Cycling the length of the Ho Chi Minh trail… and the surprising discovery at the end of the journey.
By Rebecca Rusch,
professional ultra-endurance athlete and bestselling author
Photos courtesy of Red Bull Media House
In 2003, for the first time in a decade, I thought about my father.
I was competing in a jungle expedition race in Vietnam that entailed navigating more than 1,000 miles of brutal terrain on bikes, in kayaks, and on foot. I knew that across the border was Laos, where deep in the jungle, my Dad’s plane had crashed during the Vietnam War.
My adventure racing team wasn’t being shot at, but we were being chased as we struggled to survive the intense elements and unforgiving landscape. I wondered, “Is this similar to what he and the other soldiers went through?”
After the race ended, my Mom and I visited several important locations from the Vietnam War… Da Nang Air Base, where my father had been stationed in 1972… the DMZ, the demilitarized border between North and South… and Khe Sanh, location of one of the bloodiest battles in the war. So many physical remnants of the war remained: bomb craters, defoliation from Agent Orange, tunnels that had been repurposed as homes, and even plane wreckage. But the people have moved on. For example, Khe Sanh is now a beautiful coffee plantation. You would never know its horrific history without reading about it in a book.
Our guide at the time also pointed out the Ho Chi Minh Trail to the west. Across the border, I could see a little road running through the jungle. I knew my Dad, an Air Force weapons systems operator, was shot down over the trail, but I didn’t know much more about its complex history or route. I didn’t know much about my Dad, either. He disappeared when I was three years old. I took a picture of the lush green hills and the trail. I had a fleeting thought that I wanted to go there one day and travel along those roads.
Four years later, in 2007, a search and recovery mission finally identified my Dad’s remains at the crash site. After more than 30 years of wondering whether he might still be alive, or may have been captured, finally we knew that he had died in the crash that day in 1972. Part of me was relieved to find out he was dead, and more than anything, that he hadn’t been tortured and hadn’t suffered.
Again, I thought about going back. And as my cycling was evolving to include more expedition riding, my idea to ride the Ho Chi Minh Trail took shape.
Red Bull, the company that had sponsored me as an athlete for more than 15 years, embraced the idea. As Red Bull Media House and I dove into the research process, we began to see the depth of the story… and realized this was a story that needed to be uncovered and told. It was a story that spanned far beyond an endurance athlete looking to be the first to ride the entire length of the trail. (This project would become the award-winning documentary Blood Road, released in June.)
For me, the inspiration was two fold: to attempt the biggest, most adventurous ride of my life and to explore my family history and find the piece of myself that I had
Preparing for the Trail
The Ho Chi Minh Trail was the main supply route constructed and used by the North Vietnamese to move soldiers, equipment, and ammunition during the war. The trail started in Hanoi, the main city in the north, and stretched thousands of miles to Saigon, now called Ho Chi Minh City. As the war progressed, and in an effort to escape detection and disruption of the route by American and South Vietnamese forces, the network of trails grew across the Vietnamese border. My father was one of hundreds of U.S. Airmen who spent years making daily bombing raids in Laos and Cambodia.
Before traveling to Southeast Asia to attempt the ride, we had mapped the most historically accurate route possible with the help of an American now living in Laos, Don Duvall.
Don has spent 15 years motorcycling and exploring the Ho Chi Minh Trail, so he was essential in our planning. But the remote location and the lack of information left so many unknowns that we would have to uncover along the way. Even the trails that are mapped change each rainy season. Bridges get washed out all the time and roads that are supposed to be there aren’t there. During the war, the trail was constantly shifting. It still is. There was so much that we couldn’t plan for. Instead, we had to be flexible and face the challenges as they came up.
My whole life was a preparation for this journey.
Every sport I’ve competed in honed the skills that were needed on this ride; even whitewater rafting and rock climbing expertise came in handy. The navigational skills, teamwork, and logistical planning that I developed while adventure racing were also essential tools. When you combine the strain of disruptive sleep, the hours each day on the bike, exposure to the elements, and perpetual motion day after day, they take a massive, cumulative toll physically and emotionally. It takes years to develop the durability and the maturity required for multiday expeditions like this one.
Thankfully, I had these years of experience and training to fall back on, because we had just a couple months’ notice once the documentary and journey were approved in November 2014.
Planning accelerated and I kicked my training into high gear. I live in the mountains and as the Idahoan winter deepened, I spent hours training indoors on my bike, while outdoors I spent long backcountry ski days with a heavy pack, as well as cross-country skiing and snow biking. I also spent time in a sauna for heat training to help my body with heat adaptation.
Most of this training was endurance based. The most important factor over the long haul of multiday expeditions is how well your body holds up. What matters is how little you break down, not necessarily how fast you are.
The most challenging aspect of preparing for this trip was not the physical training, but the logistical preparation. I had to carefully strategize on what gear to take: clothing for the jungle environment, medical kit for unknown injuries, spare bike parts, lights for night riding, and ultralight camping equipment. And I had never traveled with a film crew. Added to the logistical mix, there would be cameras, lights, and sound equipment – along with people I wasn’t sure had the skills and experience to survive in the wilderness.
Reaching the Crash Site
As I started to ride, I focused almost entirely on the crash coordinates. That was the reason I was there, why I made the physical journey.
Then slowly, day by day, I started to change. It was almost imperceptible. Only now, two years later looking back, can I see the emotional transformation that I had. But my riding partner could see it, the film crew could see it, and it comes across on screen, too.
The pace moved much more slowly than I’m accustomed to as an athlete.
Since this was a film production, we formed a different sort of team with a bigger mission than going as fast as possible. Each day we planned to roll out early to avoid the riding in the heat of the day, but that was almost always pushed back due to film logistics – charging batteries, packing equipment into trucks, loading the motorcycles with film equipment, and filling water and food supplies for a day on the trail.
Initially I was frustrated that the film crew slowed me down, but now I’m grateful. It gave me a lot of time to journal, think, and process.
In the same way, I was constantly pushing Huyen Nguyen, a Vietnamese mountain biker who rode the trail with me. But Huyen taught me to slow down, which allowed me to look, to listen, to change focus from just me and look outward beyond my mission – opening my eyes to the bigger world around me. That change in pace and perspective allowed me to experience the ride in a much more complete way. She also taught me that you don’t need words to communicate and that despite very different upbringings and experiences, we are all very much the same.
Getting to the crash site was far more impactful than I expected. I am not the same person as the one who began the ride. As we got closer and closer to the crash site, I started to feel my Dad’s presence.
All my life as an endurance athlete, people have asked, “Why do you push so hard? Why do you do such long races? What are you searching for?” I never had an answer. And I certainly never would have said, “I was searching for my father,” because that just didn’t occur to me. Now I know that he brought me to Laos to find a missing part of myself.
After reaching the goal of the crash site, we still had hundreds of miles of riding ahead. I felt a lightness, happiness, and stillness that I’ve never felt while riding my bike. I was still moving the pedals like before, but I was free. I was no longer looking for something. I was completely at peace in the moment without having to strive for the next accomplishment. Looking for my father at the crash site was really about finding out and understanding who I am and what is important to me.
As I finished my trip, the biggest, most shocking discovery was how much of our debris and unexploded ordnance is still there. Riding and looking at bomb craters along the trail and then finding out that villagers are still being killed every year was devastating.
The war ended 42 years ago, but it is still killing people. As I spent more time with those villagers, I felt shameful for what happened there, and decided that I had to do something to help heal the scars of the war.
Since returning, I have begun working with and fundraising for the Mines Advisory Group, a non-governmental organization that is working to clear landmines and unexploded ordnance from Laos and other countries. My inheritance and the biggest gift I received from Dad while riding the Ho Chi Minh Trail was to learn that I could use my bike for a bigger purpose than just winning races.
Rebecca Rusch is the “queen of pain” with a heart of gold. As a professional athlete for more than three decades, the seven-time world champion has continually tested her own limits. Rebecca has redefined the team dynamics of adventure racing, has achieved a first female ascent rock climbing El Capitan in Yosemite, river boarded down the Grand Canyon, pedaled through the night on an epic adventure across Italy, ridden to the summit of Africa’s legendary Mt. Kilimanjaro, and taught clinics and camps in her #JoinTheRusch effort to introduce more women to her sport.
Rebecca is also the bestselling author of Rusch to Glory, event producer for Rebecca’s Private Idaho, a motivational speaker, a firefighter, and a cycling advocate. She has raised more than $100,000 for bike-related charities through her adventures and events. This summer, a Red Bull Media House feature film called Blood Road documented her personal journey along the 1,200-mile Ho Chi Minh Trail in search of her father. Click here to learn more about Rebecca and her efforts on behalf of Mines Advisory Group.