Rebecca Rusch conceived an incredible challenge, as physically demanding as it would be emotionally draining. In 1972, her father died in the Vietnam War after his plane was shot down near the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and Rusch wanted to ride her mountain bike from one end of the trail to the other, visiting her the crash site where her dad perished along the way.
The challenge would involve ludicrous mileage through dense jungle, and required substantial planning to ensure its success. Doing it by bike was just about the most ambitious way of doing it, but would also be the most immersive. As a result, the accompanying film captures an amazing journey, bringing together strangers and cultures into one poignant story.
‘The great thing about Red Bull is that they don’t tell their athletes what to do, they ask us what we want to,’ Rusch explains. ‘I had the idea a few years ago and I went to them without the intention of filming the ride, but as the story unfolded it developed into something bigger. It was supposed to be a short film, but we felt it had to be come a feature piece because the story became so rich. We kept getting better footage and there were important parts that needed telling, it kept growing and evolving along the way.’
The Ho Chi Minh Trail runs through Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. The network of passages and roads stretches for almost 10,000 miles. It was a support system, something that the Viet Cong used to smuggle manpower and materials during the Vietnam War. The North Vietnamese, trying to unite the country under Communist rule, knew they didn’t have the same military strength as the United States (who were supplying weapons and forces to stop the unification), and so had to resort to this type of guerrilla warfare to level the playing field.
Bikes and elephants were used to carry supplies before the trails were wide enough to use vehicles. When the US implemented choke points to stop the flow, the trail was rerouted to the east, into Laos and Cambodia. If the trail was bombed, it was repaired it as quickly as possible. Half a million bombs were dropped over Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War, and three million Vietnamese were killed. The sheer destruction the trail has played a part in has led to its alternative name: ‘Blood Road’. There are controlled explosions to remove hidden devices that never detonated, but at the current rate of removal, the government are still 100 years away from clearing all remaining mines left after the war.
Endurance athlete Rusch has tried her hand at most things; whitewater rafting, climbing, cross-country skiing, mountain biking, you name it and there’s a good chance Rusch has not only tried it, but been successful at it. On top of that, she’s also a firefighter in Ketchum, Idaho, where she lives with her husband. According to her mother, Rebecca’s father, Stephen, loved the outdoors just like Rebecca, sharing her wanderlust nature. It was Blood Road that helped address some issues that have been left dormant.
Stephen was a reluctant participant in the Vietnam War, and served as a US Air Force F-4E Phantom pilot during the conflict until his plane was shot down by ground fire near the town of Ta Oy, in southern Laos, when Rebecca was three years old. For years afterwards he was officially missing in action, before the crash site was found and excavated in 2007 and he was identified by his dental records.
‘My family thinks I’m a little bit crazy anyway, but this was very much like opening an old wound. It wasn’t an easy process to go into the memory bank and ask my mum to go into my father’s death.’ Rusch continues, ‘It hasn’t been easy but it’s been a healing process – I found out more about my dad, and why my sister joined the military. It gave me the opportunity to discuss these things. Vietnam veterans tend not to talk about their experiences, never bring them out to examine them, so sharing these stories with them and other family members has been incredibly important.’
The challenge would take nearly a month in total to complete. Rusch decided to do the challenge with a partner in tow. Huyen Nguyen, a Vietnamese competitive biking champion, would provide some local expertise, not to mention a companion for the challenge itself. As a pair, they would cycle together from Ho Chi Minh to Hanoi, stopping off at the crash site on the anniversary of Stephen’s death. Along the way, the pair would learn about each other’s perspectives of the war – with Nguyen’s uncle and father facing American resistance, opposing Rusch’s father.
Rusch openly admits she was very sceptical about doing the trip with a stranger, calling it her ‘biggest worry’. ‘My original preference would have been to choose a teammate, who spoke my language and knew my personality, but the experience was one of the most beautiful parts of the film. It made me have to grow and see it through her eyes as well. The language barrier ended up being such a gift because we were forced to communicate non-verbally so often. A lot of her sentiments I didn’t know until they were translated in the film and the depth in which she understood me was incredible.’
The scale of their task was extraordinary. No one had ever taken a mountain bike and done the whole trail start to finish. The route they took involved passing through 1,200 miles of unknown terrain. The crash site had been excavated a long time ago and logistically paving the way for the team – a mechanic, navigator and local guide, plus film crew – provided its own struggle. The support team was required, but it wouldn’t be able to access every part of the trail in the way that the bikes could. Each point at which the support team could meet up with the pair had to be planned beforehand, and Rusch and Nguyen had to be 100% self-sufficient during the moments they were alone.
Another challenge was the differing agendas. Rusch’s plan was to arrive at the site of her father’s death on the anniversary and, as a result, was in race mode. It’s a completely natural state of mind for a professional athlete, but it’s at odds with that of a film crew.
‘This was a very personal story and opening it up to a film crew, who were strangers, was a challenge. Midway through I played everyone a song by my dad [the only lasting memory of her dad’s voice] because we were operating as two separate teams – one wanting to slow down and get footage and me wanting to speed up to get to the site on the right day. We weren’t working together and that song was my attempt to bring everyone together for a sole purpose.’
As a result, there are two very distinct parts to the trip – the journey before the crash site and the journey afterwards. Rusch explains: ‘After visiting the site it was just huge relief. I could process everything and take the blinders off a little bit. For the first time in my life I wasn’t trying to get somewhere. It gave me a lot more days afterwards of riding to meditate on everything, enjoying the ride and enjoying the culture without an agenda. The second part I had to push Huyen physically because of the distance we’d covered, but during the first part she had been pushing me emotionally.”
Beyond the trail
The end result is undeniably thought provoking. It tells the story of an American athlete and a Vietnamese athlete, sharing the scars from separate sides of a war that neither wanted to be associated with, building up a relationship and an understanding of one another as they trace the literal destruction that the conflict inflicted on the land. Throughout their ride they frequently come across metal from airplanes, some left as reminders, some used to make tools, equipment or boats still very much in use today. The fishing ponds in the villages are craters created through American bombing and there are thousands of unexploded mines still hidden in the ground today, with children playing around them.
I asked Rusch whether her nationality contributed to any sense of guilt upon seeing the damage first-hand. ‘I felt a sense of trepidation about how we’d be received, but all of that was put aside when I spent time with the local communities. They were opening their arms and welcoming us into their home, regardless of what had happened before. My dad may have shot at their family, and all those negative feelings were quickly dismissed. Huyen told me, “The past is gone. There are wounds, but as a team we’re healing them.” ‘
Rusch has been back to Southeast Asia four times since riding the trail. She believes this experience has not only brought her closer to her father and her family, but has also led to awareness being raised regarding the removal of unexploded ordnance (UXO). Under Barack Obama, the US pledged £90 million dollars to help with the process and there is a page on the Blood Road website where you can donate to the effort.
What started out as one person’s idea has now grown into an amazing cause. Through riding the Ho Chi Minh Trail, Rusch found answers to questions she’d had since childhood, and a greater appreciation of issues that were either ignored or misunderstood. While her personal journey was the driving force behind the ride, its legacy continues to go far beyond that.