I jumped at the touch of a hand on my shoulder. I turned and behind me was a young man in sandals and a thick sweater. Was he an apparition? There wasn’t anyone here a minute ago. Nguyen Van Tran had come up the road on foot at the sight of my car. He held out a small display case with U.S. dogtags, Viet Cong medals, North Vietnamese Army insignia, Zippo lighters engraved with slogans like, “WHEN I DIE l’M GOING TO HEAVEN BECAUSE l’VE SPENT MY TIME IN HELL.” Tran tugged at my sleeve. “Look,” he said. “Good souvenir. Real souvenir. You buy?” I found his presence as a salesman offensive to the memory of the brave men—on both sides—who had fought and died at Khe Sanh. I told him so, but I don’t think he understood. At least I hadn’t been hustled. Stuff like his was available throughout Vietnam, and I knew it was all fake, produced by industrious Vietnamese capitalizing on tourists’ lingering fascination with the war.
The siege of Khe Sanh took the lives of 205 Americans, more than 1,000 South Vietnamese, and as many as 15,000 North Vietnamese. The Americans had occupied the valley to anchor the western defense of the DMZ and to use it as an eventual jumpoff for interdicting the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The North Vietnamese had besieged it as a distraction, hop-ing to camouflage their buildup for the nationwide Tet Offensive. In the end, no one won the battle for Khe Sanh. North Vietnamese resistance eventually melted away in March, and the ist Cavalry Division reopened Highway 9 in April, relieving the battered Leatherneck garrison. In July the Marines blew up the bunkers, rolled up the metal sheets covering the airstrip, and withdrew. Khe Sanh went back to what it had been and what it is today—a forgotten valley at the end of the earth.
KHE SANH—LIKE I A DRANG, Hamburger Hill, and many other bat¬tles during the American War—was fought, indirectly at least, for control of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a meandering track and logistical marvel that started in a gorge that North Vietnam’s troops called Heaven’s Gate. It cut through five provinces in Vietnam, three in Laos, and two in Cambo¬dia before reaching its terminus in Tay Ninh Province, a ninety-minute drive from Saigon. Without the Ho Chi Minh Trail, Hanoi’s dream of uniting the two Vietnams might have remained only a dream, especially in light of the heavy Tet losses in 1968. It made the difference between victory and defeat. Without it, the United States might never have learned one of the important lessons of the war—that airpower alone doesn’t guarantee victory and that military might is often no match for nationalism. As many as 2 million men walked to war over the Ho Chi Minh Trail between 1959 and 1975.
“We march all day bent under the weight of our packs,” one of Hanoi’s first soldiers on the route wrote in his diary. “In the heat and humidity we are forced to stop often for rest and to get our breath back. In the evening, utterly exhausted, we hang our hammocks and mosquito nets from the trees, and sleep under the stars. At times we have to search far from the trail for a waterfall or spring where we can drink and fill our canteens. There are tigers and leopards in the jungle, and we knew about attacks on stragglers and people who have become separated. We climb mountain faces of over a thousand meters, pulling our headbands down over our eyes to filter the sun’s rays. From the summit a spectacle of splendor and magnificence offers itself to us. It is like a countryside of fairy tales. Those who get sick we leave at the next way post. The group continues to march. We must have faith in our struggle, in our leaders and in our country to endure these tests of suffering and pain, when we can no longer distinguish the line between life and death.”
The trail confounded America’s top military strategists for a decade and was as much a logistical nemesis to them as the B-52S were a deadly nightmare to the North Vietnamese. Then the war ended and the Ho Chi Minh Trail—which wasn’t really a trail at all but an intertwined net¬work of roads, dirt paths, and arteries covering 10,000 miles—was aban¬doned, to be reclaimed by the jungle, the leeches, and the ghosts of hard times. For a generation, this place belonged to history.
Now, as I crossed Quang Tri Province in the first days of the Year of the Snake, along a washed-out mountain road near Khe Sanh, a remark¬able transformation was under way. The long-silent jungle stirred again with voices and movement and, at last, the dividends of peace. In the largest state-financed public works program since the war, the Ho Chi Minh Trail was being reborn and rebuilt, this time as a national highway that would link Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, 1,050 miles south. The twenty-year project would cost $400 million, a staggering sum for one of Southeast Asia’s poorest countries. Three hundred bridges needed to be built, hills razed, tunnels burrowed. Narrow dirt roads would be widened, raised for flood control, and paved. Unexploded mines and bombs had to be located and defused. The conversion of the Ho Chi Minh Trail to the Ho Chi Minh National Highway was, I thought, the perfect metaphor for Vietnam’s own journey from wartime deprivation to peacetime development.
Before leaving Hanoi, I had met with government officials who dismissed the concerns many voiced about the project. Environmentalists said the highway would disturb ecologically sensitive areas, including Vietnam’s first national park in the North. Culturists worried that the lives of minority tribes would be disrupted. Economists questioned the feasibility of the project, suggesting it would have been far less costly to upgrade the existing national road, Highway 1, which runs down the east¬ern seaboard, or improve the North-South rail line.