Biking through the pain of war
In 2015, Rebecca Rusch and Huyen Nguyen set out to bike 1,200 miles of the Ho Chi Minh Trail as strangers from once-opposing countries. They two cyclists navigated the infamous trail through Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, carrying the weight of their personal connections to the land. The journey challenged not only their physical capabilities, but their notions of war, pride, sorrow and loss. Rusch planned the ride in honor of her father, who died in 1972 while flying a fighter jet over Laos. Rusch was three years old when her father died. Nguyen helped Rusch through the sometimes-dangerous terrain, carrying her own personal stories of the war. What did they face, head on, as they rode together?
Note: We encourage you to listen to the audio if you are able, as it includes emotion not captured by the transcript. Please check the corresponding audio before using any quotes.
IBTIHAJ MUHAMMAD, HOST:
What I love about sport is that you’re able to be super fierce and, you know, ferocious and competitive, but especially, like—your favorite athletes, when the game is over, you know, you see them embrace. You see a lot of friendship. Like Caroline Wozniacki and Serena Williams being best friends, or Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal being friends.
VIDEO CLIP OF RAFAEL NADAL:
Hey, Roger. I wish you a very, very happy birthday. Man, you are getting old. Stop winning. Let something for the—for the youngers.
IBTIHAJ: They’re really endearing moments. That’s one of the beautiful things about sports, is that we’re able to all come together despite where we’re from, our economic background, our skin color, our religious beliefs, our sexual orientation. We’re all—we’re all able to come together under this umbrella of sport. And I feel like that’s always been the beauty of the game.
From Doha Debates and Foreign Policy, this is The Long Game, a podcast about the power of sports to change the world. I’m your host, Ibtihaj Muhammad.
And I’m executive producer Karen Given. Today, we have the story of two athletes who came together across much greater divides than those separating Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal. This is the story of two daughters of the Vietnam War, one American, one Vietnamese, and the journey they took together on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Here’s reporter Mary Rose Madden.
MARY ROSE MADDEN:
For years, Rebecca Rusch scrambled up and down mountains on her bike. She’s raced in deserts and in the icy tundra. Sometimes she wins 24-hour solo mountain biking tournaments, and sometimes she bikes for days. She’s in the Gravel Cycling Hall of Fame. Seriously. Gravel Cycling Hall of Fame. Who knew? It was during one of those adventures in the heart of Vietnam when her mind drifted.
Walking through the jungle with my teammates and, you know, suffering from the heat and foot rot, and I—me physically being in that terrain, I started to think about: was this what the soldiers felt like?
MARY ROSE: And she started to imagine her father’s last days. Her father’s bomber plane was shot down during the Vietnam War. She doesn’t remember him that much. She was only three when he died. But after her trip with the bugs and the foot rot in Vietnam—
REBECCA: It sparked my curiosity, and I started to ask my mom more questions. And then my mom brought the letters out.
MARY ROSE: Rebecca’s dad often wrote letters home. He’d write about how much he missed his family; how it was not easy for him to be out there. He’d write about keeping a photo of Rebecca and her sister close at all times. But his letters were tucked away until Rebecca started digging around.
REBECCA: We were—thought, “Well, why have we never seen these letters before?” And my mom said, “Well, why did you never ask before?”
MARY ROSE: It was like, if you really want to find something, you’ve got to ask, dig, look. Rebecca went through letter after letter, and she saw that sometimes, her father would write revealing bits about his experience. He wrote that he was learning more about himself than he’d expected.
MALE VOICEOVER ACTOR READING REBECCA’S FATHER’S LETTER:
I love the flying in the plane, but I don’t like the job.
MARY ROSE: Rebecca’s mom told her he didn’t want to go to Vietnam, but felt it was his duty.
REBECCA: It was actually quite painful for our family, at that time, to sort of open up this Pandora’s box of—of hard memories. It’s—it’s easier to put something in a box and lock it away. It’s just easier.
MARY ROSE: But a picture of her dad was starting to form a complicated picture. In total, the US dropped millions of tons of bombs, and he was in one of those planes bombing Vietnam, and sometimes Laos and Cambodia. In one letter he wrote:
MALE VOICEOVER ACTOR: It is hard to think about all the killing I will be doing. I try to rationalize and say, “It has to be done,” but I can’t see any reason why.
REBECCA: When I read my dad’s letters, what really strikes me is his honesty, and he just seems—he seems very gentle, very caring, intellectual. You know, I’ve read those letters a lot and written down key lines. And, and especially he signed every letter off, you know—the way he signed his letters was always with the words, “Be good.”
MARY ROSE: “Be good.” She kept thinking about that. Soon enough, she had this feeling. She needed to bike to the crash site and sit in the spot where her father’s remains were found. She started to plan her next trip: a 1,200-mile bike trip, 1,200 miles, along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. No one had ever done it before.
REBECCA: And it was the first time, really, of connecting what I do for a living as, as an athlete, an explorer, to a personal connection, to go find the place where my dad’s plane was shot down during the Vietnam War.
MARY ROSE: Rebecca approached a production team to make a movie of her journey. They agreed to finance and work out the logistics for the trip, but they wanted her to ride with a Vietnamese riding partner. Rebecca knew she couldn’t do it alone, but she was anxious about riding with a stranger.
REBECCA: The physical challenge of this expedition was going to be bigger than anything I’d ever done. I’m like, “Well, who are you—” you know, “Who are you going to find that’s going to be up to the task?”
[HUYEN NGUYEN SPEAKING VIETNAMESE]
When I received this phone call, I was very surprised. And I really wanted to find out and understand: what is this?
MARY ROSE: Huyen Nguyen is a renowned cross-country Vietnamese cyclist and also a daughter of the war. Because of the language barrier, we’re going to use interpreter Tram Bui’s voice for the rest of the story.
TRAM BUI, TRANSLATING FOR HUYEN: My father participated in the self-defense squad. After they dropped the bombs, my father would go out with the others to rescue the people that suffered injuries from the bombings.
MARY ROSE: Huyen says her father often told them about what’s known as “The 12 days of war” in Vietnam. In the US, it’s sometimes called “the Christmas bombings.” It refers to the aerial bombings in December 1972, initiated by then-president Richard Nixon.
TRAM TRANSLATING FOR HUYEN: Oh, my heavens. Each day was like this. Go out to pick up people’s body parts. Sometimes you would not know who these body parts belonged to and who this person was.
MARY ROSE: Tens of thousands of bombs were dropped in the North Vietnam cities of Haiphong and Huyen’s childhood home of Hanoi.
TRAM TRANSLATING FOR HUYEN: In Hanoi, everyone has an underground bunker for people who needed to shelter and avoid the bombs. My family offered lodging to the soldiers. On the streets of town, there is a section that has a bomb shelter with the letter “A,” which you can enter to avoid the bombs. People would often dig shelters in order to survive the attacks from Americans.
MARY ROSE: Hospitals were destroyed, and many civilians were killed. Years later, she says the trauma of war was all around her. A bomb crater had left a hole in her backyard so big, she and her friends went swimming in it.
TRAM TRANSLATING FOR HUYEN: On the way to school, I had to pass by Kham Thien Street. And on that street there is a memorial to all those who lost their lives in the 12 days and 12 nights’ battle in which the US Air Force dropped bombs, possibly by mistake. In my opinion, it was mistakenly targeted. They wanted to attack the military facility, but they dropped a cluster of bombs in the civilian area. So many people perished. So the authorities built a memorial there.
MARY ROSE: In the memorial garden was an unforgettable sight.
TRAM TRANSLATING FOR HUYEN: I remember clearly that they planted a garden of plumeria flower, along with a picture of a mother cradling a baby. Every time I passed by this place, I felt very cold. And it reminded me that so many people, so many everyday innocent people, had to lose their lives here. It is something that made me extremely mournful. Very sad. Very cold.
MARY ROSE: It was with those stories circling her life Huyen received emails from the production team asking her to join Rebecca’s journey along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
TRAM TRANSLATING FOR HUYEN: I accepted immediately.
MARY ROSE: The bike trip itself would be a huge accomplishment.
TRAM TRANSLATING FOR HUYEN: The Ho Chi Minh Trail is not just only one trail. There are many, many trails. Depending on the situation at the time of the war, if the Americans attacked that particular part of the trail, then the troops would find another trail around that area. Sometimes it runs deep through the forests. Sometimes it is in a residential area. So there are part of the trails that people used to travel on. However, for a person to journey through the forest, like in the past, on the Ho Chi Minh Trail—I think there is no one that has done that.
MARY ROSE: This was her nation’s historical trail. It had played a role in many wars, and it was unexplored territory.
TRAM TRANSLATING FOR HUYEN: For a Vietnamese, any Vietnamese, to be able to travel on these roads that had the imprints of history on it is something that is very rare in a person’s lifetime. Very rare in a lifetime. I have to say that…I’m not sure what words to say. In order to witness the battles, to stand there and witness that battle, although it had passed, but I get to travel again, see again and assess again—it is an awesome thing in a life.
MARY ROSE: Huyen and Rebecca’s fathers were tied to this war. There was no changing that. But Huyen was struck by Rebecca’s idea to bike to her father’s crash site. “What a profound journey,” she thought. “What an honorable idea.” Huyen thought this trip, well—it felt like karma.
TRAM TRANSLATING FOR HUYEN: So I thought to myself that this is a very special story that one gets to encounter in life. It is very rare and is extremely humane.
MARY ROSE: But Rebecca was anxious. She only had one shot at finding her father’s crash site. Huyen had won races that were a few hours long, but she’d never done a multi-day expedition before.
REBECCA: And so, meeting her for the first time was in her home in Ho Chi Minh City with her father, and learning that she didn’t really speak a lot of English. I speak no Vietnamese. And while I was trying to be as open and welcoming as possible, I also recognized the journey that I’d laid out for us was really, really hard. And I definitely had my doubts about her being able to do it, because she didn’t have the, the background and the experience that I did.
MARY ROSE: Rebecca had trained her whole life for this. She was an ultra endurance athlete nicknamed “the Queen of Pain.” She’s a competitive cyclist and a self-described introvert. And this journey meant everything to her. She didn’t know Huyen, didn’t know if she’d be able to handle a bike ride that went on for weeks. She didn’t know if they’d be able to communicate.
IBTIHAJ: You’re listening to The Long Game, from Doha Debates and Foreign Policy. I’m your host, Ibtihaj Muhammad.
[SUSPENSEFUL INSTRUMENTAL MUSIC]
IBTIHAJ: And now back to our story.
REBECCA: The first day of the ride, she could feel my tension. She could feel, you know, we’re starting this big expedition. We’re, we’re leaving from, you know, the beginning marker.
TRAM TRANSLATING FOR HUYEN: It was the milepost sign number zero of the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
REBECCA: There’s the tension of starting a big expedition. There was the tension of me wondering if she was going to be able to physically do it, wondering if I was physically going to be able to do it.
TRAM TRANSLATING FOR HUYEN: So I knew that this trip would be filled with much hardship. Therefore, I would have to be very prepared, anticipating what could happen. And what else? Of course, nervous, because I do not know what I will be facing.
REBECCA: And that day we’re rolling out, and I just—she was so sweet and kind, and she just—she just started telling stories of, like, “Well, here’s—” we’d see people, you know, farming for rice. She’s like, “These are the rice fields. This is how they harvest rice. This is how it works. This is the rainy season, when the rainy season comes.” And instead of the blinder athlete looking forward, of how many miles are we going to do, where are we going to get to, she opened the blinders and just kind of said to me, “Look, here’s this, here’s that,” and she just started to show me her world.
MARY ROSE: Huyen opened the blinders. But the trail was difficult. Sometimes it was barely a trail. Sometimes Rebecca and Huyen had to hack their way through the jungle to keep going.
REBECCA: Oh, you know, we were on the trail a month, and there were—like any relationships, there were good and bad days. There were days that we didn’t speak. You know, we rode and didn’t speak the whole time. One, because the language barrier and we’re moving. But, but, you know, there were times where we both needed to just be in our own space.
MARY ROSE: But Rebecca says she was finally asking, looking and learning. She was learning from Huyen.
REBECCA: She really became my emotional teacher, and I learned a lot from her.
MARY ROSE: Rebecca and Huyen started the journey coming from different sides of the war, but they were building a bridge between them.
REBECCA: I mean, she was completely dedicated to my journey.
MARY ROSE: They rode through villages where people showed them how they’d repurposed shell casings, bomb casings and other remnants of war. They rode through villages of hatched-roof huts, no running water, lots of farms and kids who’d run out to them to say hello. They rode through Cambodia and Laos, and they kind of rode through time. It didn’t look like a war had been there almost 50 years ago. It looked like time had stood still.
TRAM TRANSLATING FOR HUYEN: Before arriving at the location where Rebecca’s dad died, you would go through these villages. They are deep in the mountains going through Laos. On both sides of the trail, there were bomb craters.
REBECCA: And I just thought it was undulations in the land. Huyen pointed out, as well, when we were riding—she said, “Oh, these are bomb craters.”
TRAM TRANSLATING FOR HUYEN: Oh, dear mother. Those bomb craters were huge. I stood at the bottom. I ran down into the bottom of the bomb crater and looked up. Oh, my God. I felt tiny. What kind of bomb is this? That is so horrible.
REBECCA: Standing next to a bomb crater that is…20 feet deep and 100 feet wide, you just can’t even—it, it becomes a different kind of experience to stand next to a piece of history like that. And then after the first one, then I couldn’t unsee them. Then it was like, “Oh, there’s another one, there’s another one, there’s another one.”
MARY ROSE: Rebecca says she started really observing, really seeing the land, and it was pocked everywhere with bomb craters.
REBECCA: Villagers living in—on the spaces in between and, you know, rebuilding their homes all around these areas that were completely devastated. And it’s still there.
MARY ROSE: Rebecca found herself thinking back on that letter her dad had written.
MALE VOICEOVER ACTOR: It is hard to think about all the killing I will be doing. I try to rationalize and say, “It has to be done,” but I can’t see any reason why.
REBECCA: You know, he had remorse about being a fighter pilot and dropping bombs. And the discovery that the bombs were still there—I felt so strongly that my father wanted me to know this and he brought me there.
MARY ROSE: But Rebecca and Huyen hadn’t yet seen the worst.
TRAM TRANSLATING FOR HUYEN: There was a day that I will always remember. Oh, dear mother. Two days of travel. We traveled endlessly in the forest and arrived at our destination at 8:30 p.m. So I just sat down in front of the firepit, because I was so cold, exhausted and starving.
MARY ROSE: Huyen was ready to eat and sleep. She felt like she couldn’t move.
TRAM TRANSLATING FOR HUYEN: Then everyone pulled me up and told me to stay far from the fire. Afterwards, I understood that just the day before, just yesterday, there was an exploded bomb, because they had made a fire on the surface and the bomb was underneath and exploded due to the heat. Therefore, they told me to sit far from that fire, two or three meters away, in order to be safe.
MARY ROSE: Huyen was so tired, she was dizzy. And she was in shock. But it was true.
TRAM TRANSLATING FOR HUYEN: So in that village, people and children suffered from exploded bombs frequently. They had arms and legs amputated, and there were many deaths. The native Lao people are still living with bombs exploding in their daily lives.
REBECCA: You know, what are we doing? You know, the war ended 50 years ago and is still killing people with unexploded ordnance.
MARY ROSE: Millions of civilians were killed during the war. But here, Rebecca and Huyen were stunned by the tens of thousands of unexploded ordnance—UXOs, as they’re called—that are still threatening and often destroying lives.
TRAM TRANSLATING FOR HUYEN: I was horrified. When I looked at it, I felt so guilty, because the war was in Vietnam. But we brought it to these good Lao people who are very kind hearted. They had a peaceful life. They were citizens, young people, women. After all this, they still protected the Vietnamese soldiers there.
MARY ROSE: Seeing the war so up close really affected Huyen and Rebecca. They’d seen things. They’d changed. And they were in awe of how the people who lived there treated them.
REBECCA: Every time we said, “Oh, I’m American,” you know, “My father was, you know, shot down over here,” instead of feeling—I expected we might not be welcome and that there might be animosity, because literally, my family was bombing their villages. And a hundred percent of the time, there was an open-arm welcome: “Let me show you.” You know, “Come have some tea at our house.” “Let me show you the bomb craters in the backyard.” “Let me show you this piece of plane.” And so there was this openness to welcome me, but also to help me with my journey.
TRAM TRANSLATING FOR HUYEN: They don’t fight or run you off. They don’t say, “You come into my home and you bring death and destruction to my house?” and try to fight and run you off. No. They still embrace you and love you. So that is a debt that we owe them, a very large debt. And at that time, I didn’t know what to do. Firstly, I just felt very guilty. Secondly, I felt so much love. Thirdly, I felt like, “How is it that the love for humanity is so wide?”
MARY ROSE: Rebecca and Huyen continued biking the Ho Chi Minh Trail to find Rebecca’s father’s crash site. They followed their maps. They watched the landscape change. They thought about the pains of war. Then, after ducking under vines and wading through swamps, they met another stranger who would take them to their ultimate destination, the tree where Rebecca’s father was buried. In the movie made of the journey, Rebecca sits under that tree and reads a bit from the letter she’d written to her father. “For so long, I’ve wanted to find you.”
MOVIE CLIP OF REBECCA TEARFULLY READING HER FATHER’S LETTER:
“You’ve spoken to me. This journey down the Ho Chi Minh Trail has brought me here. I know now that this—this is not an ending, but a beginning.”
MARY ROSE: She folded the letter, placed it in the tree’s hollow, and took some time to take it all in. Huyen told the film crew that she didn’t see a world-class athlete at that point, but rather a daughter returning to her father.
On their way back to Ho Chi Minh City, their bike trip took them to a Buddhist temple. Huyen led the way, showing Rebecca not only the customary ways, but also the traditions rooted in prayer.
REBECCA: She would show me her customs. We went into the temple, and she’d show me, “OK, you get on your knees, you bow three times, and then you say your own silent prayer.” And so I—I loved getting to know the place through her. And, you know, I could have read that in a book, but having someone show me—and on the flip side, I was showing her, “Here’s how you put up a tent.” “Here’s how much tire pressure,” you know, “Here’s how we should eat to make sure we’re recovered for the next day.”
TRAM TRANSLATING FOR HUYEN: The entire film crew consisted of eight cameramen who were very big, athletic guys. They were all athletes, world-class athletes, but they were not as strong as sister Rebecca. She was able to carry the bike on her shoulder and jump from the top of one rock to another. Whew, I was in awe! I looked at her and thought, “Oh my gosh, this is not a human.” [CHUCKLES]
MARY ROSE: Rebecca says she softened along the trail, and with Huyen, she saw things that she never would have noticed. And by the end, Huyen was leading the way.
REBECCA: As soon as we got into the cities, I was kind of freaking out, like, “I don’t know where to go.” And, and at the end, in Ho Chi Minh City, she’s just like, “Just follow me. I know exactly where I’m going.” And she would sort of part the ways between all of these mopeds and all of these people. And I—I was much more nervous there, and she was a bit more nervous out—out in the wilderness of, like, sleeping outside with, you know, the animals and the insects and all of those things. So I—I did have to laugh at, kind of, where each of our comfort zones were. You know, hers in the city and mine out in the jungle. [CHUCKLES]
MARY ROSE: The movie made from Huyen and Rebecca’s journey is called Blood Road, a name sometimes used for the battlefield along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. When the film was released, they showed it to crowds of veterans and schoolchildren. As an elite athlete, Rebecca had been on many adventures, but this was new to her.
REBECCA: It’s familiar for me to go long days, or go without sleep and sleep outside, or to try to not get lost in the jungle. That’s a familiar experience that I’ve trained for. And what I hadn’t trained for was the vulnerability and the openness and—and really just letting people see me as I am, and letting the experience and the emotion just come out in the way that it was going to come out.
MARY ROSE: For so long, the Vietnam War was a chapter in a schoolbook, she says. It felt far from her everyday life. Unlike Huyen, Rebecca never saw any visible signs of the war. No crater holes in her backyard. No bomb shelters in her house. And she really didn’t know her father until she went looking.
REBECCA: The discovery that the bombs were still there—I heard so clearly that his words, “Be good,” were to tell me, “Look you can use your professional athletic career for more.”
MARY ROSE: After her journey with Huyen, Rebecca started bringing mountain bike tours over to the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Each rider pays their own way and donates money to help clean up the tens of thousands of unexploded bombs the US dropped during the Vietnam War.
REBECCA: And I knew I had to come home and help be part of the clean up.
MARY ROSE: Huyen also works to bring her community into the fold by cleaning up and healing the pains of war. Both Rebecca and Huyen feel they can’t just walk away from what they witnessed—and what they gained.
REBECCA: You know, I know in the Vietnamese tradition, it’s, it’s very common to call people “big brother,” “big sister” as, as a term of endearment. But I—I think it even goes deeper with Huyen and myself.
TRAM TRANSLATING FOR HUYEN: Sister Rebecca. Traveling with sister Rebecca, I felt assured for sure. I am always beside her as a partner.
MARY ROSE: Rebecca Rusch and Huyen Nguyen were strangers from countries that were once enemies. And now, after 1,200 miles on their bikes, immersed in the pains of war, witnessing the love and grace among strangers, they are sisters.
IBTIHAJ: That’s it for this episode of The Long Game. I’m your host, Ibtihaj Muhammad. The Long Game is a co-production of Doha Debates and Foreign Policy. Our executive producer is Karen Given.
KAREN: This week’s story was produced by reporter Mary Rose Madden. Vietnamese translation by Tram Bui. We had help from Dan Ephron, Rob Sachs, Japhet Weeks, Amjad Atallah and Jigar Mehta. Make sure to follow us on Apple or your favorite podcast app. And please leave us a review.
IBTIHAJ: To learn more, subscribe to Foreign Policy, a global magazine of news and ideas. Or visit Doha Debates, a production of Qatar Foundation. Next week on the podcast…
[SOUND OF IRANIAN PROTESTERS CHANTING]
KAREN: Protesters in Iran have taken to the streets, chanting “Women, life, freedom.” But as the World Cup begins in Qatar, the protest story has become a sports story, too.
This is not my team, because I cannot freely go to the stadium and watch them and support them. And as long as this is the case, as long as they don’t care about half of the population, this team is not my team.
IBTIHAJ: That’s next week on The Long Game.