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Deep in the jungles of Vietnam,
soldiers from both sides
battled heat exhaustion and each other
for nearly 20 long years.
But the key to Communist victory
wasn't weapons or stamina,
it was a dirt road.
The Ho Chi Minh Trail,
winding through Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia,
started as a simple network of dirt roads
and blossomed into the centerpiece
of the winning North Vietnamese strategy
during the Vietnam War,
and psychological support to the South.
The trail was a network of tracks,
and river crossings
that threaded west out of North Vietnam
and south along the Truong Son Mountain Range
between Vietnam and Laos.
The journey to the South originally took six months.
But, with engineering and ingenuity,
the Vietnamese expanded and improved the trail.
Towards the end of war,
as the main roads detoured through Laos,
it only took one week.
Here is how it happened.
In 1959, as relations deteriorated
between the North and the South,
a system of trails was constructed in order to infiltrate
soldiers, weapons, and supplies into South Vietnam.
The first troops moved in single-file
along routes used by local ethnic groups,
and broken tree branches at dusty crossroads
were often all that indicated the direction.
Initially, most of the Communist cadres
who came down the trail
were Southerners by birth who had trained in North Vietnam.
They dressed like civilian peasants
in black, silk pajamas with a checkered scarf.
They wore Ho Chi Minh sandals on their feet,
cut from truck tires,
and carried their ration of cooked rice
in elephants' intestines,
a linen tube hung around the body.
The conditions were harsh
and many deaths were caused by exposure,
and amoebic dysentery.
starving to death,
and the possibility of attacks by wild tigers or bears
were constant threats.
Meals were invariably just rice and salt,
and it was easy to run out.
Fear, boredom, and homesickness
were the dominant emotions.
And soldiers occupied their spare time
by writing letters,
and drinking and smoking with local villagers.
The first troops down the trail
did not engage in much fighting.
And after an exhausting six month trip,
arriving in the South was a real highlight,
often celebrated by bursting into song.
By 1965, the trip down the trail could be made by truck.
Thousands of trucks supplied by China and Russia
took up the task amidst ferocious B-52 bombing
and truck drivers became known as pilots of the ground.
As traffic down the trail increased,
so did the U.S. bombing.
They drove at night or in the early morning
to avoid air strikes,
and watchmen were ready
to warn drivers of enemy aircraft.
Villages along the trail organized teams
to guarantee traffic flow
and to help drivers repair damage caused by air attacks.
Their catch cries were,
"Everything for our Southern brothers!"
and, "We will not worry about our houses
if the vehicles have not yet gotten through."
Some families donated their doors
and wooden beds to repair roads.
Vietnamese forces even used deception
to get the U.S. aircraft to bomb mountainsides
in order to make gravel for use
in building and maintaining roads.
The all-pervading red dust seeped into every nook and cranny.
The Ho Chi Minh Trail had a profound impact
on the Vietnam War
and it was the key to Hanoi's success.
North Vietnamese victory was not determined by the battlefields,
but by the trail,
which was the political,
and economic lynchpin.
Americans recognized its achievement,
calling the trail,
"One of the great achievements
in military engineering of the 20th century."
The trail is a testimony to the strength of will
of the Vietnamese people,
and the men and women who used the trail
have become folk heros.