|The so-called Ho Chi Minh Trail is one of the most renowned legends of the Vietnam War. So far, there have been many people outside Vietnam who have only superficial knowledge on the road system winding along the Truong Son Range, that facilitated movement of soldiers and war supplies from North Vietnam to battlefields in South Vietnam. The Trail was playing the key role in the Communist victory over South Vietnam.|
In the early 2000, the Communist government in Hanoi decided to construct a highway, the Ho Chi Minh Highway, along the Truong Son Range to connect North Vietnam with South Vietnam, parallel to the existing Highway 1 in the coastal areas of Central Vietnam. The construction is going on, and would be completed in four years if everything goes as planned.
Prompted by tales of the formidable Ho Chi Minh Trail, many journalists and observers outside Vietnam quickly adopt the false notion that the new highway is built on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, or the Trail is reborn and rebuilt as Ho Chi Minh Highway, without giving it a second thought.
In fact, the old trail and the new highway ARE NOT AT THE SAME LOCATION BUT MILES APART.
The Ho Chi Minh Trail was a complex of parallel truck routes and foot paths.
Most truck routes were dirt roads, some important portions were paved with rock and pebbles. All of them were in the territory of Laos and not a bit of it touched the Vietnamese soil except for the first part of about 50 kilometers from the starting points.
Most convoys departed at three major loading areas inside North Vietnam’s panhandle region and began their journey by heading to the Laotian borders, following the three paved highways built before 1945 by the French colonialist authorities in Indochina. All the three roads connect the Vietnam’s provinces of Nghe An, Ha Tinh and Quang Binh with the Laotian road network across the common border.
On April 5, 2000, Hanoi government held the ground breaking ceremony at a ferry harbor in Quang Binh province, to launch the construction of the Ho Chi Minh Highway. The Xuan Son ferry harbor was one of the three starting points of the Ho Chi Minh Trail (the southernmost part of North Vietnam, close to the 17th Parallel – see the map below).
After a short distance into Laos, the trucks headed southward on the routes along the border. Most of the routes are a few kilometers away from the border. Far away to the south, the distance may be up to more than 100 kilometers, deep into Cambodia. The truck routes extended as far as to Sihanoukville, or Konpong Som, the Cambodian port city on the Gulf of Thailand. Military supplies also came from North Vietnam and China to this port to be forwarded to secret bases inside Cambodia, supporting VC units in South Vietnam. Therefore, the southern portion of the system was called Sihanouk Trail.
Footpaths made up another system that intertwined with truck routes. On those footpaths, North Vietnamese combat units moved on foot from many starting points in areas just north of the Demilitarized Zone into Laos before infiltrating South Vietnam. Supplies, especially during the first few years of the war, were also transported to the South by “dan cong” (civilian labors) on backpacks and mostly on bicycles led by porters’ hands.
Footpaths also extended logistical lines from truck routes. Military supplies were unloaded from trucks at many sites along the truck routes and carried by porters on backpacks or on bicycles across border into South Vietnamese soil.
Like truck routes, footpaths run mostly on Laotian territory parallel with the border. Only segments of the paths were in South Vietnam no-man’s borderland areas west of Kontum, Pleiku, Ban Me Thuot… down to Tay Ninh.
Footpath network branched off to the east at many places, leading supplies and troops to logistical bases set up inside South Vietnam. Some were located as far as 50 kilometers from the border, deep into the jungles of Central Vietnam provinces.
The under-construction highway, Ho Chi Minh Highway, is of a completely different story. It is built entirely inside Vietnam parallel to the border but not the smallest bit of it is on any segment of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, truck routes or footpaths. The new highway intersects with dozen of branched footpaths but runs far away from the Trail and the border.
The highway construction is not a brand new plan. The idea of the second north-south highway was nourished by the French colonialist authorities in the early 20th Century. Before 1954, Highway 14 was asphalted from its southern end at the Highway 13 (Saigon-Loc Ninh) to Ban Me Thuot. Its section from Ban Me Thuot up to Daksut, north of Kontum City, was not asphalted until 1963. The highway from Dak Sut to Kham Duc was still a 2-lane dirt road.
In 1959, South Vietnam President Ngo Dinh Diem ordered to widen and reinforce the dirt road to extend the highway from Dak Pek (north of Dak Sut) to Ben Giang, Quang Nam (70 km southwest of Da Nang). It would have gone further to A Shau valley and beyond, possibly to Khe Sanh area. But the outbreak of war in 1961 closed down the project.
The highway now under construction is made up with the existing Highway 14 that needs some repair after 25 years of poor maintenance; its extension where abandoned dirt roads require intensive reconstruction; existing dirt roads from Ben Giang, in A Shau Valley and other areas that need major upgrading; and the remaining portions that construction units must open up entirely new roads.
The new highway construction has been opposed by many officials in Hanoi and deputies of its National Assembly when the plan was introduced by former Hanoi Prime Minister Vo Van Kiet a few years ago. The plan would require a budget of nearly US$ 5 billion. In early 2000, Hanoi government decided to go on with the plan which had been simplified to lower the budget to 3.5 billion dollars. Such budget seems inadequate to the construction of a highway crossing areas of heavy rains which often cause floods and landslides.
The Truong Son Trail, or Ho Chi Minh Trail, was a great military success of the Communists. Massive firepower of the American and South Vietnamese armed forces failed to stem flows of materiel, supplies and troops into South Vietnam. Many South Vietnamese strategists contended that bombings, sporadic land operations or electronic barrier so-called “McNamara Line” would fail to interdict the enemy movement on the Trail. According to them, only a defense line of several infantry divisions across the border, reaching the Mekong River in Laos could have been effective.
The greatness of the Trail that benefits the Vietnam Communist Party, has been paid at an extreme high prices by the Vietnamese people. An estimate of tens of thousands of North Vietnamese young men and women civilian porters were killed on the Trail by bombing, sickness and exhaustion.
Many people wonder why Hanoi could exact so great contribution from North Vietnamese people. Tens of thousands porters at a time, one group after another, were transporting military supplies to the south in spite of danger and hardships. The answer is rather simple. They didn’t feel fear as much as an American or South Vietnamese soldier did because on the Trail, a porter was fed 700 grams of rice a day and only rice, while back in their villages, each was rationed 450 grams of a mixture of 50 percent rice and 50 percent potato or corn. To a peasant at the time, the rice-only meal was as luxurious as a dinner in a 5-star hotel to an Westerner.
The extreme large quantity of rice from North Vietnam was transported on the Ho Chi Minh Trail to the hundreds of logistic bases in South Vietnam border areas to support North Vietnamese combat units. Much of it was kept in storage houses and quickly perished by humidity and bombing. More rice would replenish the stores. That was the reason why North Vietnamese peasants had to pay tax and fulfil many obligations that took away about 70 to 80 percent of their crops during the war.
Besides, sophisticated propaganda and intensive indoctrination along with tight control on food supply are effective tools to mobilize manpower and other resources to support war effort. In extreme poverty and under arbitrary powers, man has incredible ability to survive and can bear every hardship, pain, even death with little fear.
Today, Ho Chi Minh Trail is becoming one of the most exciting routes for adventure travellers in Vietnam. One can ride on the trail from Nothern to Danang (about 11 days) or go further, to Saigon (18 days). Details of the trip are available here.