Vietnam Bike Tour Challenges Western Hearts and Minds

January, 1995

by Bruce Weber

HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam - The man lying in the hammock remembered the supply trucks rumbling past his house at night.

"Yes," he said through an interpreter, gesturing out at the road before him. "This was the Ho Chi Minh Trail."

We got back on our bicycles and continued south.

This was in Giang, a river village some 500 miles north of here, in the Central Highlands. The road is known as Highway 14, but that's a joke. Though it has been widened since the Vietnam War ended, it is still a precipitous and tortuous route that negotiates densely overgrown hillsides, the roadbed in places a red-dirt path that often turns to mud in the jungle dampness, in others an obstacle course of jagged stones.

The Ho Chi Minh Trail was constructed largely in Laos and Cambodia, of course, out of the way of American bombers, but it didn't take much to imagine Highway 14 as part of the network of roads used by the Communists to ferry supplies and reinforcements from north of the demilitarized zone to Dak To, Pleiku, Kontum, Ban Me Thuot and the other southern battlefronts.

What was tough to imagine was this as a bike route, and indeed for the next several days it was slow, even dangerous going, a rattling endurance test for both bike and body. There were 11 of us we'd left a larger group in the coastal city of Da Nang and nearly all of us took nasty spills and were forced into roadside repairs. And more than once we had to cut short the riding day and board our support vans because we hadn't a prayer of completing the mileage to our scheduled stopping place before dark.

Still, in many ways this was the most rewarding stretch of our 1,200-mile, three-week journey from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, as Saigon was renamed after the Communists captured it in 1975.

This was the landscape we had come all this way to see, the deep green jungles, the lush riverbank villages, the Vietnam terrain that still looks like a war zone, familiar from newsreels and movies. Hanoi, once the battered enemy capital, is, amazingly, a friendly city. At Khe Sanh, the American garrison that was the object of the miserable siege in 1968, is gone. But beyond Giang, in the seemingly impenetrable wilderness between the village of Phuoc Son and the city of Dak To, the war's terrors lingered.

There, on a thick-misted morning, Morris Erickson, now a 48-year-old real estate lawyer in Bloomington, Indiana., dismounted his bicycle on a small cement bridge over a creek and remembered patrolling as an infantry platoon leader in 1970.

His men would go out in similarly forbidding terrain for two weeks at a time, Mr. Erickson said; they'd move through the jungle a few hundred yards a day, eating dry rations, sleeping in their ponchos, ever-alert for trip-wires that might set off a mine or a booby trap.

I'd been old enough to serve in Vietnam, but had avoided conscription because of a fortuitously high draft number. And though I had heard veterans describe details like these before, I'd never stood in a place like this while hearing them, and I could only imagine what it must have been like for an American soldier waking up in the jungle to another day of war. The air that morning was heavy and wet, a bit chill, and it could make you homesick all by itself.

"It's not bothering me at all to be back," Mr. Erickson had said in Hanoi. But standing on that bridge, reliving that time, he looked like a younger, less confident version of himself. He hugged his shoulders, and as he continued the story his grip tightened noticeable.

"I'll tell you one thing," he said. "You'd never, ever stand out in the open on a bridge like this."

SETTING OFF

60 Bicyclists, Of Many Pasts

The bicycle trip, which ended in early February, was organized by a company in Portland, Oregon, called Cycle Vietnam, now in its second year of organizing bike tours in Southeast Asia. There were about 60 of us all told, ranging in age from 23 to 74, nearly all Americans, about a third women, about 10 Vietnam vets.

We began with a brisk ride out of Hanoi, passing through the bleakly beautiful landscapes of the north the humped mountains looking in the mist beyond vast rice paddie and the energetic but uninspiring cities: Ninh Binh, Than Hoa and Ky Anh. Still, by the time we reached the former demilitarized zone, it had already been eye-opening, exhilarating even, with a reception from the Vietnamese that we could not have anticipated. All along Highway 1, entire villages came to the roadside to greet us as we passed through. And from people so far away we could barely see them, hundreds of yards away knee-deep in the rice fields, calls of "Hello!" echoed at our backs.

There were some discomforting incidents Vietnamese threw stones at our group a few times and one young woman made a threatening gesture at me with a machete but even those of us most unsettled by the occasional shows of hostility admit that the overwhelming reaction of the Vietnamese in the North was one of unqualified welcome.

"It's weird," said Wilson Hubbell, 49, who was a helicopter crewman in the war. "I've gotten a better reception as an American returning to Vietnam than I did as a Vietnam veteran returning to America."

It is hard to conceive of the Vietnam War as a tourist attraction, but that is what it is becoming.

There was the Ham Ron Bridge, just north of Than Hoa, near which more than 50 American planes were shot down; the hillsides around the bridge are pockmarked with bomb craters, now grassed over, in which children play.

In Hanoi, we went to Bach Mai Hospital, rebuilt now, but nearly destroyed during a Christmas week bombing in 1972; a bas-relief memorial to the dead fills a courtyard wall. And we visited the site of Hoa Lo Prison, the so-called Hanoi Hilton, part of which is being torn down so a real hotel can be built. I picked up a brick from the rubble to bring home as a souvenir and was immediately surrounded by several men who fixed me with severe expressions of reprimand. It was a few seconds before one of them spoke.

"One dollar," he said.

A ROUGH RIDE

Road Conditions: Hell on Wheels

Traveling in Vietnam on a bicycle is stirring, daunting, grueling. You might expect a place where everyone, it seems, is on a bike to have decent roads, but even the country's main north-south artery, Highway 1 (due for repaving this year as part of the Government effort to encourage tourism) is generally trying for a cyclist.

The traffic is chaotic, Vietnamese drive on the right side of the road, but unlike Americans they are not fanatical about it, so it was not unusual for a cyclist to be forced onto the shoulder by an overstuffed bus or an exhaust-belching truck coming from the opposite direction.

And although there are intermittent stretches of smooth and soothing asphalt, the roadbed is mostly pocked and pitted, occasionally just a rutted and rocky dirt path road conditions more suited to the fat-tire hybrid bikes and mountain bikes that most of us brought with us than to conventional road bikes.

We spent nearly all of the first four days on Highway 1; so even without the history that is literally buried at the end of it, the bike ride from Highway 1 to the tiny coastal village of Vinh Moc was a worthwhile detour.

The eight miles of rugged dirt road begins with a brief, steep climb to a panoramic ridge and then descends gradually through the jungle, spilling into the village, which is just north of the Ben Hai River, the former dividing line between North and South Vietnam, atop beachfront cliffs on the Gulf of Tonkin.

During the war, as the closest mainland point to the island of Con Co, an important Communist supply depot, Vinh Moc even now a collection of huts without electricity set among jungle palms and banana trees was bombed from the air, from the sea and even from howitzers lobbing their shells over the demilitarized zone.

In response, the villagers went underground, digging almost two miles of tunnels, three levels of rooms and passageways as deep as 85 feet below the ground. As many as 1,200 people at a time lived there between 1966 and the end of the war in 1975.

Nguyen Quang Chuc, 34, who guided us for a half-hour tour in the clammy darkness of the tunnels, said through an interpreter that he had lived underground with his family for six years, until he was 12. He said his father was killed by an American bomb in 1972.

But if it strikes him as ironic or troubling now to be escorting Americans on the site of his difficult childhood, he does not acknowledge it.

"I am happy to receive tourists," he said. "Especially the Americans. They will learn about the Vietnamese and sympathize."

TRIP TO THE PAST

For Ex-Soldiers, Painful Memories

As an American with no memories to settle here, to visit a place with such a grim legacy is to be both ensnared by the past and troubled by it. For a returning veteran it is of course more personal.

This was actually Wilson Hubbel's second return to Vietnam. A year earlier, Mr. Hubbell, a normally amiable and loquacious man, had been on the first Cycle Vietnam trip, but when he landed in Hanoi, a crippling anxiety overtook him at the airport. Also suffering from a sinus infection, he returned home.

"I had put the war behind me years and years ago, I thought," Mr. Hubbell, now a transportation official in Santa Barbara County in California, said in Hanoi.

"But the very first thing that happens when you get off the plane and you go through customs, you see the guy there in the uniform. A North Vietnamese Army soldier. If I had seen a guy dressed like that 25 years ago, I'd have shot him on sight and he'd have shot me on sight. So suddenly here I am standing face to face with this guy, and I can feel the hair on the back of my neck starting to crawl up.

"Where I had been in Vietnam, especially in the Central Highlands, you couldn't trust little kids. You couldn't trust Mama-sans. There were a lot of different ways you could die. It was totally irrational, but what's going on in my head is that any one of these people might kill me at any given moment.

"And then I had nightmares. People I was here in Vietnam with would appear and say: 'You came here on a bicycle ride? Don't you remember how we all suffered in this place? You came here to have fun?' "

Months of counseling and talking to other veterans have prepared him better for this second confrontation with his demons, Mr. Hubbell said.

"I met a lot of guys, when they found out what I was going to do, said, 'While you're going down the road, when you get to this place or that place, will you take a picture for me?' " he said. "Guys gave me their shoulder patches and said, 'Nail this to a tree for me.' So this time I've got a purpose."

On this trip, Mr. Hubbell rode his bike through Qui Nhon, a coastal town some 250 miles north of Ho Chi Minh City, where he was stationed in 1968 during the Tet offensive. There is a Vietnamese Army base now on the site of the old American base, and Mr. Hubbell went to see it. He was introduced to a former North Vietnamese soldier, a man about his age, and soon the two men were astounded to discover that they may well have exchanged gunfire during Tet. The man invited Mr. Hubbell into his home. They had tea.

Finally, Mr. Hubbell said, recalling the conversation later in a hotel bar in Ho Chi Minh City, "I feel like the war is over."

OFF THE BEATEN TRACK

Ride on Wild Side And a Night in Jail

According to Vietnamtourism, the largest of the country's Government-subsidized tourist agencies, as few as 8,000 to 10,000 Americans visited Vietnam as tourists in the year since President Clinton lifted the American trade embargo.

The numbers are likely to increase, now that diplomatic relations between the two countries are expected to resume, but for now most American visitors are cruise ship passengers, or else they remain in the area near Ho Chi Minh City.

In the interior of the country, the sudden appearance of a Westerner on a bicycle can still be shocking, or even illegal.

It was outside A Luoi, a small city near the Laotian border south of the demilitarized zone, that I was arrested and detained overnight for being in a restricted area without authorization papers.

I was traveling alone in a relatively unpopulated area, after a companion had become ill and taken a bus back to the coast earlier in the day. It was foolish, perhaps, to be biking alone, but the remoteness and danger of it all was, of course, the spur. And indeed, for 20 or so miles, south of the village of Ta Rut, it was the ride of a lifetime, through a rolling jungle where people no longer returned my greetings but stared a helmeted 6-foot-tall white person on a futuristic bike with incredulity.

After a while, the road turned for a final, long ascent over a mountain pass. For nearly an hour I climbed, in and out of the sunlight as the road switched back and forth against the mountainside. There were no people up there, no cows or dogs, no water buffalo, no pigs; nor, surprisingly, was there any wildlife in evidence, not even birds.

Earlier, I had noticed the ratchety warble of crickets, but now nothing. The silence was profound. It was a thrilling, terrifying experience of solitude.

Over the pass, the road, now surprisingly well paved, plunged into a magnificent broad valley. As the sun began to settle toward the horizon, I passed through cultivated farmland they were growing lettuce, or something that looked like it and was comforted by seeing a few villages. In one, young men were playing a game of volleyball.

Suddenly, three young men in long-sleeved brown shirts and caps with gold stars pinned to the crowns appeared in the center of the road an flagged me down. My passport was confiscated, and one of the men escorted me, by bicycle, into town, where we entered a compound of barracks surrounding a courtyard. By then it was dark, and the officers in the compound made it clear that I would be spending the night.

I was walked into town for dinner, where I picked up the tab for me and my escort, and given a reasonable bed in a reasonable room in the barracks. There was, however, one frightening moment. Not understanding why I was being held and frustrated by our inability to communicate, I tried to snatch my passport back from the officer who held it. He instantly turned angry, pointing to the star on his hat as if to say, Don't you know who I am?' and aimed an imaginary gun at me.

The next morning, a young woman, a translator, arrived on a motor scooter for what turned out to be an interrogation. I sat at a table with her and with the man who had threatened to shoot me. I counted 15 other people, all young men, standing around us. My interrogator spoke directly to the translator; she redirected the questions, in occasionally fractured English, at me.

"When you were captured," she said. "You were traveling lonely. Why?"

"Your passport was issued in New York, but your visa was issued in Mexico City. Why?"

"Did you go to Mexico City?"

"Why not?"

"Do you have other papers?"

"Why not?"

"What are the names of all of the people you are meeting in Hue?"

In the end, she told me, "You have violated administrative law. She added: "You must be punished. You agree?"

I agreed. which meant, as it turned out, a $20 fine, for which I was given a receipt. I signed a confession, written out during my interrogation, which included the line, according to the translator: "All he wants is to be free."

About 10 days later, during an interview in Ho Chi Minh City with Dang Van Tin, the general managing director of Vietnamtourism, I told this story and asked for an explanation. Why had I been arrested? Mr. Tin and his marketing manager, Phan Xuan Anh, broke into giggles.

"The news of our open society has not yet gotten out to some of the more remote provinces," Mr. Tin finally said.

A JOURNEY'S END

One-Time Enemies Look Back in Peace

It was in a roadside cafe near Di Linh, the day before we arrived in Ho Chi Minh City, that Than Minh Son talked about the war and its aftermath. Mr. Than, a retired Government driver, moved to the south in the late 1970's, but had served on the side of the Communists, driving a supply truck along the northern reaches of the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

A friendly man with a shrewd, wry manner, he described, through an interpreter, perilous journeys of 30 or 40 miles a night, driving on barely discernible roads, with lights mounted only beneath the truck so as not to be spotted from the air.

"We were attacked frequently by American planes," he said. "If 10 out of 100 trucks arrived safely, that was a great victory. If a bomb hit in front of us, we drove through the forest and made a new road. Sometimes, revolutionaries in the villages saw that a truck couldn't move and they helped dig the new road through the jungle."

He lost a brother and two cousins in the war, he said; he was wounded when bomb shrapnel took a chunk from his scalp.

"When I smile or laugh a lot, I get a headache," he said.

Asked how he felt now, with Americans visiting Vietnam as tourists, he responded philosophically.

"As Uncle Ho said, wartime is one thing but peacetime is quite another," Mr. Son said. "And now let me ask you. You have come halfway around the world, and now you are sitting in a cafe and talking to the V.C. How do you feel?"

It was a good question.

Copyright © 1995 by Bruce Weber. All rights reserved.

This story originally appeared in the New York Times on March 1, 1995. It is reproduced at this web site with the approval and good wishes of the author.


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