We went through several cartons of black-and-white photos. I was fix¬ated by the faces—the clear, steady eyes, the smooth, acne-free complex¬ions, the expressions that radiated determination and devotion but still held something back. I knew these same faces from the streets of Hanoi. I passed them a hundred times a day. And they were all so young.
“Our happiest times on Truong Son were when we got mail from home,” Thang said. “We’d read the letters aloud to each other. Pretty soon one soldier would laugh over something in a letter, then everyone would laugh until the forest shook with laughter. Then you’d feel so guilty for being happy, you’d cry, and the whole forest would cry.
“We hungered for love. I remember watching, from behind a bush, three girls take off their clothes and bathe in a stream. When they emerged, they looked like fairy princesses. They were so young, so beauti¬ful. I wanted to shoot their picture, but I didn’t because they were nude, and it wouldn’t have been appropriate. An hour later, they were killed in a B-52 strike. I still ask myself, ‘Why didn’t I take their picture nude to keep their memory alive for history?”’
To THE VIETNAMESE, at least those of the North, the Ho Chi Minh Trail remains the symbol of the war. Most of the men, and many of the women, I knew in Hanoi who were over forty-five had been on the trail, and they spoke of it with reverence. They had survived the world’s dead¬liest road, and over the course of sixteen years they had built a legend. Many had left home as teenagers who had never shaved or held a girl’s hand and returned to their parents as thirty-year-old veterans, aged be¬yond their years. Strange, but I never found anyone who had gone back to see what the abandoned trail looked like in peacetime—or even wanted to. Some, like Son, the antiaircraft gunner, didn’t even like the idea of turning the trail into a highway, preferring that it be left untouched—a monument, however inaccessible, to a generation’s rite of passage.
“The most important memory of life is time on Truong Son Road,” Son said. “When we vets get together, we often say, ‘We have nothing now. We are very poor. We have only the memory of Truong Son Road.’ It was a time of hardship, of sacrifice, but in a way it was also a time of happiness because we were young and still romantic then.”