Trail of Tears

Vietnam's trail of tears is being reborn

by David Lamb; 8/20/00 Los Angeles Times

DAKRONG, Vietnam - The Ho Chi Minh Trail, which carried 1 million North Vietnamese soldiers south and confounded the United States' top military strategists for 10 years, belongs to history now, its network of hidden dirt roads reclaimed by jungle, leeches and ghosts of a war long past.

But though abandoned, there is hardly anything or anyone, save Ho Chi Minh himself, that the Vietnamese of the north hold more dear than the supply route that was once the world's deadliest road. Without it, Hanoi's dream of a reunified Vietnam might well have remained a dream.

Many of the Vietnam War's most famous battles - Khe Sanh, Hamburger Hill, Ia Drang - were fought, at least indirectly, for control of this meandering track that started in a gorge Hanoi's troops called "Heaven's Gate." And some of the war's most valuable lessons were learned here, among them that air power alone doesn't guarantee victory.

"I drove this stretch of the road many, many times during the war, hauling ammunition, supplies, taking the wounded north," said Sgt. Trong Minh Long, 48, who carries a shovel instead of a gun these days. "There was no more dangerous duty."

Today, Long and 30 army colleagues are back on this ribbon of track now known as Highway 14, near the former U.S. encampment at Khe Sanh. Chinese- and Russian-made trucks, relics of the early war years, rumble by loaded with gravel and rock.

Soldiers cluster around bamboo huts where rice and chicken broth simmer in caldrons and freshly washed fatigues are laid across bushes to dry in the breathless summer heat. The long-silent jungle stirs at last with voices and movement and peace's dividends.

In the largest state-financed public-works program since the Vietnam War ended in 1975, the trail is being reborn and rebuilt, this time as the Ho Chi Minh Highway. The new road will link Hanoi with Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, 1,050 miles south, and open vast expanses of previously inaccessible terrain.

The four-year project is monumental. It will cost $400 million, a staggering sum for one of Southeast Asia's poorest countries. More than 300 bridges will be built. Hills will be razed, tunnels burrowed. Narrow dirt roads will be widened, raised for flood control and paved. Unexploded mines and bombs will be defused.

Only the vanguard

Long's 11th Engineer Brigade is but the vanguard of a work force that eventually will number 50,000 soldiers and youth volunteers.

"We think the highway will have a big economic impact," Ha Dinh Can, the project's general director, said in Hanoi, the capital. "There will be a huge boost to employment. Timber and coffee producers will have easier access to their markets. Tourists will be able to get to remote areas that were unreachable before. Driving times will be shortened."

Hanoi long maintained the war against the Saigon government was fought by indigenous Viet Cong guerrillas, not North Vietnamese soldiers, and that Hanoi's direct support of the Viet Cong was in response to the landing of the first U.S. combat troops, in Danang on March 8, 1965. But the history of the trail - which is the history of the war itself - indicates Hanoi's battle plans were drawn 10 years before the arrival of the first two Marine battalions.

On May 19, 1955, Ho Chi Minh's 65th birthday, Maj. Vo Bam, a defense-supply specialist, was instructed to find a supply route south. Traveling with 500 troops, Bam put together a patchwork of paths through the triple-canopy jungle.

By the winter of 1962-63, North Vietnam had 5,000 troops and an engineering regiment assigned to the trail. In the next few years, the route was upgraded into a network of roads that covered 10,000 miles.

`24 different ways you could die'

"We got our orders to move south in January 1966," recalled Nguyen Duc Bao, 70, a retired colonel who lives in Ho Chi Minh City. "The trail was very secret then. We'd lay a canvas sheet over dirt roads, and the last man across would roll it up so there'd be no footprints. We carried our own weight in weapons, supplies, medicine. We set up storehouses for rice. Usually, it was a 20-day walk from one storehouse to the next. In between, we ate roots.

"At first, the American bombing wasn't so bad. But malaria, snakes, starvation, drowning, accidents were just as deadly. In the four months it took us to reach the south, 100 men in my regiment died. I counted 24 different ways you could die on the road."

Hanoi claimed to have shot down 2,500 U.S. planes over the trail; the Pentagon said it lost 500 planes. Whatever the truth, Operations Steel Tiger and Tiger Hound set the forests ablaze, littered the trail with charred corpses and scorched vehicles, triggered landslides and, by CIA estimates, probably killed only one soldier for every 300 bombs dropped.

Using elephants, horses, specially designed bikes - which could carry 500 pounds of supplies - and, later, trucks, Hanoi's volunteer Shock Youth Brigades Against U.S. Aggression for National Salvation - many of them women - turned Bam's old footpath into what would become the road to victory.

"We're in the middle of nowhere here," said Dam Trong Nam, 26, one of the soldiers building the new highway. "But when you think what the people went through during the war on the road, you don't complain. We're building our country just like they did, helping develop the economy. I really hope the Americans understand how important the highway is and help us more and more to develop our economy."

Tricks stump U.S. technology

The United States dropped 1.7 million tons of bombs on the Ho Chi Minh Trail in an unsuccessful effort to cut off supplies. It used rain-inducing techniques to flood the trail and Agent Orange to strip the jungle awning. It gave anti-personnel cluster bombs their first significant test. It dropped "invisible" parachutes - sensors that burrowed into the ground like bamboo sprouts and relayed data back to Nakhon Phanom in Thailand for evaluation by U.S. intelligence experts. It built the McNamara Line, an electronic cordon with 20,000 sensors reaching from the South China Sea to the Laotian border.

But month by month, year after year, the soldiers and supplies reaching the south increased. Infiltrators set buckets of urine near chemical sensors or drove water buffalo past motion-detecting sensors so information transmitted was often meaningless.

The trail itself became an intertwined web of bypasses and parallel tracks and access roads onto which traffic could be rerouted, much like a railroad switching yard. By 1968, an estimated 150,000 North Vietnamese soldiers had safely made the journey south. By 1975, trucks were making the journey to the southern front - a trek that had taken foot soldiers six months - in 23 days.

"My unit shot down 32 U.S. planes," said Nguyen Thanh Son, 50, a former anti-aircraft gunner. "I used to think of the pilots as savages when they were in the planes. Then I saw three or four who'd been shot down, and they were like little children. They cried. They were afraid of the U.S. bombs like we were.

"Our trenches were only large enough for Vietnamese, not the Americans, who were very big. So we gave them shovels and said, `Dig your own trench.' They dug very quickly. They were frightened. In short, they were human beings like us."  

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PublicAffairs Books is Proud to Announce the Publication of

VIETNAM, NOW: A Reporter Returns

By David Lamb

Thirty years after he reported on the war as a young combat correspondent,

David Lamb returned to Vietnam to cover the peace for the Los Angeles Times.

He moved into an apartment in downtown Hanoi, the city he once viewed as the “enemy” capital, and began exploring the new Vietnam, a country emerging from years of political and economic isolation. Lamb was surprised by what he discovered during his four-year journey. His readers will be, too.

“This is a truly a magnificent book,” comments Pete Peterson, former POW and the first U.S. Ambassador to peacetime Vietnam, “and the first ever to accurately capture Vietnam as it is today.”

Stanley Karnow, author of VIETNAM: A History: “Americans discovered Vietnam during the tragic war there more than a generation ago. Now David Lamb rediscovers the country in a vivid, perceptive, elucidating narrative that is bound to rank among the major books on the subject.”

David Lamb is the only newspaper correspondent from the Vietnam War to later live in peacetime Hanoi. A distinguished Los Angeles Times journalist, he is the author of five previous books.

He has been a Nieman Fellow, an Alicia Patterson Fellow, a Pew Fellow and a writer-in-residence at the University of Southern California's School of Journalism.

Available now at bookstores everywhere and at Internet booksellers. $26.  274 pages.

Visit Public Affairs at www.publicaffairsbooks.com, 212-397-6666.

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Vietnam,Now A Reporter Returns

by David Lamb

People's Magazine:
Reviewed by Julie K.L. Dam

When Vietnam War correspondent David Lamb returned to the country in 1997, he thought the U.S. involvement in the conflict would remain a sore subject among the Vietnamese. Despite the horror of the war and the hardship that followed, though, people who were once considered the enemy "treated me as an honored guest," writes Lamb. 

Part political history, part memoir, Vietnam, Now has a simple thesis: It's time for the U.S. to reach a similar sense of closure. At times Lamb seems too eager to embrace the optimist's viewpoint and makes generalizations about the Vietnamese based on limited information. But the eloquently told stories of the vets (both Vietnamese and American) expats and widows he meets (others are profiled in Vietnam Passage: Journeys from War to Peace, a documentary narrated by Lamb that airs on  May 23) have an emotional resonance that drives home his point. As one elderly Vietnamese villager tells Lamb before giving him a farewell hug, "The war's past now. It belonged to my generation, not my sons'." (Public Affairs, $26) Bottom Line: Eye-opening look at the other side