The Ho Chi Minh Trail was born on May 19, 1955, Ho Chi Minh’s sixty-fifth birthday, when, with the French colonial army defeated and gone for a year, Hanoi began laying plans to bring South Vietnam under its control. Major Vo Bam, a logistics specialist who had fought the French in the Central Highlands, was put in charge of forging a supply route to the South. The mission was so secret no written records were kept. Hacking through triple-canopy jungle, avoiding villages, enduring biting cold and suffocating heat, hunger, exhaustion, and disease, Bam and 500 volunteers from the 559th Engineer Brigade—the unit’s motto: “Blood May Flow but the Road Will Not Stop”—skirted the Truong Son Mountains, crossing Route 9 just east of Khe Sanh, and plodded south. The rudimentary track they carved out would fuel the American War.
Using elephants, horses, sweat, brawn, Chinese-made Phoenix bicycles (the same brand of bike I now rode in Hanoi) that could carry 300 pounds of supplies, and, later, trucks, Hanoi’s volunteer Shock Youth Brigades Against U.S. Aggression for National Salvation eventually turned Barn’s old footpath into a vast labyrinth of hundreds of hidden paths, bypasses, parallel tracks, and access roads onto which traffic could be rerouted, as in a railroad switching yard. By 1968 buried communica¬tions cables and a pipeline ran alongside Truong Son Road—only the Americans called it the Ho Chi Minh Trail—and by 1974 it carried con¬voys of trucks, speeding along a modern paved highway with rest and service areas and comfortable bungalows for VIP visitors.
“We got our orders to move south in 1966,” Nguyen Duc Bao, a retired colonel, recalled. “The trail was very secret then. When we had to cross a dirt highway near a village, we’d lay a canvas sheet over it, 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 twenty-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 very deadly. In the four months it took us to reach the South, a hundred men from my regiment died. I counted twenty-four different ways you could die on the road.”
The United States dropped 1.7 million tons of bombs on the Ho Chi Minh Trail and made Laos the most heavily bombed country in history in an unsuccessful effort to cut off supplies and infiltration. It used rain- inducing techniques to flood the trail, Agent Orange to strip away the jungle awning, chemicals that broke down the soil into mud. It gave anti¬personnel cluster bombs their first significant test on the trail and dropped “invisible” parachutes—sensor devices that burrowed into the ground like bamboo sprouts and relayed data back to Nakkon Phanom in Thailand for evaluation. The U.S. aerial campaign set the forests ablaze, triggered landslides, left the trail littered with scorched vehicles; bits of corpses were collected piece by piece and buried in pots. But month after month, year after year, the soldiers and supplies reaching the South in¬creased. The CIA estimated that it took 300 bombs to kill one North Vietnamese soldier.
“My unit shot down thirty-two U.S. planes,” Nguyen Thanh Son, a fifty-year-old former antiaircraft gunner, told me. We were in his modest Hanoi home, where he leafed through an album with grainy black-and- white photos of his war days and kept refilling my teacup. I asked him what he thought of the Americans who had rained terror on the trail. “I used to think of your pilots as savages when they were in the planes,” he said. “Then I saw three or four who’d been shot down, and they were like little children. They cried. They were afraid of the bombs—the American bombs—like we were.
“Our trenches were only large enough for Vietnamese, not the Ameri¬cans, who were very big. So, when we’d get a warning that American planes were headed our way, we gave them shovels and said, ‘Dig your own trench.’ They dug very quickly. They were frightened. In short, up close they were human beings like us.”
Son said it was funny, but despite the death and destruction he wit¬nessed, he still clung to memories from those years that were warm and reassuring. The best friends he ever made were along the road. There was beauty in the sounds of soft rain tapping on an overhead jungle canopy and in the sight of cloud-shrouded mountains. Solitude and companion¬ship were strangely intertwined. There was comfort knowing the achieve¬ment of one was the accomplishment of all. Son remembered almost every detail from those years, even the names of the photographers such as Trong Thang, who had spent time with his unit and who developed his film in glazed clay pots by candlelight and helped bury the dead by day.
Trong Thang was one of North Vietnam’s most celebrated wartime photographers, and with Son’s introduction I went to see him. Thang had spent four years documenting daily life on the Ho Chi Minh Trail and in 1991 toured fifteen U.S. cities with his photographs. The images were haunting, focused more on the emotions of war than the chaos of war: a rare moment of tenderness between a teenage soldier and a girl volunteer; a North Vietnamese soldier named Dien sharing his water canteen with a wounded South Vietnamese infantryman; three adolescent privates with uncertain smiles and arms over one another’s shoulders headed off for a commando mission from which they knew they would not return. “After taking their picture, I had to turn away and weep,” Thang said.

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