Part of the Ho Chi Minh Trail in 1970. "It was always in our minds that at any moment, one of us could be dead," said one worker of those times. Vietnamese youth parading in April at a building ceremony on the Ho Chi Minh Highway. Critics see the road as heading to the past, or, as one put it, "a symbol of not understanding how to invest in the modern world."

 

Making Economic Lifeline of a Wartime Trail

 

By Seth Mydans,, November 11, 2000

 

SON TRACH, Vietnam - Sometimes when the road builders set off their blasting caps here along the old Ho Chi Minh Trail, one of the bulldozer operators gives an involuntary, comical little duck of the head, as if someone were dropping bombs nearby.

"Then I realize I don't need to be afraid," said the operator, Nguyen The Du, 53. "I tell myself: 'Don't worry. The war is over.'"

Sometimes when monsoon rains wash out the newly carved road here in Vietnam's remote western mountains and the workers huddle under tarpaulins, Mr. Du is overcome by a sudden wave of loneliness.

"I remember how we sat around talking, just the way we're sitting now, and it was always in our minds that at any moment, one of us could be dead," he said. "Somebody's face comes back to me suddenly as if he had just disappeared, the way he disappeared back then."

Mr. Du is one of Vietnam's heroes, a survivor of six years as a youth volunteer on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, one of the most dangerous places to be for a Communist fighter during the Vietnam War.

He is back here again today, near what used to be the demilitarized zone between the North and the South, part of a hugely ambitious new effort to carve a real 1,000-mile highway through the mountains along the route of the former trail.

When he worked here before, filling bomb craters as fast as they were made, the trail was a shifting network of jungle paths along both sides of the Laotian border. The workers here like to say it was that trail that defeated the American military, transporting men and equipment from North to South despite some of the heaviest nonstop bombing of the war.

The new project is perhaps as characteristic of today's Vietnam ó as President Clinton prepares to visit the country next week ó as that stubborn, ingenious effort was of the Communists' spectacular wartime success. It is cumbersome, expensive, controversial and, say its critics, wrongheaded.

It diverts scarce resources into a monumental project that is more in tune with the past than the future, the opponents say, benefiting entrenched interests and offering questionable benefits. Vietnam already has a north-south highway and a parallel rail line, though both are in bad repair.

In this way, the project represents a continuing tug of war among Vietnam's leaders ó over how much and how fast to open up to the world's new global economy, and how much to preserve of the centralized, steel- mill and cement-plant approach that characterized its Communist models, Russia and China.

"The Ho Chi Minh Highway is a symbol of not understanding how to invest in the modern world," said Tom Vallely, a Harvard-based expert on Vietnam's economy and a persistent critic of the project.

"You could use the same resources to improve the educational system, the telecommunications system, the Internet system, which are essential to the modernization of Vietnam," he said. "This highway represents the old economy. The Internet is the real road. I think the big question for them is, do they want to go for the old-economy road or the new-economy road."

Mr. Vallely suggested that with a five-year Communist Party Congress due early next year, the project amounted to a political giveaway to some of the cumbersome state-owned enterprises รณ like the overpriced cement monopoly that stand to lose if market reformers gain the upper hand.

He said he doubted that international donors would put money into the highway.

The World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, two of Vietam's leading donors, say they have not been asked to help although they have assisted other road projects, for instance repairing the current north- south route, Highway 1.

Vietnamese leaders say the four- year, $680 million project will give a badly needed lift to its transportation system and will help develop the Central Highlands. And they are using it as a propaganda rallying point, evoking heroic wartime images as they call for a mass mobilization of labor.

But the project has also become the focus of unusual opposition within the country. Its cost and its threat to nature preserves and endangered wildlife are causing concern, as is its potential disruption of the traditional way of life of the hill-tribe minorities that populate the mountains.

In a rare sign of opposition, The Saigon Times reported in 1997: "Most deputies of Ho Chi Minh City, Haiphong and Quang Ninh expressed their concern over the feasibility. Some even voiced their doubts about the economic efficiency of this proposed artery route." They reportedly suggested that the existing highway and railroad be upgraded.

Planners say the project will involve 60 million working days, and one proposed way to find workers, apparently modified this month in the face of bad publicity, has been particularly controversial: mobilizing unpaid labor on a grand Communist scale reminiscent of Soviet and Chinese projects.

Vietnam itself has a history of mass labor projects for irrigation, flood control and national defense. Some 300,000 volunteers like Mr. Du worked on the original Ho Chi Minh Trail.

This time, according to the official press, as many as a million people living along the route would be drafted to contribute 10 days each of free labor, or would pay a fee to be exempted.

"A far-reaching movement must be begun to carry on the great mettle of the nation with which we will march toward a new peak," said Prime Minister Vo Van Kiet three years ago, employing the grandiose language of Communist exhortation. "This will be a great construction site with the work of millions of people."

But he was apparently aware of the darker images he might be invoking, and asserted that no intellectuals or professionals would be drafted to wield picks and shovels.

Still, Vietnam is changing. Private enterprise is growing; there is no longer a war to unify the people, and the idea of volunteer labor is highly unpopular. With the project just getting under way this fall, the government appeared to back off the plan, saying workers would be paid a minimum of about $1 a day.

"There is no forced labor involved in this project," said Bui Viet Bao, an official of the Ministry of Labor. "They are all people who want to find work."

That is not implausible, in one of the poorest nations in the world, where per-capita income averages $370 a year ó even less in these remote mountain areas ó and where rural unemployment can reach 30 percent.

So the project is proceeding, with plans for more than 300 bridges and six high-speed lanes at some points. And despite proposed alternatives, it has not been diverted away from national parks.

Opponents say it will cut through or pass close to 10 environmentally protected areas, including Vietnam's first national park, in the north, and the Phong Nha nature preserve here in Quang Binh Province. Environmentalists say logging and plantation-building have cost Vietnam one- third of its forest cover in just the past 15 years.

The government deflects the criticism, arguing that the current north- south road is narrow, prone to flooding and inadequate, and that the new highway will link isolated communities in the highlands.

And with foreign goods and ways of life invading Vietnam as it opens to the outside world, the project evokes some of the Communist Party's strongest images of past heroism. "The new road is at the heart of the Vietnamese people," said Duong Tuan Minh, the project's deputy general director.

Past and present overlapped the other day as Mr. Du, the bulldozer operator, sat over a bowl of pungent noodle soup in a tin-roofed shack by the side of the construction site.

Unexpectedly, a small television set behind him began broadcasting black-and-white documentary film of wartime youth volunteers like himself, rushing to fill bomb craters on the trail.

Mr. Du looked at the screen and seemed a little distracted.

"Things are quite different now," he said. "Back then, we were part of a huge thing, a national duty. We worked beyond our capacity. Nothing could stop us. Back then we didn't care about dying. We just worked as hard as we could. Now it's different, but I still do the best I can."

 

Go to: Vietnam Medal of Honor Citations

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© 2000 by Neil Mishalov