THE ROAD SOUTH 6

“No, we can make this work,” Ha Dinh Can, the project’s general di¬rector, told me. “The highway will have a big economic impact. There will be a huge boost to employment. Timber and coffee producers will have easier access to markets. Tourists will be able to get to remote areas that were unreachable before. A whole new section of the country will be opened up to development. Driving times between major cities will be shortened.” He neglected to add that the highway would also strengthen Vietnam’s military capabilities and make it easier for soldiers to reach the homeland of minority tribes, whose loyalty to the state was frequently questioned.
But whatever its peacetime evolution, the Ho Chi Minh Trail will for¬ever remain entangled in the myths and realities of war—in the U.S. bombing, as relentless as it was, that managed to shut the artery for only two days in a decade’s time, in the deaths of 20,000 North Vietnamese soldiers, in the kinship that bonded people who lived and worked on the trail, sometimes for years at a stretch, and found in their communal hard¬ship an inexplicable romanticism and contentment.
“I loved everyone with a passionate love,” wrote Le Minh Khue, a Hanoi novelist who lied about her age and joined the army at fifteen. She worked for five years repairing bomb damage on the trail. Of her feelings for her fellow workers and the southbound boy-soldiers everyone called the “Hanoi men,” she wrote in her book The Stars, The Earth, The River that hers was a love “only someone who had stood on that hill in those moments could understand fully. That was the love of the people in smoke and fire, the people of war.”
The project officials in Hanoi told me the initial survey work on the new highway had begun two weeks earlier and, if I wanted to take a look, that I should locate the nth Engineer Brigade. That proved difficult. The washed-out road that ran off Highway 9 crossed a bridge built by the Cubans and followed a jungle-covered ridge into the interior. There was no sign of an encampment, no indication that anyone else had passed this way in years. After a few miles we happened upon three barefoot Mon- tagnard women collecting firewood. Mr. Tam rolled down his window and asked if they’d seen any soldiers. But he spoke Vietnamese; the women spoke only their tribal language. They shrugged and smiled, their betel nut-stained teeth black as coal. We went on. I was about to give up the hunt and suggest we turn back when our driver spotted a cluster of bamboo huts and tents off to our right, at the base of a steep ravine. “That’s got to be them,” Mr. Tam said. “Who else would be living out here?” We parked and made our way down the muddy hill, half-walking, half-sliding on our heels.
It was lunchtime. The thirty members of the nth Engineer Brigade showed no surprise at finding an American poking around the Ho Chi Minh Trail. One of them poured me a bowl of chicken and rice broth from a charcoal-warmed caldron. Freshly washed fatigues were laid to dry across the bushes. No one carried a weapon. I lit a Marlboro and passed around the rest of the pack, which was received enthusiastically. We went inside a bamboo barracks to get out of the sun. There was a poster of Ho Chi Minh on one wall but no amenities such as toilets, electricity, or run¬ning water. I asked how many of the soldiers had been on the trail during the war. Three hands went up. I asked how many of their fathers had been on the trail, and almost every one raised his hand. Unlike the U.S. military, enlisted men and officers were social equals in the nth Brigade, as they were in all North Vietnamese Army units during the war. They bunked side by side in the barracks, hunkered together around the same campfire at mealtime, and shared all the same hardships. Privates and sergeants ad¬dressed their officers as Anh—“Big Brother”—not “sir” or “lieutenant.”
One of the young soldiers, Lieutenant Dam Trong Nam, was eager to engage me in conversation. He was, I think, the only one who spoke English. How long had I lived in Vietnam? What did I think of Viet¬nam? Did I like the Vietnamese? How old was I? How many children did I have? Did I think Vietnam was making progress economically? What was the future of relations between Vietnam and the United States? He would translate each of my answers for his men. They looked at me with compassion upon hearing I had no children and murmured approval when I said I thought relations were improving and that the two nations were moving toward a position of lasting friendship.
Lieutenant Nam gave me his address and asked me to write. I handed him my business card and said I’d be happy to take him to lunch any time he was in Hanoi. But he said he wasn’t likely to get home for a year or two. “We’re in the middle of nowhere here,” he said. “We don’t get leaves or weekend passes. Where would you go if you got a pass? On a jungle walk? But when you think of what the people went through during the war on the road, you don’t complain. We’re building our country just like they did, only in a different way. We’re helping develop the economy. I re¬ally hope the Americans understand how important the highway is and help us more and more to develop our economy.”

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