THE OLD HO CHI MINH TRAIL passes right by Bui Thi Duyen's doorstep in the hamlet of Doi. The hamlet, quiet and isolated, is of no consequence today, but during what the Vietnamese call the "American War," many thousands of northern soldiers knew Doi, 50 miles south of Hanoi, as an overnight stop on their perilous journey to the southern battlefields. The camouflaged network of footpaths and roads they traveled was the world's most dangerous route. One North Vietnamese soldier counted 24 ways you could die on it: malaria and dysentery could ravage you; U.S. aerial bombardments could disintegrate you; tigers could eat you; snakes could poison you; floods and landslides could wash you away Sheer exhaustion took its toll as well.
When the war ended in 1975, much of the Ho Chi Minh Trail was abandoned. The jungle pushed in to reclaim the supply depots, rickety bridges and earthen bunkers that stretched more than a thousand miles from a gorge known as Heaven's Gate outside Hanoi to the approaches of Saigon. Hamlets like Doi were left to languish, so remote they weren't even on maps. That North Vietnam had been able to build the trail--and keep it open in the face of relentless American attacks--was considered one of the great feats of warfare. It was like Hannibal crossing the Alps or General Washington the Delaware--an impossibility that became possible and thus changed the course of history.
I met Duyen when I returned to Vietnam last May to see what was left of the trail that bore the name of the country's revolutionary leader. She was sitting under a blue tarpaulin, trying to fan away the breathless heat and hoping to sell a few sweet potatoes and half a dozen heads of lettuce spread out on a makeshift bench. At 74, her memory of the war remained crystal clear. "There was not a day without famine then," she said. "We had to farm at night because of the bombing. Then we'd go up in the mountains and eat tree roots." What food the villagers had--even their prized piglets--they gave to the soldiers who trekked through Doi, pushing bicycles laden with ammunition or stooped under the weight of rice, salt, medicine and weapons. She called them the "Hanoi men," but in reality many were no more than boys.
These days, though, Duyen has things other than the war on her mind. With Vietnam's economy booming, she wonders if she should cut her ties with tradition and swap the family's 7-year-old water buffalo for a new Chinese-made motor scooter. It would be an even trade; both are worth about $500. She also wonders what impact Vietnam's most ambitious postwar public works project will have on Doi. "Without that road, we have no future," she says.
The project, started in 2000 and scheduled to take 20 years to complete, is turning much of the old trail into the Ho Chi Minh Highway, a paved multilane artery that will eventually run 1,980 miles from the Chinese border to the tip of the Mekong Delta. The transformation of trail to highway struck me as an apt metaphor for Vietnam's own journey from war to peace, especially since many of the young workers building the new road are the sons and daughters of soldiers who fought, and often died, on the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
The old infiltration and supply route--which the Vietnamese call Truong Son Road, after the nearby mountain range--wasn't a single trail at all. It was a maze of 12,000 miles of trails, roads and bypasses that threaded through eastern Laos and northeastern Cambodia and crisscrossed Vietnam. Between 1959 and 1975 an estimated two million soldiers and laborers from the Communist North traversed it, intent on …