He nods at our Vietnam bicycle leaning in his doorway. “The route had to be passable for bicycles,” Ong says. “Bicycles were our secret weapon.”
The Vietnam bicycle path he spent four years surveying, mapping, and building would become known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the primary supply line for Communist forces. Built at the beginning of the Vietnam War, from 1959 to 1961, then continually expanded during the ’60s, the Ho Chi Minh Trail was never a single thoroughfare but, rather, a vast, intricate web of interconnecting porter tracks, paths, streambeds, jeep roads, and tank and truck roads that ran down the spine of the Annamite Mountains (called the Truong Son by the Vietnamese), through the panhandle of Laos, eastern Cambodia, and western Vietnam—and which, it turned out, was best navigated by the versatile bicycle. One bike reportedly carried a record 924 pounds along the 1,000-mile length of the Trail.
|Ong Phung Minh, 73, was one of the first scouts on the Ho Chi Minh Trail in 1957. “Everyone suffered,” he says when asked about his missing arm. (Mark Jenkins)|
Ong was one of six brothers, all of whom were soldiers in the North Vietnamese Army. Three died during the war, two in battle, one from a bomb dropped on his home. “For years and years, there was bombing every day,” says Ong, through our interpreter, Vu Chung. “I would say that about half of my friends died in the bombings.” When his left arm was blown off by American artillery, there were no nearby doctors in the jungle, so he bandaged it himself. He explains this not heroically, but as a matter of fact. “Everyone suffered,” he says.
After the war, he was given a house, a pension, and three military suits that have lasted him two generations. He slowly gets up from the table and shows us his faded military certificates on the wall, black-and-white photos of his dead brothers tucked into the glass frame. When I ask Ong whether all the sacrifice was worth it, his thin face tries to conceal a look of bewildered disdain. It will take weeks more of travel before I realize that my question is offensive. To the Vietnamese, the American War was the supreme struggle for independence. It required decades of death to beat the French colonists and the American imperialists. It is as if I had asked an American whether the Revolutionary War was worth it. Rather than giving me a lesson in history, Ong replies politely: “I have devoted my life to serving my people. And as for the U.S., our countries are friends now, as we could have been from the beginning. I want only peace.”