THE HO CHI MINH TRAIL made its first appearance in The New York Times in 1961, when an unnamed Associated Press journalist reported from Saigon, Vietnam (ironically now named Ho Chi Minh City): “[H]ighly reliable sources report that special South Vietnamese troops have taken up strategic positions and are patrolling the route the Communists use through southwest Laos — known in Saigon as ‘the Ho Chi Minh’ trail.”
The story’s next paragraph, in which the author identifies who Ho Chi Minh is — “This pathway of subversion is named for the North Vietnamese President, Ho Chi Minh” — emphasizes how little Americans knew about the war that would come to define the next decade. The next two paragraphs, however, better describe the trail that haunted the United States for years: “It begins far to the north and moves down through the unguarded mountains of Laos, skirting the well-patrolled border between Communist North Vietnam and South Vietnam,” the journalist wrote, adding ominously, “Along this route, the Communists have been able to move men and guns in relative safety into central South Vietnam.”
But men were far from the only ones moving down the trail, as Sherry Buchanan shows in her book, On the Ho Chi Minh Trail: The Blood Road, The Women Who Defended It, The Legacy. Indeed, as she writes, “female volunteers were singularly responsible for building and defending the Trail roads, bridges, and junctions.” Women not only ran the logistics but also “built the road, the tunnels. They tended camp, they nursed the wounded, and they defended North Vietnam’s territory against American bombing.” It was Vietnamese women who helped lay the groundwork for North Vietnam’s victory. And they paid the price.
Yet Buchanan’s book does not truly focus on these female volunteers and fighters as promised. Instead, she has written something of an odd travelogue. Rather than adequately tell the stories of the women who defended the trail, she tells her story of traveling on the trail. And despite her best intentions, she uses the trail, and the people she meets on it, as little more than exotic background figures for a lackluster reflection on the Vietnam War. Though there are nuggets of valuable reportage, the result is a confused book that leaves readers wanting more, scratching their heads, and, more than once, cringing at the author’s behavior and assertions.
Buchanan has a long history with Vietnam. She first came to the country in 1991 while working as a columnist; during this period, she developed a keen interest in Vietnamese art and culture. As an editor and author, she later published several monographs on Vietnamese propaganda posters. She was captivated by the women who appeared in these war posters and drawings, many of which appear as striking, high-quality prints in this book. So, in 2014, she decided to make the trip down the trail to meet them.
She structures the book smartly and simply. Each chapter is dedicated to a place, a city or region, where she meets female soldiers, women who, while ignored in Western representations of the war (less so in Vietnam), fought alongside the men and remain equally as shaken by the horrors they experienced.
But Buchanan’s reporting approach is questionable from the outset. As Phuong Phan points out in the Asian Review of Books, Buchanan repeatedly knocks “uninvited on the doors of women and engag[es] them in spontaneous discussion (via a translator) about their war experiences,” a decision that “requires them to relive their sacrifices.” This is naïve at best and damaging at worst. Journalists are naturally inquisitive; that’s the job. But when working with traumatized communities, reporters, particularly Western reporters working in cultures outside their own, have to take their subjects’ well-being into consideration. Scheduling interviews ahead of time is one thing; at least that gives the subject time to make an informed decision about their desire to participate and to prepare emotionally. Barging, even as politely as possible, into someone’s home and demanding that they tell you about their life’s worst moments is quite another.
Buchanan’s interjections about the trip itself similarly undermine her ability to tell these women’s stories. Anthony Bourdain, renowned for his respectful journalism in countries the world over, preached the “Grandma rule” for travelers:
You may not like Grandma’s Thanksgiving turkey. It may be overcooked and dry. […] You may not even like turkey at all. But it’s Grandma’s turkey. And you are in Grandma’s house. So shut the fuck up and eat it. And afterward, say, “Thank you, Grandma, why, yes, yes of course I’d love seconds.”
Buchanan, unfortunately, takes the opposite tack, repeatedly sharing with us, for instance, her dislike of the bitter Vietnamese green tea that her hosts politely offer her on nearly every visit. She also glibly describes several generations living together in an open-plan room, which is still standard in poorer parts of Vietnam, as “my idea of hell.” And immediately after posing a brutal rhetorical question to readers — “How many corpses and body parts had any one of us [Americans] seen in a lifetime without the body bags or designer coffins to shield the macabre?” — she writes, far too casually: “If I had to hit a low during the trip, Khe Sanh was it.” The juxtaposition of strewn, presumably Vietnamese, body parts with her moderate discomfort is, at the very best, odd.
Passages like these damage Buchanan’s project irreparably. It is difficult to read an American complaining about the most minor things in countries (Vietnam and Laos) that are not hers, and where she knowingly chose to make a difficult trek through regions whose war wounds have not yet healed. It is difficult to read along as an she makes herself the center of a story that is not really hers.
Still, Buchanan’s interviews with these women are at times moving, and the book shines when she lets their words fill the pages. These stories should have been the meat of the book; instead, we get them only as side dishes.
Perhaps the most moving interview occurs when one female veteran pours out her heart and hate. “My dad was killed. My older brother was killed,” she says. “I had developed hate. That’s why I left home, to fight against all the US attacks. I was so furious and angry. Because I had a strong hatred, I was given an AK-47 and I was trained to become a sniper.”
But Buchanan again puts herself in the way, writing that this veteran’s “voice hardened as she remembered” and, as a result, “I felt her anger directed at me.” This observation interrupts and undermines the veteran’s story, rather than augmenting it. Just one page later, she takes this observation a step further and describes herself as a “former enemy” of the Vietnamese soldiers — which, as a civilian, she was not. (North Vietnamese leaders maintained that their fight was with the US government rather than the American people, a position Hanoi made clear by inviting antiwar Americans, most famously the actress Jane Fonda, to visit what would become North Vietnam.) Later, meanwhile, at a neglected cemetery for South Vietnamese casualties, she again centers herself, telling a war widow who has not yet found her husband’s body: “I believe the spirits of the dead are following me.”
And when an American veteran tells her about the Vietnamese government’s persecution of the Montagnards — the ethnic minority tribal peoples who fought in large numbers alongside the United States — she dismisses him, offering blithely and without any evidence, “The atrocities may have been misreported.” I have written about those same atrocities, and know them to be very real because I actually listened to my subjects and investigated their claims, rather than presuming to know better than they do.
These vignettes make clear the book’s most key flaws. Buchanan, who experienced the Vietnam War through television and magazines, writes as if she wants to convince readers that her experience is reasonably comparable to those of the women she interviewed, which it plainly is not. More damagingly, she seems to imply throughout the book that, because she has spent so much time in Vietnam, she is really the expert here. This confidence is ill-suited for an author hoping to tell the stories of others.
These shortcomings disappoint because Buchanan set out with good intentions. She writes:
I decided to journey down the Trail to collect stories from both sides of the line, especially from the women who had built and defended the Trail. […] I knew that their personal testimonies could confound the abstraction of war that makes it acceptable to live in more peaceful places.
This mission is admirable, but ultimately one wishes that, both for her sake and those of her subjects, she better followed her own advice: that she listened, collected testimony, and truly told these women’s stories, rather than making the Ho Chi Minh Trail all about herself.
Charles Dunst is an associate with Eurasia Group’s Global Macro practice, focusing on Chinese foreign policy and the geopolitics of Southeast Asia and the Indo-Pacific. He is also a visiting scholar at the East-West Center in Washington, an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics, and a contributing editor of American Purpose, Francis Fukuyama’s new magazine.