Storm clouds were rolling in from Laos the morning last May that I left Hanoi with a driver and an interpreter, bound for the former demilitarized zone that once separated North and South Vietnam at the 17th parallel. The bustling capital gave way to rice paddies and fields of corn. An elegantly dressed young woman went by, a live pig strapped to her motor scooter's rear rack. A small red flag of Communist Vietnam fluttered from her handlebar—its five-pointed star representing workers, farmers, soldiers, intellectuals and traders.
"Where's the road south?" my driver shouted to a farmer as we passed through Hoa Lac, 45 minutes southwest of Hanoi. "You're on it," came the reply. So this was it: the start of the new Ho Chi Minh Highway and below it, now covered by pavement, the legendary trail still celebrated in karaoke bars with songs of separation and hardship. No historical plaque marked the spot. There was only a blue-lettered sign: "Ensuring public safety makes everyone happy."
The new highway, which will not stray into Laos or Cambodia as the old trail did, will open up Vietnam's remote western interior to development. Environmentalists fear this will threaten wildlife and flora in national preserves and give access to illegal loggers and poachers. Anthropologists worry about its effect on the minority mountain tribes, some of whom fought on the side of South Vietnam and the United States. Health experts say truck stops along the route could attract prostitutes and spread AIDS, which took the lives of 13,000 Vietnamese in 2005, the last year for which figures are available. And some economists believe the $2.6 billion for the project would be better spent upgrading Route 1, the country's other north-south highway, which runs down the eastern seaboard, or on building schools and hospitals.
But government planners insist the highway will be an economic boon and attract large numbers of tourists. "We cut through the Truong Son jungles for national salvation. Now we cut through the Truong Son jungles for national industrialization and modernization," former Prime Minister Vo Van Kiet remarked, as construction began in April 2000. Most of the 865-mile stretch from Hanoi to Kon Tum in the Central Highlands has been completed. Traffic is light, and hotels, gas stations or rest stops are few.
"It may sound strange, but although it was a terrible time, my four years on Truong Son was a very beautiful period in my life," said Le Minh Khue, who defied her parents and at age 15 joined a youth volunteer brigade on the trail, filling bomb craters, digging bunkers, burying corpses and ending each day covered head to toe with so much mud and dirt that the girls called each other "black demons."
Khue, a writer whose short stories about the war have been translated into four languages, went on: "There was great love between us. It was a fast, passionate love, carefree and selfless, but without that kind of love, people could not survive. They [the soldiers] all looked so handsome and brave. We lived together in fire and smoke, slept in bunkers and caves. Yet we shared so much and believed so deeply in our cause that in my heart I felt completely happy.
"I'll tell you how it was," she continued. "One day I went out with my unit to collect rice. We came upon a mother and two children with no food. They were very hungry. We offered to give her some of our rice, and she refused. 'That rice,' she said, 'is for my husband who is on the battlefield.' That attitude was everywhere. But it's not there anymore. Today people care about themselves, not each other."
The road was born May 19, 1959—Ho Chi Minh's 69th birthday—when Hanoi's Communist leadership decided, in violation of the Geneva Accords that divided Vietnam in 1954, to conduct an insurgency against the South. Col. Vo Bam, a logistics specialist who had fought against the French colonial army in the 1950s, was given command of a new engineer unit, regiment 559. Its 500 troops adopted the motto, "Blood may flow, but the road will not stop." The trail they started building was so secret that their commanders told them to avoid clashes with the enemy, "to cook without smoke, and speak without making noise." When they had to cross a dirt road near a village, they would lay a canvas over it so as to leave no footprints.
Before long there were thousands of soldiers and laborers on the trail, hidden under triple-canopy jungle and camouflage nets. They built trellises for plants to grow over, scaled cliffs with bamboo ladders, set up depots to store rice and ammunition. Villagers donated doors and wooden beds to reinforce the crude road that slowly pushed south. Porters stuffed bicycle tires with rags because their cargo was so great—up to 300 pounds. There were makeshift hospitals and rest stops with hammocks.
The United States began sustained bombing of the Ho Chi Minh Trail in 1965. B-52 bombers dropped loads of 750-pound bombs in 30 seconds to cut a swath through the forests the length of 12 football fields. The monster Daisy Cutter bomb could carve out a crater 300 feet in diameter. That same year, a young doctor, Pham Quang Huy, kissed his wife of two months goodbye in Dong Hoi and headed down the trail. He carried the traditional farewell gift that wartime brides and girlfriends gave their departing soldiers—a white handkerchief with his wife's initials embroidered in one corner. So many young men never returned that handkerchiefs became a symbol of grieving and parting throughout Vietnam. Huy did not see his home again—or even leave the trail—for ten years. His daily ration was one bowl of rice and one cigarette. In all the time he was away, he and his wife were able to exchange only seven or eight letters.