A few days ago I crawled off the plane to England in a state of total exhaustion after nearly a month in Vietnam and Laos filming a programme for the BBC. The show, due to air on BBC2 in May, tells the story of two female presenters driving a section of the legendary Ho Chi Minh Trail in Vietnam and Laos.
The Trail, a 12,000 mile network of roads and tracks that cut through the jungles of Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia, has been hailed by many as one of the greatest feats of military engineering of all time, and the reason America were never able to defeat the North Vietnamese.
We filmed our presenters as they tackled a perilous, UXO-contaminated 800 mile section through the jungles and mountains of Laos and Vietnam.
Here are a few of the more memorable moments from the shoot.
The UXO legacy in Laos
The statistics relating to America’s bombing of Laos are hyperbole defying. In their efforts to cut the Trail the US flew 580,000 bombing missions, dropped over 2 million tonnes of ordinance and gave Laos the deadly accolade of being the most bombed country in the world. The legacy of this still exists today: 50,000 people have been killed by UXO in Laos since 1964 and around 200 people still die every year.
This was a key aspect of our story and near Sepon, Laos, we filmed a private UXO clearance team run by the MMG Sepon Mine. The team leader was a Swedish ex-special forces giant of a man called Magnus, cooler than a winter’s day in Magadan and harder than Rambo on steroids. Magnus has worked in every bombed hellhole on the planet, and his geographical resume reads like an FCO warning list: Sudan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Bosnia, Kosovo. “Sudan was terrible”, he admitted, “But this is still the most bombed place on earth”. Just that day his team had uncovered two live 750 pound bombs and a phosphorus bomb, within feet of the main road to the mine.
Magnus was entirely unflappable, and had soon become the collective object of desire of the whole crew. Even one of the presenters, who isn’t strictly into men, was soon giggling like a smitten teenager. By the time the interview was finished we’d christened him Magnus the Magnificent. There’s something unbelievably admirable and utterly intriguing about a man who risks his life daily to dispose of bombs for a living. When we asked him out for a drink that night he replied “I never drink, not when I’m working with bombs”. What a splendid chap.
The next day we encountered a very different type of UXO clearance, two women using $10 metal detectors to illegally search for scrap metal. Despite the danger, the people in this area of Laos (Khammouane and Savankhannet provinces) are so poor that they risk their lives in order to search for UXO, which they can then sell for around 30 cents a kilo. One of the women had a cluster bomb in her basket – a potentially fatal find. It was heart-rending to see poverty driving people to take such drastic measures simply to put food on their family table.
Meeting the Misty Pilots
It can be hard not to instantly vilify the Americans and what they did here when you see first hand the extent of the UXO problem in Laos, a country which remains one of the poorest on the planet. But war is a multi-faceted beast and it’s only too easy to condemn with the benefit of hindsight. So it was fascinating to get the chance to interview Roger van Dyken and George Buchkowski, two members of the elite US Misty Squadron, a 157-strong force of experienced fighter pilots whose sole task during the war was to knock out the Trail.
Both men, like a number of US Vietnam veterans, have returned to the country they were once at war with numerous times. Hearing their story, and how they are now friends and ‘brothers’ with some of the men they once fought against was testament to the astonishing power of forgiveness, and how you should never judge a man until you’ve walked a few miles in their shoes.
A rather impromptu Laos wedding
One evening the whole crew somehow ended up at a Laos wedding that was going on in a field outside our hotel. Around a hundred guests were gathered around a towering stack of speakers, drinking copious quantities of Beer Lao and dancing to blaring live music. Before we knew what was going on, Tui, our translator, had grabbed the microphone and was speaking rapidly in Lao. He then switched to English, looked at us mischievously and announced ‘BBC crew, you must all get up, stand in the middle and dance’.
There was no escape.
A hundred expectant faces swivelled towards as we shuffled into the glaringly empty dancefloor. It could have gone so wrong, but somehow, without saying anything, we all came to the same conclusion; if we were going to dance, we had to do it properly, there was no room for British reserve. As the band struck up all eight of us broke out into the most idiotic, extravagant dance moves. Hips swung, eyebrows waggled, arms were flung in the air, knees grooved – it was like some ridiculous scene from Pulp Fiction. By the end we were all weak with laughter and the audience was baying for more. It wasn’t until 2 a.m that we all staggered off the dancefloor to bed.
The End – and some much needed turbo-pampering
Suffice to say, much of the accommodation on the shoot was pretty basic, so what a joy it was to roll up to the 5* Fusion Maia resort in Da Nang on the last day of filming. I’m not normally one for perfectly manicured resorts, I generally find them dull, claustrophobic and overly obsequious. But a day at Fusion Maia after the rigours of the last few weeks was just what we needed. Private villas with swimming pools, a luminescent white-sand beach, buckets of gin, all-inclusive spa treatments and a bath you could do lengths in. Joyous.
If you want to find out more about the UXO problem in Laos and what you can do to help, please visit www.nra.gov.la.
Some of the key NGOs working in UXO clearance in Laos are: