Wednesday, July 31, 2013

HIKING THE HO CHI MINH TRAIL

Laotian homes on stilts in the border town of Densavan

As I approach the Laotian border village of Densavan on foot, I'm getting my first views of this mysterious country. Ahead are the rolling mountains of Southeast Laos, and I quickly notice the difference between here and Lao Bao, the border town on the Vietnamese side. Vietnam is far more developed and affluent, since the Vietnamese economy has been booming for years. But crossing a bridge into Densavan, I find the opposite. Local children play and splash about, in muddy water below the bridge. Some village houses here are basically shacks, with rooftops of corrugated metal. Other homes are even less durable, with thatched rooftops.

Laos is one of the world’s poorest countries. Today the total population is only 6 million. Although  double what it was back during the Vietnam War, it still has the lowest population density in all of Southeast Asia. The low numbers mean Laos continues to have mountain ranges and jungles that remain largely uninhabited, giving it some of Asia’s most beautiful scenery. Lack of development means that Laos retains a simple Asian
Laotian children play in a muddy river
charm that its neighbors have long since lost. It remains quiet, conservative, and laid back.

The highway running through town is Densavan’s main street, and the only paved road. A long pile of brown dirt lines one side of the roadway, where a dozen Laotian Army soldiers in camouflage fatigues are digging a ditch. They lack heavy equipment, using only shovels and hand tools. Apparently in Laos they don’t mind using their military for public works.

I reach the business strip of Densavan, which compared to the poor outskirts, is relatively developed. The village’s center has a newer feel to it, since every building I see was built after the Vietnam War ended. A sign posted on a nearby business reads, “Hero Trading Import-Export Ltd”. As befits a border town, the local economy is driven by trading.

I find a small café, have a seat, and down a bottle of green tea. After locking up my baggage, I entrust the café proprietor to keep an eye on it for me. Then I head out of the village on foot. Trekking out of Densavan, the dirt road I’m on becomes a narrow path, and continues out into the jungle. I’m mindful that elephants and tigers still roam southern Laos, but they mainly inhabit remote areas, few live close to villages. Still, I won’t wander too far from town. I don’t want to become tiger bait. 

Reaching the tree line, I come across a group of army tents, and bright blue tarps built into makeshift shelters. This isn’t exactly a campground, I’ve found a migrant camp for seasonal laborers. A few of their wheelbarrows were left behind, along with a few of their wives and children. I get curious looks as I walk through, and I continue past them into the jungle. 

Walking down a narrow path, I find an old bomb crater. Grass and weeds grow in it, along with a tree. When this crater was first created, it was far deeper than it is now, but erosion has filled in the depression to some degree. But a deep, perfectly round hole remains. It’s definitely a bomb crater from the war years.

Continuing down the path I find another bomb crater, followed by many more. There must have been a heavy bombing attack that hit this area back during the war. I take care not to leave the path, in case there are any old unexploded bombs still around. Strangely, one of the bomb craters I come across is being put to use. It appears that the camp migrants have turned it into a garbage dump!


The path eventually dead ends into the brown waters of the Se Pon River, where a couple canoes are pulled up on the riverbank. This river flows westward towards the mountains. Just down river is the land I’ve just left: Vietnam. Now I know why the bomb craters are here. The roads and trails that I’ve walked on today, were once part of The Ho Chi Minh Trail.
A tree grows in the center of a bomb crater from the war years
An ever changing network of roads, paths, and even rivers, the Ho Chi Minh Trail was the lifeline and supply route for the North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong in South Vietnam. Back then southeastern Laos was even less populated now, and the border was mostly unguarded. This allowed the communists to bring troops and supplies from North Vietnam across the border into Laos, and then south through these jungles. They were then able to infiltrate South Vietnam at many different crossing points, bypassing US bases. This was far less dangerous for the NVA, than if they tried to slip directly across the heavily fortified Demilitarized Zone. Still, it wasn’t easy. Besides enduring constant bombings, much of the Ho Chi Minh Trail was on steep dirt jungle paths through mountainous terrain, where trucks couldn’t be used. The Vietnamese soldiers had a simple solution to this logistical problem: bicycles.

Back in Vietnam, I recall seing a xe dap tho, or pack bike, in a museum. This was a standard bicycle, packed up with ammunition, or weapons, or rice. It had a bamboo pole lashed to the handlebars, making it easier for a foot soldier to push and steer with all the extra weight
. Then loaded with 300 pounds of supplies, they sent it down the Ho Chi Minh Trail. These bikes were pushed along narrow mountain trails covered by jungle canopy, remaining totally unseen from the air. It was slower than trucks, and took a lot more sweat, but it kept the pipeline open. No matter how much the US military bombed the Ho Chi Minh trail, they couldn’t hit all the convoys and routes, and war material continued heading south.

During the war years it took as long as two months for an NVA soldier to ride and walk from Hanoi, all the way down the Ho Chi Minh Trail, through Laos and Cambodia, before he finally crossed back into Vietnam near the Saigon region. When I hopped on a jet from Hanoi to Saigon, the same trip only took me two hours!

Laotian soldiers dig a ditch in Densavan
The presence of all those NVA soldiers on Laotian soil back then was never supposed to happen. In 1963, an agreement signed in Geneva by Vietnam and the USA attempted to guarantee Laotian neutrality, prohibiting foreign troops on Laos. The North Vietnamese quickly disregarded this agreement, sending the NVA into Laos to build the Ho Chi Minh Trail. They also sent troops to fight alongside the Pathet Lao, a smaller communist force aiming to overthrow the Laotian government.

The US military was not so brazenly disregarding the Geneva Agreement, so the American ground troops fighting in Laos were never large in number. In these parts they were usually special forces soldiers, small groups of tough commando types that did secret raids to attack or disrupt the Ho Chi Minh Trail. There were Green Beret teams, who fought alongside their Montagnards allies. There were also LRRP units, like my buddy Kenny, the former Marine. Although Kenny’s missions were secret at the time, he did most of his fighting in this remote region of southeast Laos. They called in air strikes on NVA convoys and spied on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. When detected, they fought their way out.

Since Kenny had returned to live in Southeast Asia years ago, I once asked him if he had ever returned to Laos. He hadn’t, and wouldn’t give me a straight answer as to why. I suppose he still has too many bad memories from the war in Laos, for him to ever come back.

Despite constant military operations here in Laos by both Vietnamese and Americans, due to the Geneva agreement, neither side admitted their involvement of ground troops publicly. Since the US government was already facing anti-war protests for their involvement in Vietnam, they sought to downplay, and even hide, their role in Laos. So fighting in Laos became known as a ‘secret war’.



The Se Pon River, once used to infiltrate weapons and troops into South Vietnam
Besides using jungle trails, the North Vietnamese also used rivers for smuggling weapons, including the Se Pon River before me. Just downriver from where I’m standing, the Se Pon becomes the border with Vietnam. Back then they took canoes like those on the river bank, filled them full of weapons, and floated them across the river to their waiting comrades under cover of night.

Hoping to keep NVA troops and supplies from entering Vietnam, the main use of US military might in Laos would be for the air war. 'Victory through air power', meant massive aerial bombing on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. That was how all these deep bomb craters ended up here, scattered all around me. Since the USA had the world’s best jets and bombers, it sounded like a great idea. But this strategy only delayed the communists, and did not bring about victory.

After the war, the US military made public their data kept on how much explosive tonnage they had dropped on Laos from aircraft. This little country had been bombed by American aircraft flown from South Vietnam, from Thailand, and from Navy aircraft flown in from the South China Sea. Laos was even hit by B-52 bombers that had flown here all the way from Guam. With the war lasting longer than anyone anticipated, the amount of bombs dropped onto Laos was devastating. The tonnage of bombs the US dropped on Laos, was greater than the total tonnage dropped on all of Europe during World War II!

The total amount of bombs dropped from 1965 – 1973 was astounding: 1.36 million metric tons of explosives dropped on Laos. That made for a half metric ton of explosives, for every single person living in Laos at the time. Laos holds the unfortunate record, of being the most heavily bombed country in world history.

Since I have much more to see of Laos, I turn from the craters and the river and head back towards town. Crossing back through the encampment, a group of village children stare at me as I walk by. “Sabadee!” (Hello!) they call out to me.

Sabadee!” I say back to them, and they smile. Once I’m back on the dirt road, they follow behind me, but from a distance. When I turn towards them, they all run away laughing. I continue walking, and soon they are following behind me again. They must be wondering why this giant white foreigner came walking through their remote little village. I give them a final wave, and head back to Densavan.



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