During the Vietnam War, North Vietnam spirited a million soldiers into South along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, an elusive, 19,000km web of jungle paths and primitive roadways. The roadâ€™s principal artery plunged south from Mu Gia Pass near the Phong Nha Caves through Laos and Cambodia, where spurs branched eastward toward staging area for attacks against southern targets. Today, the government has linked sections of the trail as Ho Chi Minh Highway, a north-south corridor of dubious benefit to the regionâ€™s ecology and economy.
In 1955, after it became obvious that Ngo Dinh Diem would thwart countrywide elections planned for the following year, a North Vietnamese major began to survey a north-south supply line for the inevitable war. In 1959, more tha 400 volunteers started to extend a network of primitive pathways, originally cut by highlanders, as the Truong Son (â€œlong mountainâ€) Trail. In the early 1960s, the trail comprised simple footpaths, a lane winding through bamboo groves. North Vietnamese soldiers took six months to reach their destinations. By 1968, after years of upgrading, theyâ€™d whittled a few months off the transit, but still had to hustle along for 11 to 12 hours a day. By warâ€™s end, trucks completed the relatively brisk journey in 23 days.
The U.S military defected the presence of the supply route almost immediately but was unable to stanch the tide of theÂ materielÂ funneling south for more than a few days at a time. Attempts to interdict soldiers and supplies along the trail precipitated the momentous battles at Ia Drang and Hamburger Hill, the siege at Khe Sanh, the air campaigns of Rolling Thunder, Nixonâ€™s Cambodian incursion of 1970, and the South Vietnamese incursion in Laos in 1971.
In 1969 alone, the United States pummeled the trail with 433,000 tons of bombs. By warâ€™s end, the Americans had dropped 1,7 million tons of explosives, killing one enemy for every 300 bombs dropped, according to a CIA estimate. Between 1965 and 1971, antiaircraft batteries downed 43 U.S. airmen over Mu Gia Gate. In all, Hanoi claims its soldiers downed 2,500 U.S. planes over the trail; the Pentagon says the Vietnamese brought down 500. Thereâ€™s no consensus as to why the bombing failed, except that it did. That becomes obvious to the Americans as early as 1966, when thay began to mull the option of using tactical nuclear weapons. Strategists discarded the option, figuring that the political downside would far outweigh the upside on the battlefield.
So the B-52s rolled on, obliterating huge tracts of the highlands. The campaign killed countless thousands of communist soldiers and petrified everyone else, including the 300,000 laborers who toiled to keep the trail open. As perilous were the snakes, drownings, accidents, and disease. During the early years on the trail, nearly ten percent of the porters succumbed to malaria. The adversity forged a camaraderie that helped steel the communist forces. In 2000, Vietnam broke ground on an inland highway along the former Ho Chi Minh trail to link Hanoi with Saigon.