William B. Ketter
The 1975 photograph of the last American helicopter lifting off the rooftop of the American Embassy in Saigon, a long line of luckless Vietnamese evacuees stranded below, created an indelible portrait of human desperation.
Those left behind had been soldiers in the defeated Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) or friends of the U.S. government. They anticipated dreadful consequences at the hands of Ho Chi Minh's victorious disciples.
They were right. The communist regime executed those considered most disloyal to the nationalist cause. Others were sentenced to long prison terms. But most were sent to so-called re-education camps to embrace the socialist credo of do as you're told, toil for the common good and forget about getting ahead through self-initiative.
Fortunately for Vietnam's future, the economic lessons of communism didn't take hold. And 20 years after the war's end, Vietnam abandoned strict control over everyday commerce and instead encouraged the awakening of an entrepreneurial spirit not seen since the American presence.
Open-market capitalism spawned new businesses, trade with former enemies, private investment and government ambition to attract hard currency through aggressive promotion of tourism.
The goal: turn the bloody sites of war into tourist shrines that might deliver badly-needed foreign dollars.
Sites such as the Ho Chi Minh Trail, an infamous series of zigzag paths that fed weapons and supplies to the communist troops in the south. Bombed heavily by American forces during the war, it is considered the national symbol of success.
Thus the government committed more than $400 million to restoring the historically important sections of the trail, and expanding it all the way to Saigon, now called Ho Chi Minh City. The highway project is expected to reduce congestion on narrow coastal Highway One, the only other north-south artery connecting the once-divided country.
Riding a motorcycle along the trail requires dodging water buffalo, cows, goats, dogs, ducks, chickens and pigs — and keeping your balance when large transport trucks or buses force you off the road. You also need to be alert to motorbikes and pedestrians darting out from side streets in towns and villages.
Surprisingly, though, construction crews have converted muddy jungle tracks into a shiny black thoroughfare that tourists can traverse by motorcycle, bicycle or foot.
Recommended stops include those sections bombed by American planes, and also sprayed with the powerful herbicide Agent Orange to expose supply and troop movements. The effects of the chemical are still visible as stunted foliage along the foothills and riverbank mangroves of north-central Vietnam.
The original trail extended into Laos and Cambodia, covering more than 10,000 miles. Thick jungle growth claimed most of it after the war. But strategic sections were maintained as a reminder of the communist will for an undivided nation.
The paved trail will measure about 1,000 miles when finished. Our merry band of bikers drove about half of it, starting outside Mai Chau in the north and ending at Hue near the 17th parallel, the old dividing line between north and south ironically known as the demilitarized zone. Ironic because more military action occurred within the zone than any other section of Vietnam.
War memorials dot the rebuilt trail, including an impressive 12-foot marble monument to the "victims" of Deo Da Deo mountain pass. American B-52s dropped tons of explosives and chemicals on this highest point of the trail near Phong Nha.
Phong Nha is also the scene of the Ke Bang caves, the oldest and largest limestone caverns in Asia. They are part of a huge national park, and one of the premier tourist sites in the country, drawing visitors from more than 100 nations.
The spectacular formations have enchanting names like Lion, Fairy Caves, Royal Court and Buddha. During the Vietnam War, they were used to protect munitions from B-52 raids. Phong Nha, in central Vietnam, was a key supply station for the North during the war
At Khe Sanh, the war's most publicized battle site, a symbolic "victory" statue juts from a weed-infested field that once hosted a strategic U. S. Marine outpost and airfield. Three bloody encounters, including a 75-day siege in 1968, are recounted in a nearby museum. Captured American tanks, helicopters and other war relics remind visitors that the final triumph belonged to the communists.
"It was comparable to defeating the French at Dien Bien Phu," remarks Nguyen Ngoc, the tour guide who prides himself on knowing the wartime history of his country. "It was that important; a critical psychological victory."
More than 10,000 North Vietnamese and scores of American soldiers died at Khe Sanh. The Vietnamese burn incense and place flowers at the stone memorial's base, which portrays a U.S. Marine raising his hands in surrender.
At Vietnam's largest military burial ground, Truong Son Cemetery, mourners pay tribute to "heroes of the American war" by burning bundles of fake $100 U.S. bills in incense pots so the soldiers will enjoy a rich afterlife. The dollar, it's explained, is worth far more than the Vietnamese dong, making it the preferred phony currency to honor the deceased.
"We hold no hostility toward Americans," said Nguyen Van My, who described himself as a 66-year-old army veteran during a brief chat at the cemetery. "We respect the dollar. It is a symbol of strength."
By contrast, the Vietnamese dong has been slipping badly as inflation besets the nation's economy. Twice devalued in the past year, it now exchanges at the rate of 16,800 dong for one American dollar. That makes Vietnam one of the few world bargains for U.S. tourists.
Hotels, food, transportation, clothes and jewelry are inexpensive. Our eight-day trip, booked through the Hanoi tour company OffroadVietnam, cost just $850 per person, including overnight accommodations, meals, Honda 160 cubic-centimeter motorcycles, fuel and two guides/interpreters.
We stayed in budget hotels, but the sheets were clean, the showers hot and even remote mountain stops featured air conditioning, although power blackouts occurred often during the early evening hours. And it did take a few nights to get used to the three-inch mattresses; a few mornings to develop patience for the coffee that slowly drips from a metal strainer atop the cup. But once done, it jolts you into the day's activities.
The investment in tourism is paying off because Vietnam offers some of the most charming tropical scenery in the world. The mist rising from the land against the morning sky is resplendent. The lush mountains and gorges and verdant valleys and endless rivers create a colorful landscape. A coast line that stretches for hundreds of miles along the South China Sea makes it a marvel of geography.
It also makes you wonder where the country would be in today's travel world had it not been mired in war for a half-century against the French, the Japanese, the Americans, the Cambodians and the Chinese.
William B. Ketter is vice president of news for Community Newspaper Holdings Inc., a news company based in Birmingham, Ala., that owns more than 90 daily newspapers. Contact him at email@example.com. For photo slide shows and video of his Vietnam trip, go to: www.cnhinews.com.