Facebook Twitter

PRECARIOUS RIDE THROUGH THE JUNGLE IS A BUMPY ASSAULT ON PASSENGERS

SHARE PRECARIOUS RIDE THROUGH THE JUNGLE IS A BUMPY ASSAULT ON PASSENGERS

The good news is that B-52s no longer ruin your day. Otherwise, the Ho Chi Minh Trail in a Russian flatbed is still the same old spleen-busting, hair-raising ride.

The six-wheel-drive Zil 157 truck howls like a heartsick rhino and gushes steam like Old Faithful, picking its way cloudward up the rocks through storybook jungle.This was Route 20, the main supply line after U.S. bombers turned the open Mu Gia Pass, to the north, into a round-the-clock maelstrom of fire. Here, more protected, it was merely hide-and-seek hell.

Considering what the ride to the Laos border is like even without anyone trying to interfere, Vietnam's victory seems amazing.

Today, the road is off-limits, protected by Border Post 593, a sort of Fort Apache on the River Kwai. This we learned only later.

Photographer Horst Faas and I first attempted Route 20 in a sturdy Japanese jeep but gave it up as a bad idea. Rain made the ruts deep enough to swallow us whole.

Only an original trail truck could make it, our guide-minder said, anxious to get us on back to level ground. Fine, we said, let's rent one. We would try again the next morning.

At a village below, we admired a work of impressionist sculpture: a twisted, rusted metal chassis that might have been dropped from a plane sat crookedly on six monster donuts of threadbare rubber.

The next day at 5 a.m., we discovered that was our truck. Hoang Ha, the driver, had loaded it with a half-ton of rice and assorted Montagnard hitchhikers, men, women and kids.

For the first stretch from Kilometer 0, it was almost easy. We streaked along at 10 mph into lush primeval jungle that U.S. pilots and Vietnamese farmers had neglected to destroy.

Suddenly, we slammed to a halt. Son, the driver's brother, scooped water from a stream, unwound the rag atop the radiator and poured it in. He would do this 32 times before we reached the top.

Next we stopped for major repairs. Ha sealed a leaking fuel filter with a bar of soap. Soon after, he rebuilt the carburetor. His tools included a pair of chopsticks freshly hacked from a tree.

At each stop, Son set the emergency brake: rocks shoved behind the back wheels. He restarted the engine with a dozen grunting spins of a handcrank.

The Hoang brothers, in their 20s, learned the truck and the trail from their father. The engine's rhino howl was a steady beat, some hydraulic mystery. If Ha kept the revs up, it did not stall.

The road turned steeply upward and, at one precarious ascent, with the engine coughing badly, Ha stopped. Son hopped out. Instead of tools, he carried incense sticks.

For a few moments, Son stood quietly before a makeshift shrine to victims blown off the road in the war. It was the first of four. No driver passed them without cutting his engine to light joss sticks.

Then we stopped for noodles at a scrap-hunters' camp; hundreds still make a trailside living by selling bomb fragments to Japan that, possibly, end up in appliances for retired American pilots.

Faas rode up front, invoking the old photographer's excuse that he had to be ready to shoot. Jammed inside behind a nonopening door, sweating with radiator steam, it was not comfort.

I stood up behind the cab, tough on kidneys but pleasant enough - as long as I remembered to duck. Thorn branches slashed my left arm. Regularly, leafy boughs dumped tropical fauna down my collar.

After eight hours, we rolled up to Border Post 593, where flab-ber-gast-ed Vietnamese officers subjected us to torture by tea for three hours. Then we were released, minus film we got back weeks later.

"This is a border area," the commanding officer said. "It is very sensitive." He did not say why.

The trip back was downhill but also in pitch dark, punctuated by breakdowns. It was not something we would have wanted to do with explosives in the back and AC-130 gunships in the air.

The truck rattled past Kilometer 0 at 2 a.m. It took us 21 hours, and we covered 55 miles.

We never learned why that mountaintop border was so sensitive. If the Laotian side of Route 20 was anything like the Vietnamese side, it would take Hannibal's elephants to mount an attack.