|Long and winding road: One of the impressive curves on the Ho Chi Minh Highway's section in Quang Nam Province. — VNA/VNS Photo Minh Quang
|Dangerous passage: Ho Chi Minh Trail was attacked and bombed during the American War to prevent Northern forces from transporting troops and weapons to the South. — VNA/VNS File Photo
|Functional: A Guol, or traditional communal house of the indigenous Co Tu people, has been restored.
|Over the bridge: HongQuang Bridge was built in 2011, leading to the Viet Nam-Laos border region, near A Luoi Town.
|Hills all around: An overview of A Zich Village, near the Ho Chi Minh Highway, in Tay Giang District. — VNS Photos Huynh Van My
The Ho Chi Minh Highway across the provinces of Thua Thien-Hue and Quang Nam is considered dangerous and also spectacular, with hundreds of kilometres of high mountains and deep valleys. Visiting this land is a journey of discovery. Huynh Van My
The road passing the Truong Son mountainous area bordering Laos, home of many ethnic minorities, stands out with all of the place names starting with the letter A.
"A" is a buffer to pair with another word; by itself it means nothing," says Arat Hon, an ethnic Co Tu translator in Tay Giang District, Quang Nam Province.
A Luoi, A Sau, A Bia and A Co are the "fire lands" that consumed much ink of foreign and domestic press in the years of the American War. But today these lands evoke the peace of bright airy realms that connect with many other regions.
Along Highway 49 just over two hours by motorbike from Hue, we arrived in A Luoi.
On the 63km long section of Highway 49, there are three passes: Kim Quy, Ta Luong and A Co. A Co is worth mentioning: the 15km long A Co Pass is dangerous and impressive, with countless "elbow" curves.
After passing A Co Pass, A Luoi Valley surprises newcomers as it is immense and surrounded by the high mountains.
"Before, A Luoi was the name of the land where A Luoi Town is now. The place where US troops were once stationed is now the grounds of Primary School No 1. With a big military station and a field airport, the district was named A Luoi in 1976," says Le Phuc Tai, 70, a Kinh man from the lowlands of Quang Dien District who has worked and lived in A Luoi for nearly 50 years.
As it is a narrow plateau with many hills stretching between two mountains – eastward to the lowland, westward to the border with Laos, A Luoi occupied a strategic position in the war. Ho Thanh Xoa, 74, a local retired Ta Oi man, recalls: "In 1959 Sai Gon regime soldiers forced local people to build a road to link with Hue, and another road to A Sho army position. About 200 people including me were forced to do it."
Looking at the tremendous valley, flanked by the tranquil villages and cheerful town, no one would think it was a land of "blood and fire".
"In the past, the US troops had many military posts here. In addition to A Luoi and A Sho stations, there are many other smaller ones. The A Sho station was knocked down in 1966 by the liberation force. From 1969-1970 the Americans had to withdraw from other posts," says Xoa.
In a few words he recalls the names "Hamburger Hill", "Bloody Waterfall" and "Me Oi Pass" that American soldiers and the press at that time used to call the horrorful battles in A Luoi. It was these battles that shaped public opinion and that of the American Congress, which in turn contributed to the signing of the Paris peace agreement, leading to the total withdrawal of US troops from South Viet Nam in 1973.
Like its western borderlands, the early morning in A Luoi is always in thick with mist and fairly cold.
This is the charm of the forest of A Luoi and "thanks to the weather, the mountains and forests here are green under the hot sun. We also have vegetables from this fog and coldness", explain indigenous Ta Oi, Pa Ko and Co Tu who live in villages around the town and carry vegetables to the morning market.
When I came, A Luoi Valley was resoundingly green, with paddy fields spread along the road. Villager Tai talked about the land reclaiming in the past: "After liberation day, the people from lowland districts of Thua Thien-Hue came to settle here. It was very hard. But because of the scarcity of arable land in their home villages, everyone tried to stay."
These new settlers have helped reclaim the fields and allowed local residents to develop more advanced techniques besides slash-and- burn farming methods.
Reclaiming land in A Luoi is a miracle because it is not just a conquest of nature, but also the dangers hiding under the ground.
"When we reclaimed land here, each team of youth volunteers was required to have a group of soldiers who swept mines and other unexploded ammunition for them. Honestly, throughout Thua Thien – Hue Province, nowhere suffered from as many bombs as A Luoi," Xoa says.
As A Luoi experienced a hard time of war, everyone who comes here now is amazed by how much it has changed.
In Hong Quang and Nham communes adjacent to the border station, green coffee plantations are spread out. In A Roang, Huong Nguyen and Hong Ha, large rubber plantations expand throughout the region.
Some Co Tu, Pa Ko and Ta Oi locals who used to use rua (large bush hooks) for farming now become farm owners.
A Luoi is adjacent to Khe Sanh – a well-known US base during the war and destination of many tourists, especially those who have experienced and wanted to search for their memories of war.
It is a wonder that on the Ho Chi Minh Highway's section passing A Luoi, Tay Giang and Dong Giang districts, many people come to explore.
To meet the tourists' accommodation demands, these districts have a system of hotels, motels and restaurants.
In addition to a hotel, there are nine guest houses and seven restaurants, A Luoi Town is considered "rich" in choices for tourists.
P'rao Town in Dong Giang District has fewer hotels and restaurants, but both places have the same "criteria": reasonable prices, guests treated kindly, and security guaranteed.
About 20km from A Luoi to the south is A Roang Tunnel. From here we visit the "Heaven gates" on a more than 60km long road leading to "gate" A Tep – the border between Thua Thien – Hue and Quang Nam provinces on Truong Son Mountain Range.
Ho Chi Minh Highway in A Pat, A Moong and A Tep has a very exciting landscape of imposing heights and a grandeur of the primitive forests.
On my way, I occasionally encountered some Westerners riding motorcycles who waved and said hello.
Like me, they travelled slowly to watch and enjoy the feeling of discovery on the pass through the "no-man's land" during the war.
From A Vuong Bridge, I travelled along the new road upstream, where "there are plenty of strange stories of forests", according to many people.
The first story I heard was about Colau Bhlao who had built a road. As the mountains are extremely rugged, traditional life of the Co Tu inhabitants was suffering in that to purchase necessities, they had to sleep four or five nights in the forest on the journey to P'Rao Town.
In 1982, Bhlao spent four months looking for and constructing a shortcut to reach this town.
He used no maps or compass, only the intelligence of a highlander with a pick. Bhlao worked like an expert and he succeeded: a road passing four communes was built based on the path that he cleared.
Across the expansive land, metal-roofed houses stand side by side.
"In the past, we lived in the mountains and jungles so we had to build our houses on stilts to avoid fierce animals. Today we live in a levelled area beside the highway, so it's more comfortable to live in houses like that of the lowland people," says a villager.
The Co Tu villages along the highway have experienced some changes in the way people live, but they still retain their original identities.
Along with restoration of guol (the Co Tu's communal house), residents also have restored traditional festivals and brocade weaving, which highlights the identities of a sacred forest land.
The A Vuong River running below the high mountains in Ma Cooih Commune accumulates water here to serve the A Vuong Hydro-electricity Plant – a main electricity supply in the Central region.
A So is the last of a series of names beginning with the letter A along Ho Chi Minh Highway from A Luoi District of Thua Thien-Hue to Quang Nam.
It is difficult to cite all these places. It would be interesting for anyone who has the opportunity to explore this land of many myths. — VNS