Monday, July 18, 2005

Trails and Jubilations

The Ho Chi Minh trail winds in and out through the jungle canopy some way below us. At times it is clearly visible, two tracks of rutted reddish earth breaking a path through the trees, at others it is completely indistinguishable from the undulating green mass of leaves, vines, limbs and vegetation that have overtaken every surface from the valley depths to the peaks of the encircling mountains. Ranging up and down the various peaks without effort, the jungle moves and shudders under the sweeping rain that is coming over the horizon. One side of the road is overtaken by the heavy clouds whose approach had come in, unhidden by the mountains and the storm moves sweeping up the valley, around the curve of the hillside and is now beginning to speck the road surface in large dollar weight droplets that thwack my helmet and hands as I reach out to take the raincoat from the rubber strap securing it to the back of the bike. The jungle movement convinces us that there are monkeys ranging in the canopy, leaping and scurrying about in the downpour, seeking cover. Any amount of life could be hidden there in the mass of vegetation. Watching us.

Soon the rain has closed in behind us and as we ride around another curve in the endless sweep of tarmac that has been stretched around the girth of the hill like a belt, it comes not towards us but chases us down the line of the road. Its progress is slow and colossal, an overwhelming surge that has swallowed the line of the crests it overtakes. Ahead though, the line of sunlight that demarks its edge is sharp and brilliant, a crisp line in the sky like a bright bird in the jungle green foliage. It marks the crest of a wave that breaks along the edge of the mountain and rolls back, content to devour the space it has already claimed and leave us to stand by the roadside and watch it recede, our eyes drawn into the mass of green that carpets the land, the trees whose shaking leaves quiver beneath the drops, and the mystery of the invisible hidden beneath such an enormously powerful force of dominion. The inevitable and determined plunder of nature left rampant and untrammeled.

In its past the trail had been the subject of the most incredible bombing in recorded history. The sheer tonnage of munitions that would fall on it staggers the mind. More explosives than were used in the entire Second World War fought over three continents were rained onto this trail. Rangers in groups of three were dropped into the jungle to search out and report on the position of the trail, a trail that moved constantly to avoid destruction. It is hard to imagine from a distance how terrifying it would have been to have been dropped into the unknown green mass of the jungle and creep up and down these mountains searching for the path of an enemy you must also avoid.

Then, beneath us by a riverside whose reddish waters indicate the birth of the wet season and the scoured mountain soil being dragged seaward, comes the trail again. Just as suddenly as it had disappeared under the trees before the storm began, it flashes out from the dark tunnel of the jungle floor to shoot across a rough concrete bridge over the waters and join us on the high side of the river.

Here, a waterfall cascades down the side of the mountain dropping beneath a bridge that now holds weeds and saplings. The waterfall and the bridge both hold a story of flight by the Cambodian King seeking sanctuary in Vietnam’s Northern Communist Capital from Cambodian marauders. Long ago he had studied and lived in Hanoi and, with the overthrow of his government by the ruthless and monumentally insane Khmer Rouge, he fled to the safety of his old stomping grounds with his wife. There they stayed under the hospitality of the government, till the time came when change brought the Khmer into retreat and they could return to Cambodia. Along the same road they returned and under this waterfall they paused to bathe and refresh themselves. The queen washed her hair and gave the nameless cascade a story and a name.

Cambodia is far behind us now, the road to it having forked off before we reached Pleiku, but to our left Laos lies some 15 kilometres over the hills. At times the track weaved in and out of Laos and we pause for a drink by a stretch of dark brown track that leads up around an intriguing corner towards the border, beckoning us to follow it to where it might lead. The crossroads here has birthed a small collection of houses and buildings servicing the people eager to make money by stripping out the old timber and searching the hills for gold. The land is dark enough to be almost blood red and it has a sort of arcane fertility that grows anything that falls on it. Where the jungle has been cleared the red stretches are planted with mountain rice up to the crests of the hills. Small women and men bend over in the distance of the peaks and pluck and poke the earth walking side ways up the pressing slanted slopes to keep there footing.

In one stretch of uprooted, stripped and burnt jungle, where hills shapes can now be discerned and houses and farms have come over it like a rash, we pause to visit a pepper farmer and his family. A balding man with a semi circle of hair that begins and fails from behind each ear and whose boys sit in the shade helping him mend a mattock’s blade with a hammer and anvil, watches us coming up between the pepper vine strung tree poles regularly spread over a field. Each pole speared into the earth is as thick a telegraph pole yet only half the height and pepper vines are hung over them like garlands. For each pole here a tree has been cut down in the diminishing jungle and new moves are afoot to replace the practice with brick poles.

The family’s dogs run about on the ground and their white pelts have been long ago stained by the soil to resemble red foxes with black patches. They caper in and out from under the posts of the verandah in front of a simple three room wooden house, plastered inside with motorcycle pictures on one wall all fading to that blue sun drained colour of barber shop photographs. The man was from My Lai a long time ago and his forearm is marked with a tattoo recalling the date he joined the Viet Cong, a fact he tells us carefully after finding out we are not American. We talk and smiles are exchanged as tea is brought out for us if we want to have it. His wife comes out to join us, moving with the aid of a crutch, her leg missing beneath the knee on the left side.

Along many stretches of the road farms have ripped up the jungle and replaced its chaotic supremacy with an ordered relentlessness of their own. Between the avenues of rubber trees we scoot through an area of heavy police involvement, where minorities left over from the American war clash with the government over rights to the land. Resettlement of northerners to the centre has been a constant policy since the end of hostilities. Those Minority people who sided with the Americans during the war think they fare poorly, disadvantaged by the influx of these settlers. Now the jungle diminishes further to accommodate more and more settlers and more and more land is brought into productive use by the government. Hanoi Pho restaurants advertise from signs in the small wooden towns, an indication of resettlement evidenced in the migration of this and other northern tastes. Dog is copiously advertised even in areas where five years ago we had seen none. Coffee and tapioca crops range alongside mountain rice and pepper in the search to exploit this naturally fertile section of the country.

The newly rebuilt highway runs alongside many hills that remain bare. Green and undulating in what for our minds seems a perfect picture but represents the legacy of defoliants sprayed in some areas as far back as 1964. Near Pleiku and around Buon Ma Thout, the sites of major exchanges of military adventure, the sight of ruined land is common and hills marked by concrete memorials signal events that now witness only the passing traffic and the occasional interested tourist. In Buon Ma Thout and Pleiku both, there are memorials featuring tanks. The revelation of the battle for Buon Ma Thout was these tanks, which stormed out of the jungle to take the town and surprise the south. It hadn’t been envisioned that the NVA could bring tanks, supplies and fuel over the mountains and into the city. After the constant bombardments of the Ho Chi Minh Trail it was thought impossible to carry fuel through or build a pipeline that could survive. The city was defended by a meager amount of troops after a deception played out in captured soldiers, misleading maps, decipherable communiqués and a feint towards the heavily defended Pleiku emptied it of troops and with the tanks involved it fell quickly leading to the eventual capitulation of the south.

Pleiku in turn was destroyed but this was not until later, and after the war the Russians rebuilt it so that heavy soviet architecture blights the city where it had once been blighted with combat bases and airfields. Now the deserted military airfield bumps over the same lumpy section of ground, overlooked by the same murderous hills and still pockmarked with filled-in bomb craters that goats and chickens wander over today. Beside the runway we stop for a drink at a tea stall, set up to catch the passing trade and occasional war tourist stopping to look at the runway and photograph the chickens. These chickens, the owner believes, must be the most photographed chickens in the world; more famous than she is that's for sure.

Emerging from the mountains we joined the coast highway at Hoi An, whose blasting sunlight and ocean breezes seemed removed from the cooler mountains and curving roads. Before joining the highway we had left Dalat, its surging tourist boom heralded in more hotels every minute you look and a cascading flow of money that sparkles in new motorbikes on every corner. Between the two seemed another world, a darker more implacable place immune to the changes that have overtaken these two tourist Mecca’s. The jungle is steadily being eroded but the changes that this will bring are not the sort which will bring tourists.

Before flying out of Da Nang's airport the sun scrolled out an orange sunset that back lit the mountains we had emerged from earlier in the day. The tarmac reflected the sky in a blaze of colour and as this fell into night, the flight, that would take us back into Hanoi exactly one year to the day since we had arrived, was refueling and blinking a line of lights settling the scene. It did feel strange to be back in the midst of an airport after emerging from the deepest parts of the jungles. The concession souvenirs in the stores seemed even more empty and hollow than they ever had, the TV that broadcast a Korean soap opera had a flat colourless tone, the other tourists who sauntered about in matching Tiger beer shirts and took photographs of each other in front of the sunset seemed strange and far away.