The Ho Chi Minh Highway
There can be flooding along the narrow coastal plain of central Vietnam each rainy season, which tends so occur in October. This often closes Highway One, which runs near the coast for much of its way. It only turns inland to go to Hanoi and then China in the north, and to Ho Chi Minh City and the Mekong Delta in the south.
Vietnam is quite narrow in its center, and it's all mountainous except that coastal plain. There was only one continuous north-south highway, and it got closed each rainy season. Tall depth markers along it show the potential.
So Vietnam is building a new highway through the mountains. Some is still being build as I write in 2004, but a section from the north down to Highway Nine (the road that has long gone from the Dong Ha area over into Laos), west (inland) on Highway Nine, and turns south over the Dakrong Bridge.
The Dakrong Bridge is a one-tower suspension bridge, built with help from Cuba over a deep gorge. From there, the new highway goes south through some truly spectacular country into the A Shau Valley. It passes the distinctive dwellings of another minority (one of 52 ethnic minorities in Vietnam) and then along where a river system cuts dramatically through the mountains.
North of the 17th Parallel, the new highway crosses a landscape that is being replanted with new trees. The original forest was devastated during the Vietnam War and there are large stumps here and there. Xuan Hung pointed out where the headquarters of the Ho Chi Minh Trail had been.
It's hardly possible to overstate how much the story of the Ho Chi Minh Trail means to Vietnam and its people. This is a country with a long history of defeating nations larger than itself, and the trail is an integral part of this. The Ho Chi Minh Trail network is a national shrine, though since it was a network, it's hard to locate exactly.
The new Ho Chi Minh Highway roughly parallels the old trail network, though much of that was across the border in Laos. It is such a special story to the Vietnamese that even the centerline is a different color. It is yellow, not white.
Along the route is a cemetary, in which people are buried who died along the trail in time of war. Xuan Hung told me that new remains keep turning up over in Laos, and that a new cemetary had to be started.
In 1999, Xuan Hung took part in a bicycle ride down the old Ho Chi Minh Trail. The purpose of this trip was to honor the past, before the new highway was built. The travel was hard, but meaningful.
We will travel part of the new Ho Chi Minh Highway. We'll go from the Dakrong Bridge to A Luoi in the A Shau Valley, which is a hidden valley among high mountains.