Ho Chi Minh Trail's Myth Dazzles Road Planners

  

By Seth Mydans,, 20 February 2000

 

BANGKOK, Thailand, Feb. 20 -- In the world of transportation, there are few brand names to match that of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the secret, shifting, piecemeal network of jungle roadways that helped the North win the Vietnam War.

Most of the trail has been consumed by the forest in the 25 years since the war ended, but its myth is still there. Indeed, it seems to have seduced Vietnam's planners into a project that some outsiders say they find unrealistic and misguided.

The government announced Friday that it planned to turn the faint remnants of the old trail into an honest-to-goodness highway that would link the north and the south for peaceful commerce, as it once did for wartime supply and transport.

According to an announcement from Hanoi -- wartime capital of the Communist North and peacetime capital of a unified Communist Vietnam -- the 1,000-mile, $678.6 million project is to be completed in just three years.

If they transported artillery pieces along it, the reasoning seems to be, they can mobilize to lay asphalt at a record pace.

An expert on Vietnam at Harvard University, Tom Vallely, was skeptical. He called a paved road through the country's western mountains "something they don't need."

"That's a misallocation of funds," said Mr. Vallely, director of the Vietnam program at the Harvard Institute of International Development. "You are supposed to invest in things you need, not in things you don't need. And you are supposed to invest in them in a timely way. They already have a north-south highway, and there is not a lot of traffic on it."

He added: "I don't think they'll do it. I can't imagine they'll do it. I don't think any international donor would touch it."

The government envisions a two-lane road to supplement the current coastal route, Highway 1, with an eventual expansion of the mountain road to six busy high-speed lanes.

It is easy to see the attraction of the idea.

The Ho Chi Minh trail has been the stuff of legend for both America and Vietnam since it confounded the United States military and led to a secret border-crossing bombing campaign that helped draw Cambodia into the horrors of the war.

Begun in 1959 as a hidden trail through the jungle, it expanded over the years into a network of five main routes, portions of them paved, that dipped back and forth across the borders with Laos and Cambodia.

For both sides, the trail symbolized the determination and ingenuity of the North and the overmuscled inability of America's war machine to cope with small-bore guerrilla tactics.

At one point near the end of the war, for example, frustrated American commanders ordered that in certain intractable hostile areas, any gatherings observed from the air of more than a handful of people would be attacked with B-52 strikes -- the war's knockout punch, capable of leveling an area the size of several football fields.

But no amount of bombing or the use of high-tech sensory devices was able to slow for long the antlike traffic of men, women, trucks and bicycles that allowed the North to pursue the war in the South.

As the stuff of legend, the Ho Chi Minh trail has continued to inspire Vietnam, a nation that has not been able to show its people many heroic achievements since the war ended.

For a time a few years ago there was a notion -- some called it harebrained -- to exploit the trail as a tourist attraction. According to the plan, "rich visitors" would be ferried in by helicopter and housed in old bunkers converted into "mini-resorts."

"Visitors would be provided with the old-time uniforms, hats and walking sticks of the troops, which will remind them or help them to imagine how it was for people and soldiers during the war," said the plan's promoter, an architect named Hoang Phuc Thang.

In its way, Mr. Vallely said, the road-building plan seems almost as misguided.

"It would take resources from things they need, like education or science or building urban infrastructure or getting successful provinces more ports," he said.

"I think the idea of integrating is good -- access roads, electricity, the Internet. There are all sorts of ways to get the country connected better and cheaper than this."

In the former Saigon -- which now also bears the name of Vietnam's wartime leader, Ho Chi Minh -- coffee table books are for sale with propaganda photographs of the famous trail.

Though much of it has disappeared now, its essence is alive in these pictures: singing, optimistic soldiers -- men and women -- with bouquets of camouflage leaves on their pith helmets; determined patriotic fighters heaving heavy machinery through ravines and across streams, not mention the endless Chinese-made bicycles, overladen like beasts of burden with more supplies than the laws of physics would ever approve.

But of course, the miracle of the Ho Chi Minh trail was that it accomplished the impossible. If the Vietnamese had listened to experts at Harvard, they would have given up without a fight.

So who knows?  


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