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The Ho Chi Minh Trail: Then and Now (Part 2)

steep climb deep into the Ho Chi Minh Trail

The Ho Chi Minh Trail Then and Now

We’ve spent more than 20 years exploring and photographing the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and have compiled this set of images comparing what it looked like then with now. This is part 2.

Old Helmets

Nguyen Dong Si, the chief of staff for the 559 Engineering Corps
Nguyen Dong Si, the chief of staff for the 559 Engineering Corps that managed the Trail, meets with an AA gun crew.
old helmets from the Vietnam war
A helmet like this was found in a settlement near the Mu Gia Pass.
Vietnamese AA gun crew
NVA AA gun crew in action.
old helmets being used to grow onions
Their helmets are now used to grow onions!

Vital Interdiction Chokepoints

old map depicting the Mu Gia mountain pass
The Mu Gia Pass was notorious with US pilots as almost 50 planes were shot down there. It was called the ‘Dog House’ and was one of two major passes where Vietnamese trucks crossed over into Laos.
location of a pilot shot down over the Mu Gia pass
One such US Phantom jet was shot down just south of the Mu Gia Pass, setting off one of the largest, most intense rescue operations of the entire war.
an old photo of Ban Karai pass
Ban Karai Pass was the other main route into Laos. Trucks which plied it also had to negotiate the deadly Ban Laboy river ford and the Phu La Nik Pass.
cooblestones on the Ho Chi Minh Trail
Many sections of the Trail's original cobblestones remain to this day.
Mu Gia Pass
Mu Gia Pass.
cobblestones on the Ho Chi Minh Trail about to be covered over
Modern roads now cover many former cobblestoned sections of the Trail.
Ban Laboy river crossing
Ban Laboy river ford was the most heavily bombed river crossing in Laos.
two US Vietnam veterans crossing Ban Laboy in a Jeep
Two US pilots return with Explore Indochina to the same crossing in a vintage US army jeep.
Ban Laboy from the sky
Ban Laboy river ford, nicknamed the 'Dog's Head' due to its distinctive shape, is reckoned to be one of the most heavily bombed places on earth.
scarred rocks near Ban Laboy
This photo is from the perspective of the yellow arrow in the image to the left. The rocks still bear heavy scars from the bombing.
'Dog's Head' choke point from the sky
Ban Laboy was a natural 'choke point' that US pilots targeted because the difficult river crossing was followed by the steep, exposed Pha La Nik Pass.
Explore Indochina riders looking out over Ban Laboy
This photo is taken from the perspective of the yellow arrow in the image to the left, looking down at the same set of shattered rocks.
the intersection at Lum Bum
The intersection at Lum Bum, where Route 20, the road that crossed Ban Laboy, met Route 128, the road that crossed over the Mu Gia Pass.
the Lum Bum intersection today
The same intersection today.

UXO (Unexploded Ordnance)

cluster bombs attached to a bomber
Cluster bombs have proven the most deadly type of UXO found in Laos.
an unexploded cluster bomb on the Ho Chi Minh Trail
Each canister contained up to 600 individual tennis-ball-sized cluster bombs.
a soldier transporting cluster bombs
Over 270 million cluster bombs were dropped on Laos.
onions being grown in a cluster bomb shell
Local people often use the cluster bomb casings to grow vegetables in.
an American bomber being flown
Experts agree that up to 80 million cluster bombs did not detonate and remain potentially lethal to this day.
a house being supported with bomb casingsa house being supported with bomb casings
Cluster bomb canisters also make for good fence material.
an American jet ready for takeoff
Nearly 50 years on, less than 1% of these munitions have been destroyed. More than half of all the world's confirmed cluster munitions casualties occurred in Laos.
a rice storage shed being supported with bomb casings
Cluster bomb canisters are used to prop up a rice storage shed.
old cluster bomb submunitions in the jungle
Between 1995 and 2013, the USA donated, on average, $3.2M per year towards UXO clearance in Laos. Compare that to the $13.3M (in 2013 dollars) spent every day for nine years while bombing Laos.
old cluster bomb submunitions on the Ho Chi Minh Trail
The USA spent as much in three days bombing Laos ($51M, in 2010 dollars) that it spent cleaning up Laos over 16 years ($51M).
standing by a piece of cluster bomb submunition
Tragically, unexploded cluster munitions are still a common sight in Laos.
a bomb under the water
Cluster bombs are waterproof, so crossing a river is dangerous. Note that the fisheye lens on the GoPro camera has distorted the cluster munition in this photo.
a sign in Laos warning of unexploded bombs
There are many commercial and non commercial UXO clearance operations all around Laos.
bomb-contaminated land in Laos
Land is termed 'contaminated', as farmers cannot use their fields for fear of striking cluster bombs. Due to their round shape, cluster bombs tend to stay near the surface.
Explore Indochina riders with locals and their metal detectors
Unfortunately, every time the price of steel gets to a certain level, local people take cheap metal detectors and search for potentially fatal items.
a children's book showing the dangers of unexploded ordnance
Local education campaigns do their best to keep children informed.
how people are warned of areas made dangerous by unexploded ordnance
A common site warning people which areas are safe.
Explore Indochina tour riders standing by warning markers
Best to stick to the yellow side, south of Chavan.

Entertainment on the Ho Chi Minh Trail

entertainment troupes performing for Trail workers
Entertainment troupes performing for Trail workers.
graffiti in a cave south of the Mu Gia pass
This graffiti remains from one such performance in a cave south of the Mu Gia Pass.
entertainment troupes on the Ho Chi Minh Trail
Perhaps one of these entertainers wrote the graffiti.
a stanza from a popular song from the period - 'Night and day I think of my loved ones at home'
Graffiti from the same cave is a stanza from a popular song enjoyed by Vietnamese soldiers and workers on the Trail. It says, 'night and day I think of my loved ones from home'.

Big Guns

soldier operating an AA gun
The Trail was protected by a formidable AA gun network like his 100mm AA shell from a KS-19 Russian AA gun.
shells found in the jungle west of La Hap
Spent shells in an old bunker north of Ban Bak.
AA guns
Groups of AA guns would typically target a 'box in the sky', and only fire five rounds when a plane approached it.
spent shells on the side of the road
Spent shells on the side of the road near Ban Laboy.
AA guns being transported
The guns were transported by armored tractors.
a destroyed, abandoned AA gun near Muong Nong
Like this one seen in Muong Nong.
Commander Nguyen Dong Sy inspects a 57mm AA gun team
Commander Nguyen Dong Sy inspects a 57mm AA gun team.
gun scrap
Like this one seen in Dak Cheung.
Russian DShK 12.8mm machine gun
The Russian DShK 12.8mm machine gun was also an effective gun against low flighing planes.
a Russian gun and a chicken
Though here, it is only guarding the entrance to a motel on the Trail.
machine gun being operated by Vietnamese troops
The DShK could be used as a stand-alone unit or be attached to armour.
spent shells in an old bunker north of Ban Bak
Spent shells found in the jungle west of La Hap.

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