Stories of the World

Hell and Hope Along the Ho Chi Minh Trail

We bounced along the rocky, red caverns of the road. A log truck barreled past, and we gulped for air before covering our noses and mouths with dampened bandanas. Moments later a fine scarlet haze billowed in the green-flap windows and settled into our lungs and hair. Dennis flailed the steering wheel to avoid the calamitous pits that threatened to swallow the wheels of our Russian military jeep. For hours the teeth jangling continued as we headed further into eastern Laos, toward the hills of Vietnam. The world rattled past in a red blur punctuated by slammed staccatos as the driver’s side door bounced off its hinges. "Good thing the road’s so good!" Dennis yelled cheerfully.

We were an interesting mix: 35-year-old Nick, who runs an eco-tourism company along the banks of the Mekong River; 45-year-old Joe, an adventuresome New Yorker with a need for a new project; Dennis, our alternately enthusiastic and sullen Tasmanian driver; and me, an inspired Seattle-ite with a Midwestern flair, invited along for my camera and pen. It would be a long and grueling day. Our mission: to photograph as many serial numbers of Unexploded Ordnances, or UXOs, along the Ho Chi Minh trail as we could before sundown.

The jeep pulled off to the side of the road at the village of Lang Kang and we unhinged our legs from the vinyl seats. "You’re a mess," Joe chided me as he dabbed at the red grime on my face. It was a lost cause: Any effort in wiping away the dust left only crimson streaks resembling war paint. We banged on our clothes to rid the initial layers of dirt and then climbed up the wooden ladder to the village headman’s porch.

"Sai bai dee, sai bai dee." We smiled at the small gathering of Laos and touched our palms together with an incline of our heads. The villagers looked up curiously. Surely a woman in cargo pants, hiking boots and streaky cheeks did little to impress them, and I was anything but the traditional picture of femininity. The village headman’s wife sat peacefully swathed in a hand-woven sarong, rocking her child.

A young man brought three cups of tea on a wooden tray, and Nick translated questions. "What do you tell your children about the bombs?" he asked. "Are there certain areas where they are not allowed to play? How do you control measures to keep everyone safe?"

The headman looked up with clear, sad eyes and shook his head. "We tell them, ‘If you see a bomb and you touch it, you will die.’" We had heard that just the day before a man had been killed while fishing. He had reached into the water to pull in his nets and grabbed a bombie that was lodged in the mud. It exploded, killing him and injuring four children.

Such stories of death among Lao villagers are commonplace. From 1964 to 1973, the U.S. military, intending to cut off the supply line between North and South Vietnam, dropped more bombs in Laos (a country just larger than the state of Utah) than it did worldwide during all of World War II. An estimated 30% of these remain unexploded.

After a few minutes, the village headman and his family rose and led the procession into the trees toward an active 2,000-pound bomb. Leaves crunched underfoot. A twig snapped. The sun sizzled out of the sky and cast blurs of heat waves. A feeling of foreboding settled into my bones, and I willed myself light as helium, knowing that even treading gingerly would not offer protection if I stubbed a toe against a half-buried bombie.

There it was. Like a long, heavy seal it lay beached amidst the red dirt and scattered shadows of the leaves. We fell into awkward silence. I knelt to rest a light hand on its curves. At one end, small pockmarks of rust had been hammered away by a curious villager. Because of their immense size and weight, most UXOs remain where they have fallen. Some are marked by sticks; others are stepped over by children and animals in fields and schoolyards.

Back in the jeep again, we rounded a bend and came head-to-head with a white Land Rover and a young, uniformed Lao man who motioned for us to stop. An interpreter for a small detonation team, John was blocking the road to foot and vehicular traffic since a 250-pound bomb was about to be exploded just a kilometer away. Already he had stopped a dozen Lao schoolchildren on their way home who were now crouched silently behind the white truck. We were asked to join them and to keep our heads down to avoid flying shrapnel and debris. We had a five-minute window of warning before the blast. Most Laotians do not have that luxury.

"Just about ready on this end!" a Kiwi voice crackled out of the walkie-talkie. "Just getting the last bit set up. Two-minute countdown." Then silence. A huge truck rumbled around the bend toward us, making no move to even slow down. John jumped up in alarm, waving his arms frantically at the driver to stop.

"Hang on, hang on! We’ve got a truck; stop the clock!" he called into his radio desperately. He gestured wildly at the men in the truck and shouted to them in Lao. They pretended not to understand, and their truck continued to bump forward, straight toward the bomb’s path. "Need some help here!" John called into his radio again. "Someone who speaks Vietnamese needs to talk to our brothers!" The truck slowed at last and John motioned for the men to climb down and join our huddle. At last a few of them swung down and stood on the pitted road.

"Okay, okay," John called again over his radio as he wiped his forehead with his sleeve. "All clear."

"Forty seconds, twenty seconds, ten..."

A boom like a cannon rocked the earth, and I flinched, nearly knocking over two of the children in front of me. A few seconds passed, then came a tattering through the treetops, the hum of metal and rocks in flight. I peeped up a few inches to look through the Land Rover’s window as a giant dust cloud mushroomed up and rolled toward us in slow motion.

In a few minutes it was over. We stood up, trembling, and stared at each other. The Vietnamese truck gasped to life and lumbered away around the bend. The school children remained in their crouched huddle.

Out at the bombsite, a crater pocked the earth. Half a dozen Lao villagers scooped up dead fish that had been killed by the blast in a muddy watering hole and squealed over their new treasures. Two khaki-clad men surveyed the damage.

On a good day Paul and Ian (with their small team of interpreters and surveyors) might detonate 150 bombies, or 4 or 5 larger UXOs. "It all depends," they said. "If there is a 250- or 500-pound UXO, we can destroy it onsite. Anything larger and we have to move it, since detonating it where it lies can take out an entire village."

The sun was sinking lower in the sky and we had just a few short minutes before it would be too dark to photograph. "If you drive up a piece over the next hill, there are several [UXOs] right alongside the road. You should check those out," Paul suggested. Back in the jeep we strained our eyes for the now-familiar silhouettes of bombs.

Sure enough, there was another 500-pounder off to the left and another 250-pound one to the right. A few steps up in the grass revealed a deadly nest of cluster bombs. They looked harmless enough, like small rusted coffee cans, and had we not known better we, too, might have picked one up for closer inspection. A few sticks with red painted tips stuck out of the earth and water in warning. Despite the name of the Se Bang Fai River (which means, ironically enough, "Fireworks"), the scene was incredibly peaceful. Half-submerged water buffalo, green trees and arching cliffs, the bend of the river, a grassy shore -- the beauty of Laos would have seemed an unspoiled oasis had it not been for the lurking of unexploded firepower.

With the last of the sun now behind the hill, we said our goodbyes to the UXO team and nosed the jeep around on the long road back toward Tha Khek. It would be perilous going. No brakes, one headlight, a dwindling fuel tank and a landscape of unexploded bombs brought a chill to the air even sharper than the rapidly dropping temperature. We were the lucky ones, though; no matter how long it took, we had a map to safety and a road home.