Vietnam's highway through hell

During the sixties, it symbolized Vietnam's unstoppable willpower in the face of American military might. In the decades since, it has slowly been reclaimed by the jungle. But could the Ho Chi Minh Trail find new life as a major transportation link?

The legendary supply route, which carried the endless stream of men and equipment needed to topple the U.S-backed South Vietnamese government, has returned to the limelight with the Vietnamese government's announcement that it will build a highway approximating the route of the trail. Stretching a thousand miles along the Laotian and Cambodian borders, from the northern province of Ha Tay to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) in the south, the new highway will traverse some of Vietnam's most forbidding terrain, including mountainous rain forest. Despite the inherent difficulties, the construction is expected to require just three years.

The country already has a route running a parallel course along the coast (Highway 1). But the two-lane road is sometimes congested, and is easily flooded in the rainy season.

Vietnamese officials expect the cash outlay for the $680 million highway project to spur some badly needed economic growth. The plan, though, has left many Vietnam-watchers scratching their heads. "The question is, Why?" says Eric Crystal, coordinator of the Center for Southeast Asia Studies at the University of California at Berkeley. "It's an extremely difficult route. There's not that much traffic on Highway One, anyway. And I don't know who's supposed to finance it. It's so illogical."

The Vietnamese remain undaunted. Says a Ministry of Transportation official: "It will be built. Of course!"