“This Place Is Miserable.” North Vietnamese Eyewitness Accounts of Life on the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
Above Photo: Sunset over Laos. “I don’t know why I feel sad, discouraged, home-sick and worried about the future. My homesickness is worse at sunset.”
In 1966 US Air attacks against the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos concentrated primarily on the jungle tracks which North Vietnamese vehicles used when travelling on their long journey to South Vietnam.
Tens of thousands of soldiers and porters transporting food, weapons and supplies to south Vietnam used these routes that stretched for thousands of kilometers, starting in North Vietnam, then winding through the mountains and jungles of Laos.
In 1966, the United States Mission in Vietnam compiled what they called the “Diary of an Infiltrator” about North Vietnamese journeys along the Trail.
The ‘Diary’ wasn’t compiled from any one person’s accounts, but from many captured North Vietnamese diaries and from information gleaned from interviews and interrogations with defectors and captured soldiers, who’d recently made the arduous and dangerous journey south along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
Below I’ve quoted extracts from this Diary which I’ve been able to find in various places. They graphically illustrate the physical and mental hardships which the long walk south gave rise to in tired and stressed North Vietnamese soldiers.
I’ve illustrated the quotes with various Ho Chi Minh Trail photos which also give an indication of the tough conditions encountered when travelling on the Trail, all of which is relevant to my novel BACK.
Marched 17 kilometers today through torrential rainstorm. Bridges had been washed out. Fallen trees were across the trail.
Moved 22 kilometers today. Many of the slopes we must climb are 35 degrees. Rain continues. I am carrying 33 kilos.
Southern Laos. This place is miserable. The green jungle is full of birds twittering. Flies sting and sting, and the holes don’t stop bleeding.
Had nothing to eat for a whole day. Found a wild vegetable, which I ate, but was inedible. I thought I would die.
Lower Laos. Terrible hardships. Paths again steep. Heavy rains again every day. Loads we carry very heavy. Five men have died of malaria. I didn’t think people died of malaria.
Physically exhausted. Some slopes today were 40 degrees. We can only move for half-hour and then must rest.
Stopped at Station Nineteen. It has antiaircraft defenses but no underground fortifications. This is said to be the safest place on the (Ho Chi Minh) Trail. The station easily took care of 2,000 people.
Here we found a new portion of the trail under the trees, which runs parallel to the old one about two kilometers away. The old trail is kept up, in the hope the Americans will bomb it and it will be safe to travel the new trail. However, a man at the station said the Americans have been bombing both trails.
Some men have written on their undershirts: Sanh bac tu nam (‘born in the north, will die in the south’).
Mountain people here are very superstitious. They killed pigs and buffalo when we arrived. Not for us, but as sacrifice to the gods in case we defile the earth, which they hold sacred. We have been instructed not to dig foxholes or other fortifications.
Laotians come trading food for things we are carrying. It is forbidden, but many of the men do it anyway. Today I was caught trading some clothes for rice and was reprimanded. Then I discovered that the sack of rice I had traded my last extra pair of pants for, was a sack of dirt with just a layer of rice on top.
Stricken with malaria today. I was afraid this would happen. Malaria affecting many of my comrades. Orders are to keep going, even if we must crawl.
An incident took place because the Third Squad went to cut wood without telling anyone or notifying headquarters. Thus we thought it was the enemy approaching and opened fire. Four were killed and several others wounded.
Most of the men at Xuan Mai are draftees and frankly their morale is not too high. But cadres explain carefully that our mission is to help the South Vietnamese people fight the Americans and their henchmen and to liberate and unify the country. Most of us do our utmost to study and work, and have high sense of responsibility. Some of the draftees, however, are afraid of the sacrifice and the difficulties ahead and are bothered by family problems. Some have even sent in official requests asking permission to return to their home villages.
I don’t know why I feel sad, discouraged, home-sick and worried about the future. My homesickness is worse at sunset.
A memo was read to us today saying that wounded and sick soldiers on the trail should not complain nor cause trouble nor make demands. Also, only cadres of company level and up are to be returned to the north in case of serious illness or wounds.
Crossed three streams today. Marched 24 kilometers. Stopped in forest area near village. Villagers seemed to accept as normal the arrival of our rather large contingent. Saw first Montagnards today. Many of the men were afraid of them.
Damn the Americans. They force us to sleep in the jungle with only rice and, if we are lucky, salt to eat. I am determined to fight and serve my people until my last breath.
Fear of hardships and the Americans has caused many desertions and surrenders. One of our companies had seven desertions last month (Feburary 1966). Southern Party officials do not realize the danger in the enemy’s Chieu Hoi [‘Open Arms’, to encourage North Vietnamese deserters] program and that it must be massively opposed. Men surrender because they lack solidarity, class consciousness and because political indoctrination has not been sufficient.
The Southerners and even some Northerners who have been in the south [of Vietnam] for some time fear the Americans and their planes, artillery and strength and so try to avoid contact. They are willing to go on isolated guerrilla operations but find ways of evading concentrated large unit actions. They say we will be surrounded if we try to mount big operations.
The population at large is very much frightened by air strikes and the resulting deaths. For example, bombing of Boi Loi [Woods] took a heavy toll of civilian laborers. Some bodies were buried, others were not and the stench of decaying flesh is unbearable. Relatives of these dead workers requested permission to go to the spot to bury their dead. They were told permission would have to be granted by a higher authority. The problem is that if their requests are not honored they will complain that their relatives lie stark naked unburied. But if they are permitted to go to the place the ghastly sight will dishearten them. This problem deserves our utmost attention.
We are not greeted as liberators in the villages. When we enter the people come and ask us to leave, saying that if we do not, the enemy planes will come and strafe the village.
Upon hearing that the units had gained victories at Thanh Mountain and Van Tuong, we were very high spirited. We took these examples to arouse the unit’s hatred of the Americans and to urge them to kill as many Americans as possible.
See the trailer for our new film, M.I.A. A Greater Evil. Set in the jungles of Laos and Vietnam, the film deals with the possible fate of US servicemen left behind after the US pulled out of the Vietnam War.
And for POWs left behind in Laos:
© Peter Alan Lloyd
BACK Parts 1 and 2
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