the fires are caused by illegal slash-and-burn logging. Occasionally young men on shiny new motor scooters raced past us. Few wore helmets. Later I read in the Vietnam News that 12,000 Vietnamese were killed in traffic accidents in 2006, more than died in any single year on the Ho Chi Minh Trail during the war. Peace, like war, has its price.
Sometimes we drove for an hour or more without seeing a person, vehicle or village. The road climbed higher and higher. In the valleys and gorges the ribbon of road flowed south through a parasol of high trees. What a lonely and beautiful place, I thought. A new steel bridge spanned a fast-flowing stream; next to it stood a crumbling wooden bridge over which no soldier's sandals had trod in 30 years. We passed a cluster of tents with laundry drying on a line. It was 8 p.m. Twenty or so bare-chested young men were still at work, laying stone for a drainage ditch.
In Dong Ha, a shabby town once home to a division of U.S. Marines, we checked into the Phung Hoang Hotel. A sign in the lobby inexplicably warned in English, "Keep things in order, keep silent and follow instruction of hotel staff." A segment of the twisting mountain highway we had just driven over had been built by a local construction company owned by an entrepreneur named Nguyen Phi Hung. The site where his 73-man crew worked was so remote and rugged, he said, the earth so soft and the jungles so thick that completing just four miles of highway had taken two years.
Hung had advertised in the newspapers for "strong, single, young men" and warned them that the job would be tough. They would stay in the jungle for two years, except for a few days off over the annual Tet holiday. There were unexploded bombs to disarm and bodies of North Vietnamese soldiers—seven, it turned out—to be buried. The site was out of cellphone range, and there was no town within a week's walk. Stream water had to be tested before drinking to ensure it contained no chemicals dropped by American planes. Landslides posed a constant threat; one took the life of Hung's youngest brother. For all this there was handsome compensation—a $130 a month salary, more than a college-educated teacher could earn.
"When we gathered the first day, I told everyone life would be hard like it was on the Truong Son Road, except no one would be bombing them," Hung said. "I told them, 'Your fathers and grandfathers sacrificed on this road. Now it is your turn to contribute. Your fathers contributed blood. You must contribute sweat.' I remember they stood there quietly and nodded. They understood what I was saying."
I left the Ho Chi Minh Highway at Khe Sanh and followed Route 9—"Ambush Alley," as Marines there called it—toward the Ben Hai River, which divided the two Vietnams until Saigon fell in 1975. Looking out the window of my SUV, I was reminded of one of the last promises Ho Chi Minh made before his death: "We will rebuild our land ten times more beautiful." If by beautiful he meant prosperous and peaceful, his pledge was being fulfilled.
Factories and seafood-processing plants were going up. Roads built by the colonial French were being straightened and repaved. In the towns, privately owned shops had sprung up along the main streets, and intersections were clogged with the motorcycles of families who couldn't afford a pair of shoes two decades ago. I stopped at a school. In the fourth-grade history class a teacher was using PowerPoint to explain how Vietnam had outsmarted and defeated China in a war a thousand years ago. The students, sons and daughters of farmers, were dressed in spotlessly clean white shirts and blouses, red ties, blue pants and skirts. They greeted me in unison, "Good morning and welcome, sir." A generation ago they would have been studying Russian as a second language. Today it is English.