A look at the the Ban Laboy Ford, Laos, and Hwy 912, why did we spend so much on them?
July 4, 2011
History, geography, the impact of French colonization
As I began my work on this story, one of the first questions that came to mind was, “What was the road network in the French Indochinese Union?” Delving into this proved most informative. I want to spend some time on it.
The French takeover of Indochina occurred over the span of years and was filled with intense regional intrigue and warfare. The French assembled Indochina in sections, piecemeal, as shown by this map.
Siege of Saigon, 1859
Target No. 1 was Saigon and Cochin-Chine to the south. They captured Saigon and therefore Cochin-Chine in 1859. This area provided the most lucrative economic potential for the French, largely because of its rice and rubber production capacity. Saigon was the central city and thriving port. There were also great hopes the Mekong River would provide a good route into China, which it did not.The French colonized Cochin-Chine and extended hold over that territory to the south with the Gulf of Thailand to the west and the South China Sea to the east.
France made Cochin-Chine a colony. France felt it owned it, but would not consider making it part of France. Cochin-Chine was the only colony in the French Indochinese Union.
Next was Cambodia. In 1863 the Cambodian king asked the French to establish a protectorate over Cambodia. He feared Siam (modern-day Thailand) would take over Cambodia. The historic tensions between the peoples of Indochina and Siam were deep.
Siam recognized the French action in Cambodia in return for territories to the north. Fundamentally, the French promised to protect Cambodia in return for the rights to explore and exploit the kingdom’s resources.
France made Cambodia a protectorate. That gave Cambodia greater autonomy, but she depended on France for certain things, such as defense.
The massive central territories of Annam were next on the list, consolidated under French rule by about 1883. This too was a great agricultural conquest by the French, once again rice dominating, but rubber also being huge. Furthermore, there were numerous excellent ports up and down the coast. France also gave Annam protectorate status.
In 1893, there were three major kingdoms of present day Laos: the Kingdom of Luang Prabang, Kingdom of Vientiane and Kingdom of Champasak. France assigned each of these protectorate status as well. King Sisavong Vong of Luang Prabang became the ruler of what was referred to as a unified Laos. Vientiane became the administrative capital while Luang Prabang remained the royal capital.
The Indochinese Union rounded out with various territories held by Siam ceded to the French by Siam through 1907.
France faced myriad, mind-boggling problems in Indochina from start to finish. Because of my interest in the Ban Laboy Ford and its importance to the Ho Chi Minh Trail, I took a look at France’s colonial attitudes toward roads and the relationships between Laos and Vietnam. The insights gained are striking.
An important military road is completed in the northern hinterlands of the Tonkin province in French Indochina, which also could be used as a munitions route into South China, 1939.
Among France’s top problems was “how to” pull the Union together into some kind of cohesive whole. The French saw road networks as a partial solution to this. Siam was among the top threats to attaining such a cohesive whole. Siam and its port of Bangkok held the commercial advantage and posed an economic threat to the Indochinese Union. I’ll address a few examples in a moment.
Saigon and Cochin-Chine were the top priorities for French occupation of Indochina. To that end, the French colonized it rather than simply offering protectorate status. Linking Saigon to Hanoi, and even linking it to China, also was a number one road building priority. Route Coloniale No. 1 (RC 1), known as the Mandarin Road, marked in black on the map, was begun by the Chinese some 2,000 years ago. Vietnamese emperors extended it to the south as they expanded their domains. The French improved on it.
I found this map of Route Mandarine (RC-1) on flickr. I found it because of an article I read in the August 1931 edition of National Geographic, entitled, “Along the Old Mandarin Road of Indo-China,” by W. Robert Moore. He traveled the route back then. Note here how the RC-1, marked in red, extended into Cambodia.
In his 1931 article, Moore said that he left Bangkok by train and reached Aranya Prades, “the railhead on the eastern Siamese frontier, whence began our motor tour up the length of the Mandarin Road to the Gate of China.” That threw me because I thought the road ended in the Saigon region. But it did not. It extended through Cambodia and just into Thailand. The Thais now call Aranya Prades, “Aranyaprathet.” Moore said he crossed the border at Poipet, Cambodia and pressed ahead to Sisophon, Cambodia. It appears to me that the Old Mandarin Road is now Hwy 5 through Cambodia. If this analysis is correct, then the French used RC-1 to tie together Cambodia, the entities making up Vietnam, and China, and even included a tie into Siam, which surprised me for reasons you will see shortly.
RC-1 went just south of Angkor Wat and through Phnom Penh and then on to Saigon. As RC-1 headed north, the scenery passed through massive rubber plantations.
In this 1930-1931 photo, Moore shows farmers traveling along RC-1.
RC-1 actually extended to Ca Mau southwest of Saigon as well, almost to the southern most tip of the country, and to the north of Hanoi to the Sino-Vietnamese border. It hugs the coastline and its many ports. Moore describes the length of RC-1 as “a story of rice” all along the way to China. He said the Chinese would say, “Annam is the carrying pole uniting two bags of rice, Tonkin and Cochin-Chine.”
Moore noted that there was a noticeable change when he left Annam and pushed into Tonkin. The people dressed differently, and he commented, “The Tonkinese are more industrious than the people of central Annam.” Throughout his excursion, he described RC-1 as a good road. While in Tonkin, he mentioned they hit speeds of 60 mph. He made his way to Longson on the Indochina border with China, “rounded a curve, and before us stood the ‘Porte de Chine,’ with its stone walls, like sinuous Chinese dragons, mounting the hills on each side.”
He said, “we had reached the Gateway of China on the long Mandarin Route, that old land link between Annam, Land of Emminant South, and her long-time suzerain, Imperial China.” Of this photo he took, he wrote: “ ‘The Porte de Chine’ stands at Indochina’s northern frontier. Where the old Mandarin Road enters China, it passes through the archway of the China Gate (lower right).”
As the French occupied the entire length of RC-1, maintained and improved on it, they considered it the backbone of Vietnam. As an aside, while that was true, during the Indochina Wars I (French) and II (US), the NVA seldom got to use it as it was under the ownership of the French and then the Americans and South Vietnamese. That would ultimately bear on the need for the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
The French thought railroads would be the infrastructural skeleton of Indochina, constructed a line parallel to RC-1, and dreamed of a network tying Vietnam to Laos, Malaysia, Indonesia and China. In 1931, Moore said the French were just about finished with a 330-mile link between Nha Trang and Tourane, which meant that the rail would be complete all the way to China.
I found two instructive maps of the French vision for colonial highway routes in Indochina.
This map reflects the situation in 1921. The solid dark lines are for roads that were completed and were in pretty good shape. The checkered roads reflect, I believe, gravel-type roads. The roads that are empty inside are those that were planned. The French vision for a road system was very aggressive and very ambitious. I like this map because it shows what the overall plan was. Note how the vision tied together Indochina with little attention to Siam.
A word about Cambodia. The governor-general of Indochina initiated plans for a major trunk road to link Saigon and Bangkok via Phnom Penh and Battambang and by the early 1920s there were regular car and bus services between Phnom Penh, Battambang and Saigon. You can see it on the map.
This map reflects the situation in 1931.
RC-8 was inaugurated in late 1924. RC-9 was inaugurated in 1926 and was the only one passable year around. During the American Indochina War, many battlefield contests were fought by the US and enemy over Route 9, which was just below the DMZ, and a main connector from Laos to RC-1 in Vietnam.
The French wanted to link Saigon with the Laotian royal capital, Luang Prabang, so they began RC-13 from Saigon through Cambodia up along the Mekong River. It was completed from Saigon to Thakek, Laos in 1933 but was dry season traffic only. The final section to Luang Prabang was constructed and finished between 1941 and 1944.
W. Robert Moore mentions these roads in his 1931 publication. He wrote:
“At Quang Tri a road penetrates into Laos to Savannakhet and Thakek, on the Mekong, and out again to Vinh. From Vinh another road pierces the Meo tabeland to Luang Prabang, the capital of northern Laos.”
During the American Indochina War, Vinh would be a major logistics depot feeding the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos.
Let’s return to how the French viewed Siam. In short, Siam played a huge role in the French vision for Indochina and its road system. The big problem was Siamese rail and road building across the Korat Plateau from Bangkok. Note the roads connecting Bangkok to Cambodia and Cochin-Chine. Further note the railway (Chemins de fer) from Bangkok across the Korat Plateau almost to the Mekong River dividing Laos from Siam, north from Korat pointed to Vientiane, Laos, and north from Bangkok to an area just west of Luang Prabang. The French were keenly aware at the time that it was far easier and less expensive to get from Laos to Bangkok than it was to get from Laos to Saigon. The French saw this as a threat to the Indochina Union and French dominance over it.
To the French, Laos was a backwater. The French did not envision acquiring any great wealth from Laos though it taxed the Laotians heavily in order to pay for colonial administration of all Indochina. But this is not to say the French were not interested in Laos. They were greatly interested in her. Søren Ivarsson, writing Creating Laos: the making of a Lao space between Indochina and Siam, 1860-1945, wrote this:
“(The French saw Laos as) the new colonial space and part of the overall colonial space of Indochina and from the outset the French colonial project in Indochina was guided by a vision to make this wider space a reality ... The formation of French Indochina was associated with endeavours to make the Indochina-wide space a reality through the development of transport, infrastructure and communications networks.”
Siam, however, stood in the way. The French determined she had to break Laos away from Siam, link Laos to Indochina, mainly to Vietnam, and employ her as a buffer between British-influenced Siam and the more economically important Cochin-Chine, Annam and Tonkin.
The Siamese did not sit still while the French were designing their road networks that were to integrate Laos with Vietnam. They built a rail from Bangkok north to Lampang (not on map) and a road to Chiang Rai. You can see the north-south rail line. Then the Thais moved by the Mekong River to Luang Prabang. Goods could be sent from and to Luang Prabang by river, auto and rail to Bangkok far faster than from Luang Prabang to Saigon by Mekong River. There was also a rail from Bangkok across the Korat Plateau, through Korat to Ubon (spelled Oubon on the map), a hop-skip-and jump to Pakse, Laos on the Mekong River.
The French knew they needed to build road systems that would link Laos to Vietnam. That meant they would have to build roads westward from Vietnam to Laos.
But the Annamite Mountains, also known as the Annamite Cordillera, stood in the way. Recall that Siam simply had to cross a plateau straight to the Mekong River. France had to construct roads across the Annamites!
The Annamite Cordillera blocked Laos from Vietnam. It extends about 680 miles through Laos, Vietnam and to a small area in northeast Cambodia. In its upper portion, it is much like northern Laos, rugged peaks ranging from 5,000 to about 8,500 ft. with deep valleys. It ran parallel to the Vietnamese coastline. Broadly speaking, the range shows up in two shades of orange on the map. To the east, mostly Vietnam, the land headed downward toward the sea, and on the west, mostly in Laos, the land headed downward to the Mekong River, the divide between Laos and Siam. The eastern slope rises steeply from the plain, while the western slope is more gentle, forming many plateaus before descending toward the Mekong.
As you move more toward the south, toward the area of Khammouane Province of Laos, the elevations decrease a bit and various passes allow easier crossing. Nonetheless, the Cordillera remains marked by steep ridges and peaks, sink holes and disappearing streams. As you approach an area roughly in line with Vietnam DMZ, the land is comparatively flat. As you head more to the south, the terrain again becomes rugged with peaks up to 6,000-7,0000 ft.
Laos is west of the Annamite divide. Roughly speaking, the Annamites form the eastern boundary of Laos. The Mekong River forms much of the western border of Laos. However, two of its provinces, Houaphan and a portion of Xiangkhoang, which hosts the Plaines des Jars (PDJ), lie east of the divide. These two are indicated by the red arrows. These two provinces would become enemy strongholds during the American war in Indochina.
Much of Laos is thickly forested landscape consisting of rugged mountains with some plains and plateaus.
The net result was that the French road-building program to tie Laos to Vietnam, an east-west program, moved far more slowly than the Siamese effort to connect with Laos. Indeed French citizens going to Laos arrived in Bangkok vice Saigon. The Siamese viewed Laos as a hinterland and Laotian imports and exports went through Bangkok, not Saigon. Siam even inaugurated air and truck service to points within Laos. It was easier to get from Bangkok to Vientiane than from Saigon to Vientiane.
I want to pause for a moment and take stock of what all this means. The French felt it essential to link Laos to Vietnam. Laos had to be integrated into the Indochinese Union, most importantly with Vietnam. The French came to see Laos as an extension of Vietnam. The French were very open about this. This attitude was widely known throughout Indochina. In fact, a significant part of French policy toward Laos was to populate it with as many Vietnamese as was possible and to assign administrative responsibilities for running Laos to Vietnamese rather than to Laotians. In sum, the French were so adamant about giving Laos an identity sufficient to separate it from Siam that they worked very hard to establish a kind of cultural frontier between Laos and Siam.
There were many reasons for building the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos. During the French and American Indochina Wars, French and then US forces held Route 1 along the coast and usually held Route 9 from the coast to the Laotian border, just south of the DMZ. The NVA could not depend on sending most of their logistics through the DMZ; the US was sitting right there waiting for them. Building a logistics trail on the east side of the Annamites put the NVA’s back to the wall and forced them to go through the RVN and the US and the RVN Army (ARVN). While it was no easy chore, it was far better to build the logistics network in Laos, on the west side of the Annamites.
I am suggesting as well that psychologically it made plenty of good sense for the NVA to build the Ho Chi Minh Trail through Laos --- to hell with its so called neutrality. No doubt the NVA said, “What neutrality, we are bound together, Laos is simply an extension of Vietnam.”
And the NVA were lucky. The US said it recognized Laotian neutrality and refused to insert significant numbers of US ground forces into Laos. The US had a sizable number of military advisers in Laos training the Royal Laotian Army (RLA). The RLA’s leadership found this training invaluable, but when the Geneva Accord of 1962 was signed, the US withdrew most of its advisors and the RLA lost what its officers felt was vital American support.
RLAF T-28 being flown by two Air America pilots, taken near Udorn RTAFB, sometime between 1964-1966.
US soldier training RLA
US training Hmong on use of hand grenades
The US limited its military action inside Laos to air forces with some limited ground troops and CIA and special forces personnel advising and training the RLA, RLAF and indigenous Laotian war fighters such as the Hmong.
NVA marching along Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos, eventual target, Khe Sanh, RVN
At the same time, the NVA inserted massive numbers of ground forces into Laos allied with indigenous Pathet Lao ground forces.The NVA regulars moved in large numbers to the Laotian panhandle region, especially along the eastern border with the RVN. The NVA found the Ho Chi Minh Trail to be so important that they seldom allowed Laotians to be near it much less inside it. The NVA began doing all the things necessary to support its expeditionary forces in the RVN.
The US would not oppose them in any significant way on the ground inside Laos. As we press ahead, it will be obvious what a grave American error this was. The reality was that Laos could never be neutral and never was neutral during this conflict. There was no way the NVA would allow that to happen.
Making matters even worse for the Royal Laotian Government (RLG) was that the RVN military did precious little until the 1971 invasion named Lam Son 719 to help the RLA. The Americans formed irregular units which set up some nine bases in southern Laos from which Lao irregulars and ARVN would launch reconnaissance and attacks against the Trail. But early on the Americans did this with little consultation with the RLG or RLA. Only after these operations grew in scope did the Americans start coordinating.
The Ho Chi Minh Trail