From Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh 
25 Years After the Fall 
A Photographer's Diary by 
Claro Cortes / Reuters 
A Presentation of 
Self-portrait by Claro Cortes, from inside 
a jail cell of the infamous "Hanoi Hilton"
Our back-breaking and butt-numbing road journey from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City stretched for more than a week. We have earned more than 1,700 kilometer points, cruising along the bumpy Highway One, before deciding to take a plane from Nha Trang resort city to Ho Chi Minh City (some 450 kilometers more).
Click on the photo to see the Big Picture.
April 14 -From Hanoi, our first stop was Vinh City, a grueling six-hour drive. We stayed overnight at a three-star hotel (the best in the city according to our guide). smelly, moldy and rusty but livable. The next day, we visited the birthplace of the late revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh also known as "Uncle Ho" or "Bac Ho". It was a humble hut made from grass, bamboo and wood, very near the ricefields. a true reflection of the man's simple life. paying tribute was a young Vietnamese girl, who was not even born when the war ended. she adores "Uncle Ho" but she also loves MTV and Madonna's "American Pie." Indeed, the times they are a-changin'.
April 15 - Another six-hour drive along "Chocolate Road", a term coined by our guide because of the terrible brown red muddy road.  We are on our way to 'Xuan Son' village, the start of the fabled Ho Chi Minh Trail, a vital route the North Vietnamese fighters used to transport food and arms.  This sleepy village of rice paddies and winding river sandwiched by strategic hills got its nickname among Vietnamese as "the village that swallowed planes." Eight U.S. planes were shot down here during the Vietnam War.
April 16 - We continued our trek to 'Khe Sanh', where some of the heaviest fighting ensued during the war. The former U.S. military air base called 'Tacon' was located here, near the Laotian border. We spoke, through an interpreter, to two ethnic minority fighters who narrated their war stories and patriotism. They spoke highly of a female minority woman whose sacrifice and deeds were good Hollywood material. She was known only as "Ba Da" or 'Mother Stone' in English. At the height of the war, she walked through thick forest and ate ants to survive and to get information for the North Vietnamese forces. She was caught by the 'enemy' and tortured but she never gave in nor admitted her involvement in the uprising. She also helped clear landmines along the path of North Vietnamese soldiers. Her exploits were indeed admirable. No modern weapon could defeat a determined nationalist struggle for freedom.
April 16-17 - Next stop was Hue, the ancient capital of Vietnam, where we spent a night. Our timing was good as the city was celebrating "Festival Hue 2000", a week long celebration showcasing its rich cultural heritage. To cap our night, we covered a fashion show by a local designer highlighting a modern look at the "ao dai", the Vietnamese women's national dress. Ao dai is a graceful and elegant looking dress worn over a thin silk pajama-like pants. Its is almost see-thru, aptly described by foreigners as "it covers everything but hides nothing." Hey, don't get me wrong as it still leaves something to your imagination.
April 17 - Breakfast of 'pho' then we hit the road as rain poured. We ascended the winding and picturesque "Hai Van pass", the mountainous terrain dividing Hue and Danang. As we carefully inched our way to the cloud-covered peak, I was listening to a compilation of 70's music. John Lennon was imagining there's no heaven, but we were just passing through it at the very moment, and people in Vietnam are now living in peace.  Visibility was only about 6 meters. As we started decending, the sky started clearing too. Chicago's 'Colour My World' followed.  It was glorious, like two worlds divided by a line. The weather changed in an instant. Music was still playing. It's a wild world according to Cat Stevens. a bit surreal.
April 17-18 - We reached Danang and stayed at Riverside Hotel. a "no-star" hotel charging a whooping $80 a night. Talking about highway robbery! That is after a discount they say...sure. the next day, I went to Danang's famous China Beach, not to swim or surf but to work of course. Nice golden brown sand, great waves and some beautiful creatures.
April 18-19 - After Danang was a five-hour drive to "My Lai".  The infamous My Lai massacre transpired on march 16,1968, when rampaging U.S. soldiers opened fire to more than 500 unarmed villagers, mostly women and children in this remote hamlet in Quang Ngai province in central Vietnam. We met two elderly women who survived the brutal attack by hiding beneath dead bodies of relatives. They narrated their stories as tears flowed from their eyes. They said that they will never get tired repeating their stories if it will help people learn what happened on that fateful day.
April 19-20 - Another bloody 9-hour drive to the coffe-producing region of "Buon Ma Thuot" (sounds like 'doon umutot') followed. It was a pain in the ass literally and a good excuse to release some 'gas' or 'utot' after the long drive. Scenes of rolling hills and sturdy tribespeople in their colourful handwoven attires helped ease the pain a bit. Buon Ma Thuot is a city in the central highland province of Daclac. It used to be a rich minefield...landmines of course. Up to now, at least one person gets killed by exploding ordinance left behind after the conflict. What is remarkable is this barren field was transformed into Vietnam's biggest coffee producing region. Vietnam now is the world's biggest producer of robusta bean, the coffee bean used in your instant coffee. So next time you sip your Nescafe, think of Vietnam. Now for the funny part: When we interviewed the biggest coffee plantation director, tea was served :-)
April 20-21 - Six-hour drive to Nha Trang. We reached the hotel just in time for bed. It was the best hotel we had stayed during the week-long drive. A recently built four-star hotel by the beach. Nha Trang beaches were popular rest and recreation spots among G.I.'s during the war. That was what we did here. Relax a bit and update our notes. My colleague decided that we had enough mileage and we booked a flight to Ho Chi Minh City the next day. We thought that it would be smooth sailing after reaching the airport. Of course not! The thrill continued. While on board a twin-propeller aircraft to Ho Chi Minh City, as the engines started running (we thought)... the pilot announced that only one engine was working. We were asked to disembark and waited for another hour while an engineer fixed a faulty wiring....hehehe. It was an uneasy flight from then on, aggravated by ringing mobile phones. Hellooooo!
April 21 onwards - Reached Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon, safely. The biggest and bustling city renamed after "Uncle Ho" , is the country's financial capital. Money, money, money. People here do not care as long as you have u.s. dollar. Hey joe, one dollar only. Souvenir, one dollar. 'Cyclo' two dollars an hour. We covered several stories here leading to the big day. Went to 'Ben Tre' province to cover the 'long-haired army', an all women Vietnamese fighting force, during the war. Been to 'Vung Tao' to shoot the Anzac Day, a day of remembrance for Australian and New Zealand soldiers who fought during the war. Australian soldiers were among several countries who sent combat troops during the Vietnam War. Went to 'Long Thanh' to document Amerasian children left behind after the conflict. A social organization estimates that there are still some 10,000 Amerasians living in Vietnam. Then U.S. Senator John Mccain landed again, obviously still dazed 25 years after the war. Mccain insisted that he came to heal the wounds of the past but went on a rampage by saying "the wrong side won the war".
Tomorrow is April 30, the 25th anniversary of the 'Fall of Saigon' and the reunification of the country. Hopefully, it will be peaceful. 
All Photos are © Claro Cortes / Reuters
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