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Wednesday, 13th August 2014

The history and importance of the Ho Chi Minh Trail

On paper, the American-backed forces of South Vietnam should have overcome those of the North in the 1954 to 75 war, but this would not be the outcome. One of the key factors that meant victory for the North was the Ho Chi Minh Trail - a network of backwater paths that could be used to transport weapons and supplies to the guerrillas.

Over the course of the war, there would be many attempts to disrupt the passage of arms, but each time it was bombed, the Ho Chi Minh Trail would find another route. It stretched for almost 1,000 miles down the length of Vietnam, often crossing the borders into Laos and Cambodia in a bid to outfox the enemy.

Formation of the trail

When the idea for the trail was first conceived it was known by codename 559, but the construction beginning on Ho Chi Minh's birthday in 1959 and the reverence felt for the leader meant it soon took on the moniker that history would remember it by.

Some 440 men and women were tasked with moving weapons, troops and material from the north to the south and the Military Transport Division 559 was established. By 1962 the group could move 6,000 troops at a time and eventually this rose to 24,000.

Travelling the route during wartime

The Ho Chi Minh Trail is sometimes known as The Blood Road due to the huge dangers it represented for those travelling along it. Regular American air strikes were the most obvious hazard, but the gruelling trek also saw Vietnamese soldiers struck down with illnesses, such as malaria.

To begin with, the journey took six months to complete on foot and it was soon established that infrastructure needed to be put in place to support the troops along the way. The National Liberation Front set up base camps underground for soldiers to stop and rest, as well as receive any medical treatment that was necessary.

These camps were excavated by hand and involved interconnected tunnels with concealed entrances. They were highly sophisticated and kitted out with telecommunications facilities, food and weapons. Things were improved so much that the duration of the walk was eventually cut down to around six weeks.

Attempts to disrupt the trail

American efforts to stop the flow of supplies and soldiers down the Ho Chi Minh Trail included bombings and trying to construct a barbed wire barrier surrounded by mines. This was known as the McNamara Line, but was abandoned as the National Liberation Front constantly attacked those building it.

As Laos and Cambodia were officially neutral in the war, the Americans could not block the route with ground forces. This did not stop them from dropping three million tons of bombs in 1968 as part of Operation Commando Hunt, which slowed down operations on the trail, but did not stop them.

The Ho Chi Minh Trail today

On the opposite side of the country to where most visitors to Vietnam travel today, the series of paths remain largely unchanged. They link isolated communities, mountain passes and deep valleys as they work their way between the once divided parts of the country. The route can be travelled by bike and offers a glimpse of this key aspect of military engineering, which undoubtedly made a difference to the outcome of the conflict.

Related news stories:
A method to the madness of Saigon, or Ho chi Minh (11th May 2015)
Hanoi versus Ho Chi Minh City - which Vietnamese heavyweight is the best? (23rd October 2014)
In focus: Vietnamese cuisine (24th September 2014)
Revolutionary tunnels below Ho Chi Minh City newly opened to the public (24th March 2015)