Since the early 1990s, when the government decided profit was no longer a dirty word and, like China, opened its economy to private investment, Vietnam's poverty rate has dropped from nearly 60 percent to less than 20 percent. Tourism has boomed, foreign investment has poured in and the United States has become Vietnam's largest export market. A stock market is flourishing. Vietnam still wears the cloak of communism, but today the blood of free-market reform fills its capitalistic heart.
Two-thirds of Vietnam's 85 million people were born since 1975. For them, the war is ancient history. But for their parents, the trail and its rebirth as a highway are potent symbols of sacrifice and loss, of endurance and patience—a symbol as enduring as the beaches of Normandy are to Allied veterans of World War II.
"My greatest pride is to have followed my father's generation and worked on the highway," said Nguyen Thi Tinh, a senior planner in the Ministry of Transportation, who knows every turn and twist of the new road. Her father, a professional singer and saxophone player, was killed in a bombing attack on the trail while entertaining soldiers in 1966. "I'm embarrassed to say this, but if I'd had a gun at the time, I would have killed all Americans," she said. "Then I realized that the same thing that happened to my family happened to American families, that if I had lost my son and I was an American, I would have hated the Vietnamese. So I buried my hatred. That is the past now."
We talked for an hour, just the two of us in her office. She told me how in 1969 she had gone—during a bombing pause—to the battlefield where her father died. With the help of soldiers, she dug up his grave; his remains were wrapped in plastic. Among the bones was a tattered wallet containing an old picture of him with her—his only daughter. She brought him home to Quang Binh Province for a proper Buddhist burial. As I got up to leave, she said, "Wait. I want to sing you a song I wrote." She opened a notebook. She locked her eyes with mine, placed a hand on my forearm and her soprano voice filled the room.
"My dear, go with me to visit green Truong Son.
We will go on a historical road that has been changed day by day.
My dear, sing with me about Truong Son, the road of the future,
The road that bears the name of our Uncle Ho.
Forever sing about Truong Son, the road of love and pride."
In a few years the highway will reach Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon, then push on into the Mekong Delta. I left my interpreter and driver in Hue and caught a Vietnam Airlines flight to Ho Chi Minh City. April 1975 and Saigon's last days flashed to mind. Thirty-two years ago, I had spread out a map on the bed in my hotel near South Vietnam's parliament. Each night I had marked the advancing locations of North Vietnam's 12 divisions as they swept down the Ho Chi Minh Trail to the city's doorstep. The end of the war was at hand and it would come amid chaos but with surprisingly little bloodshed.
"I was 12 miles north of Saigon with the 2nd Division before the final advance," said Tran Dau, a former North Vietnamese officer living in Ho Chi Minh City. "We could see the lights of the city at night. When we came in, I was surprised how modern and prosperous it was. We had been in the forests so long that anyplace with pavement would have seemed like Paris."
Dau knew how harsh Hanoi had been toward the South in the nightmarish 15 years following reunification. Southerners by the hundreds of thousands were sent to re-education camps or economic zones and forced to surrender their property and swallow rigid communist ideology. Hanoi's mismanagement brought near-famine, international isolation and poverty to all but the Communist Party elite. In 1978, Vietnam invaded Cambodia, overthrowing the regime of dictator and mass murderer Pol Pot, then, in 1979, fought off invading Chinese troops in a month-long border war. Vietnam stayed in Cambodia until 1989.
The former colonel shook his head at the memory of what many Vietnamese call the "Dark Years." Did he encounter any animosity as a victorious northern soldier who had taken up residency in the defeated South?
He paused and shook his head. "People in Saigon don't care anymore if their neighbor fought for the South or the North," he said. "It's just a matter of history."