The Ho Chi Minh Trail (Near Laotian Border, Vietnam)

From Kom Tum I traveled to Nham Duc, 150 km north and within a day’s ride of the ancient trading town of Hoi An.  I had crossed more than half of the distance to civilization, but I was still deep in the jungle near the Laos border and the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

I left Kom Tum and entered a land entirely shrouded in mists. The rains of the south had transformed into a one massive misty cloud that hung across the northern section of the Central Highlands.  I revved my engine and leaned into the deep curves of the road as it traced the course of a mocha colored river through the basin of a steep valley.  Everything was dark – the sky was thick and grey, the road was black with dew and the jungle was the darkest green imaginable.  The tops of the surrounding mountains were invisible; I could barely descry the ridgelines through the clouds that flowed and rolled over the hills like a river of fog.

Hilltribe villages emerged from the mist.  Gone were the solid houses of the lowlands; they were replaced by thatched huts strewn along the red muddy banks of the river.  Communal thatched huts stood at the center of the villages, their roofs arching sharply skyward like hands steepled in prayer.

Families of hilltribe people walked along the road, some smiling at me and the others staring confusedly at the sight of a foreigner so far removed from the tourist trail.  The men walked at the head of the family and rested a 20-inch long machete across his folded arms.  He was followed by his wife, who carried their produce to the village on her back in a 3 foot-tall woven basket.  The daughters, some only eight years old, cradled the infants of the families like young mothers in training.  The eldest boys followed behind and led the family’s buffalo by ropes strung through their noses.

In the center of each village were dominated by large communist propaganda posters depicting villagers and soldiers standing united before the Vietnamese flag saluting the picture of Ho Chi Minh.  The hilltribe villages were recruited by the Americans to fight against the North Vietnamese during the war, so I assume these posters are intended to bolster their patriotism for their new leaders.

As I was driving through one village I heard a loud clank clank! and looked down to see my transmission falling apart.  I pulled the clutch lever but it went slack.  I was stuck in 3rd gear.  I needed a place to pull over and make a repair, and I saw a young hilltribe boy smiling and waving at me so I approached him slowly and smiled back.

Then he pulled out a huge wooden stick from behind his back and whaaaacked me right across the back and started throwing rocks at me!  Ahhh, that cheeky scoundrel!  I gunned my engine and whizzed out of town with rocks flying over my head and my transmission falling apart between my feet.

I attempted to hold the transmission together with my foot, but the heat of the engine started to melt my shoe.  The engine was stuck in 3rd gear so I tried to make it to the next town where I hoped to find a mechanic.

No luck.  My bike died on quite possibly the most dangerous section of road possible: a sharp turn on the steepest section of a hill, where the guardrails had been completely destroyed from an earlier collision, leaving nothing between me and a deep gorge below.  I envisioned the horrific accident that must have occurred here, just another shocking news story from SE Asia:

This just in – a fully laden bus carrying 139 passengers, 200 chickens, 4 tons of rice, and three motorbikes flew off a 500 foot cliff today in Vietnam.  Authorities attribute the cause to bad driving, complete disregard for safety guidelines, more bad driving, and the unbearably loud Vietnamese techno music playing at the time of the collision.  God rest their souls, and let us all pray that one day South East Asian bus drivers will finally read the Safety section of their owners’ manuals. 

Large tourist buses came barreling down the road, swinging around the curve just a few feet away from my bike.  There were shrines all around me with pictures of young Vietnamese who had perished on this very spot. Yikes!

I had no choice, I had to repair my bike on the spot.  After fifteen minutes of tinkering with the transmission, I somehow patched it together and took off as quickly as possible.

I continued down the road and came upon a segment of the infamous Ho Chi Minh Trail, the underground supply line through which the North Vietnamese Army supplied the anti-US Viet Cong resistance in South Vietnam.  In the late 1960s, this was a site of horrific fighting as the US tried to pinch off the supply line before the goods could get into neighboring Laos and then down into Cambodia and to the Viet Cong in Southern Vietnam.

I approached a place called Charlie’s Hill, where one of the last battles of the war took place.  During the war it was known as Hill 42, and GIs and Viet Cong fought each other day and night for two weeks, but today it just looks like a peaceful green mountain.

I could not approach the hill because the rain made the mud road impassible and there were still exposed ordinances from the war.  But I gazed at the hill from the side of the road and tried to imagine what it must have been like to be pinned down on that foggy mountaintop with bullets zipping by, explosions day and night, listening to the distant chatter of invisible Viet Cong, unable to escape the explosions, the screaming, the smell of gunpowder and guts.

Consider how differently a tourist and a solider would view the nearby village. For me, it was a sanctuary from the rain, a place with friendly villagers and smiling noodle-shop vendors.  To a soldier, it was a potentially hostile environment where enemies lurked in the shadows.  Letting your guard down could get you killed, but for travelers, letting your guard down is an essential part of engaging your host culture.

War dehumanizes entire nations to make killing more palatable.  Soldiers don’t kill other people, they just shoot dehumanized target; they are just communists, capitalists, gooks, colonial tyrants, rebels, terrorists etc. – whatever they label the enemy.   It is more difficult to kill your enemy if you think of him for what is really is: just another human like you with family and with friends.

But when you travel, you don’t dehumanize, you humanize.  You come to a foreign land with an alien culture, but you inevitably realize that your two cultures are more similar than they are different.  Travel shows you that everyone around the world have essentially the same desires, the same interests, the same values, though with some different variations.  Asia, the Far East, the Orient – all these words seem so alien to us in the West, but I have eaten meals with Vietnames families, shared stories with old Cambodian men, raised glasses of beer with Thais and realized that we may have different styles, but we are all human.

Traveling makes it difficult to support a war against the same people who have hosted you in their home country.  War is a last resort, but the world relies upon it too often.  I wonder how the world would be different if the leaders of the world had traveled extensively as youths.  Would they still consider other nations’ interests irreconcilable enough to justify the atrocities of war?

Imagine if every American student had to spend one year in another country, either studying or volunteering with organizations such as the Peace Corps.  Many countries such as Germany mandate civil service of some kind, either domestic or abroad, so why don’t we do the same?  Too many people see America only through television, and too many Americans see the world only through the news.  Greater cultural interaction could only benefit both America and our friends around the world, especially in politically sensitive places like Vietnam or the Middle East.

I am glad to visit Vietnam during peacetime.  Maybe the old people in these small villages remember Americans as the ones who brought bombs and bullets, but I hope that my interactions with them are replacing those images with more positive experiences.  I imagine that even the GIs who fought here must have appreciated the beauty of Vietnam and hoped that they could one day return here in peace.  Well, that time has come.  Now when Americans travel by choppers, they are referring to Harleys, not Hueys.    Many GIs are returning here to view the country in a different light, and it seems to bring them closure and peace of mind.  Thankfully, they can finally see Charlie’s Hill not as a strategic battlefield, but for what it is – just a beautiful mountain set in a peaceful valley.

These thoughts swirled through my mind as I continued on towards Nham Duc.  After an hour or two, I wound down the misty mountains into a light green valley where water buffalo bathed in muddy ponds amongst the banana trees and rice paddies that stretched from one end of the valley to the other.  I was dead beat.  I pulled into Nham Duc, parked The Minsk, looked back towards the Ho Chi Minh Trail and Charlie’s Hill and thought about how crazy my situation was: an American riding a Russian motorbike along the Ho Chi Minh Trail Vietnam.   If that is possible, then the wounds of war have begun to heal.

That night I drank some beers with some elderly locals at a small street-side bar.  They spoke no English, but through hand signals they communicated their message – America and Vietnam used to be enemies, but now we are friends.  The eldest, most respected Vietnamese man approached me, smiled, and symbolically shook my hand in front of the rest of his friends.  We were not diplomats, we were not the leaders of our respective nations, but it meant a lot to both of us.  The old man’s eyes spoke volumes; they welcomed me to his land and said, the war is over, let’s put it in the past.  I smiled back at him, and we all raised our beers to celebrate. Here’s to peace!

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