Six-lane highway on the deadly Ho Chi Minh Trail

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The Independent Online

Vietnam's founding father Ho Chi Minh, or "Uncle Ho" as his admirers call him, never lived to see the victory of communist North Vietnam over the South, or the renaming of Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City. Now the legendary wartime trail that bore his name - the secret, ever shifting network of jungle paths and tunnels that helped defeat the South - is to become the Ho Chi Minh Highway, a six-lane, 1000-mile road linking north to south.

Vietnam's founding father Ho Chi Minh, or "Uncle Ho" as his admirers call him, never lived to see the victory of communist North Vietnam over the South, or the renaming of Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City. Now the legendary wartime trail that bore his name - the secret, ever shifting network of jungle paths and tunnels that helped defeat the South - is to become the Ho Chi Minh Highway, a six-lane, 1000-mile road linking north to south.

Once, the Ho Chi Minh Trail was the most dangerous place in Vietnam for communist fighters, bombed constantly by US forces desperate to sever the North's vital supply route, which ferried men and arms to the south under thick forest cover. The Americans dubbed the trail's landmarks with names such as "Meatgrinder Hill" and "Blood Spring".

Each time part of the route was bombed, another road would be hacked through the jungle. Over 16 years a million soldiers were funneled along what became the Americans' nemesis. Some worked on it for up to 10 years without going home, facing disease, exhaustion, deadly snakes and constant air attacks.

By the end of the war the trail had become a network of five roughly parallel roads and 20-odd crossroads. The government's current scheme is to connect all the bits by the year 2003, forming a two-lane highway. By 2010 there should be a highway from north to south up to eight lanes wide in some places. The cost, according to the government, will be $400m (£280m).

Critics point out that there is already a highway linking north to south along the coast that is underused, probably because few most Vietnamese have only recently exchanged their bicycles for motorbikes. But Duong Tuan Minh, vice general director of the Ho Chi Minh Highway project management unit, says there is room for another one. "Just like a ladder needs two legs, we need another leg, with small roads in between, so that poor people can travel and develop economically. Also, the present highway floods a lot during the monsoon and parts of it are often closed."

He claims the road will not be difficult to build, although it will pass through dramatic ravines and mountain ranges, the highest point reaching 800m above sea level. At risk: 10 national parks, wildlife and the traditional life of hill tribe minorities.

The project will at least have the benefit of clearing of thousands of unexploded ordnance left over after the war. The project's opening ceremony last April had to be postponed when 600 unexploded bombs were found on the site.

At least 5,000 people will work on phase one, paid less than £1 a day. A plan to mobilise unpaid labour was shelved after bad publicity, although Mr Duong says he knows nothing of the idea. More than 300,000 volunteers worked on the original trail but enthusiasm for public-spirited works had waned since those days. But if the stubborn determination and ingenuity that helped the communists overcome impossible military odds 25 years ago is still alive and well in the Vietnamese corridors of powers, the road may be finished, one day.

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