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sparring with charlie


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  A bus blasting through the morning mist confirmed that I was on track. "Huong Khe--Ha Tinh" read a sign in the vehicle's window. Having just turned west from Highway One, I recognized the former as a town smack in the middle of Route 15. Adjacent holes, both wider than backyard pools, supported the view that I was on a course formerly traveled by Charlie and bombed by Sam.

The road narrowed and roughened as I twisted up a hill. The brush grew thicker, the trees taller. Away from Highway One there were no villages. No children cheered my every move. The only sound was the buzz of the Minsk kicking up dirt and pebbles. The only sight was an empty road burrowing into the wilderness.

In the middle of nowhere, Khe Giao felt urban. Located where my dirt road formed a T with another, the village consisted of ten huts. The population of forty dropped everything to redirect a pale-faced traveler who claimed to be en route to Saigon. A four-toothed man pulled me into his shed for a cup of tea and some homespun wisdom.

"Saigon?" I asked, pointing left.

"Highway One," he replied, pointing backward.

After tea, gentle hills rolled for miles. The climb up a steeper incline rewarded me with a view of tropical serenity. In the silent valley below me, water buffalo soaked in a lake where bleach-white birds posed on one leg. Behind the water, peasants in cone-shaped rice hats worked glimmering fields of green. At the rear of the bowl rose low mountains, bare but for lollipop-shaped trees along their crest.

Two hours after exiting Highway One, the sight of railroad tracks tipped my imminent arrival in Huong Khe. Its grubby collection of plywood sheds looked more Wild West than Far East. Indeed, the whistle stop was the last outpost before the long ride to Dong Hoi, a coastal city about 100 kilometers away. I bought gas and ate noodles.

Then I headed for the Mu Gia Pass, one of the gaps in the Truong Son Mountains, which formed Vietnam's border with Laos. Like Colonel Luc and countless other Northerners, I aimed to climb the Mu Gia Pass. Unlike Charlie, I planned to turn around once I reached the "Door of Death."

Hanoi's soldiers would have been better prepared than I. At similar points in their own journeys south, NVA soldiers had spent several weeks in training. Riflery and camouflage were two of the basics. So was carrying heavy loads. Soldiers weren't permitted to go south unless they could manage a load of at least 30 kilograms, or about 65 pounds. Few failed the test, even though the average North Vietnamese weighed just 50 kilos.

The typical load included a spare uniform and a pair of black pajamas, as well as a tent, hammock, and mosquito net. Each soldier had a small supply of medicine, and vitamin pills to last one month, the average walking time to the first big camp. Cubes of antidote for snake venom were also standard issue.

The weight was most odious near the start of the Trail. The Mu Gia Pass was more than 400 meters high. Other passes were nearly twice that. Soldiers took days to reach the crossings, which were mercilessly bombed and strafed.

Once in the mountains, the balance of dangers changed. The heat and the damp took a slow toll of trekkers' bodies. As few of the teenage fighters had ever traveled far from their villages, homesickness sapped their souls. Soldiers filled their diaries with yearnings for families they would probably never see again. Food, much of which was supplied by stations spaced eight hours' walk from each other, often ran out.

Hungry soldiers were more susceptible to illness. Most infiltrators caught colds during their first days in the jungle. Untreated, the sniffles often turned to pneumonia during the monsoon season. That was also when mosquitoes were at their worst. Malaria killed as many as ten percent of the people on the Trail. Other fevers and parasite-related diseases were common.

All that before anybody dropped a bomb or fired a shot? How, I wondered, had any Northerner survived?

Riding toward the Mu Gia Pass, I saw mountains that lived up to their reputation. A row of low peaks blocked an escape to the east of the uneven road of dirt and pebbles. The western side of the long valley was a wall of rock. The severe incline was seamless. For a soldier marching with others behind, forward down the natural corridor was the only way to go.

I looked harder at the Truong Son Mountains. Higher peaks I had seen. But more solid? I couldn't recall. How the Trail's blazers had chiseled a route over these Alps was beyond me. Only a superhuman would even contemplate such a barrier.

My southbound progress stuttered an hour below Huong Khe. Narrow planks were the only way over the railroad ties suspended forty feet above a shallow river. Later, I skidded around a bend and braked on the lip of an outsized puddle. Where Route 15 should have been I found a child up to his ribs in water. A stocky hag with betel-reddened teeth guided me to a shallower crossing.

Nobody could help me clear the next obstacle, a three-foot drop to a pond whose murky brown water defied judgments of its depth. A fifteen-foot jump would get me across the hazard. Another motorbike, a red Minsk which appeared on the opposite side of the chasm, demonstrated the other option.

The rider looked rough. Beneath a brown baseball cap with "USA, California" stenciled on the front was a tanned face pocked like a minefield. His clothes were soiled and torn. After a brief pause to consider the effects of slipping into the trap, he maneuvered the bike along a six-inch lip of mud. Could I repeat that miracle of balance?

"Mu Gia? How far?" I asked.

"Ten, fifteen kilometers," said the man named Tho.

"And Dong Hoi?"

Tho shook his head.

"This isn't the road to Dong Hoi?"

"Go to Ha Tinh. Highway One."

"What about this road?"

Tho shook his head. Down the road I would find more water. He showed me the depth of future obstacles by putting a hand to his chest. He made a swimming motion, front crawl. I didn't need a mock swan dive to understand that bigger and meaner obstacles waited to the south. Misdirected a dozen times in half as many days, I hesitated to believe him.

But Tho had credibility. His peasant's appearance told me that he was no café cadre; Tho traveled the road he described. His odometer had logged more than 30,000 kilometers. And because Tho drove a Minsk, I assumed he knew the limits of a Russian motorbike on Vietnamese terrain.

Going backward was not much easier than moving ahead. Combining gestures and the occasional search through my phrase book, Tho suggested I load my motorbike onto a train to Dong Hoi. The idea appealed to me. It was the coach potato's way to see a section of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The only problem was timing: Tho said the next train was in four hours, at 5pm, and departed from a town called Phuc Thach, which wasn't on my maps.

Tho promised to show me the station. He led me north before turning down a dirt lane cut into a wall of trees. I wondered if I had been too trusting. This rugged man had all the makings of a highwayman. With nothing but trees in sight, I could have been driving myself into a robber's lair. Indeed, Tho did demand some cash. But only as compensation for his guidance. And only after we arrived on the train platform in Phuc Thach.

I found the ticket agent beyond a row of vendors dozing in the shade of the eaves. She giggled at my attempts to balance an overloaded vehicle against the wall of her sauna-sized office. Well past forty, her beauty had lasted thanks to high cheekbones and black hair long enough to tie into a noose. Which is what I soon wanted to do with it.

"I want to go to Dong Hoi."

The ticket agent nodded.

"When is the train?"

Her head shook, wiggling her rope of hair.

"Dong Hoi. Train. What time?"

The rope wiggled again. Did VietTrak hire mutes?

"Is there a train at five o'clock?"

"No train."

Tho had promised me there was a train at five. Lest there be any mistake, I indicated the words, one by one, in my phrase book. Today. Train. What time? The ticket agent slid the booklet from my fingers and browsed for more than a minute. Then she turned the book for me to read her response: "Are you married?"

"Today. Train. What time?"

"Ten o'clock."

The answer wrinkled my plans. Eight hours was a long time to wait for a train. And if none arrived, a night on the outdoor platform would expose me to all species of insect-borne nastiness. Turning to leave, I slipped in a puddle of my own sweat and pushed through twenty rubberneckers. A station worker with a red band on his sleeve grabbed me by the arm.

"Train. Six o'clock," he said.

I whirled and glared at the ticket agent. She shouted at the worker. He shouted back. Five minutes later they agreed that yes, there would be a train at six.

"How much is the ticket?"

The ticket master mumbled a phrase I couldn't understand. So I asked again. She repeated the mystery phrase. I pointed to a phrase in my book: "Bao nhieu?"

"How much?" She repeated her phrase, which included no numbers. I wrote some possible fares on a scrap of paper. The mystery phrase, again. Dripping sweat, I begged to be told the fare to Dong Hoi. The ticket agent stonewalled. As a roundhouse punch to the head began to make sense, I left.

A man of sixty beckoned for me to join him in the shade of a tree. A devotee of the school of thought that said foreign-language comprehension increased in line with volume, he shouted in my ear. Within five minutes I learned that the fare was roughly twelve thousand dong, a buck and a bit. The money was payable to the conductor, which was what the ticket agent had tried to explain. When she joined us outside, I apologized.

"How much to put my Minsk on the train?"

"No motorbikes."

"What?"

"Six o'clock train. People only."

"No motorbikes! After one hour I learn no #@ motorbikes on a #@* train you told me didn't even #@*& exist. You saw my %#$, @*^% Minsk leaning against your *^#* wall. Did you think I wanted to $!@ leave it behind?"

I bolted for Ha Tinh. Watching Tho weave his native roads had taught me to slalom potholes the Vietnamese way. I already burned gas like an American. Between the two, I kicked up more dust than a stampede of buffalo. The clatter of my 125cc engine revving at top speed drowned out rational thoughts.

A cow brought me to my senses. A cat would have scatted, a chicken scattered. But the one-ton beast standing broadside in the road stoically held its ground, fully prepared to hip-check a speedster rounding a bend. I skidded to a stop a yard from a meeting with its hide and my Maker.

Five kilometers from Ha Tinh a bus bound for Huong Khe forced me to the side of the road. My engine sputtered to a stop. Adding gas produced no motion. I took out my tools and cleaned the spark plug. Nothing doing. Looking around for help, I found none. The nearest tow truck was probably in Hanoi. The only option was to start pushing the loaded bike.

 
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Excerpted from Sparring with Charlie by Christopher Hunt. Copyright © 1996 by Christopher Hunt. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of the Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc.

All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.