A bunch of middle-aged veterans from Vietnam and the United States, many of them disabled, set out on an improbable journey Thursday to bury a war and test the limits of sinew as well as heart.
They gathered with their bicycles at dawn in the shadow of Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum in Hanoi, the morning misty and charged with the veterans’ sense of both sadness and relief, and behind a police escort pedaled off for what was once known as Saigon - 16 days and 1,200 miles away.
Three of the riders are blind and rode as stokers on the rear seat of tandems. Seven are partially paralyzed, but their three-wheeled hand cycles - a low-slung carriage pedaled by hand - sped along as surely as the standard bikes ridden by vets whose missing leg or legs had been replaced by high-tech artificial limbs made of carbon fiber.
Along the way to Ninh Binh, the first night’s stop 55 miles south of Hanoi, thousands of children lined Highway One - the war-battered route the French called the Street Without Joy - and shouted all the English words they knew: “Haaallo,” “Very good,” “OK.” Old women in conical hats smiled, showing teeth stained black by betel leaves, and men with wispy white beards flashed thumbs-up greetings.
“I really didn’t know how I’d feel coming back to Vietnam,” said Dan Jensen, 48, a commercial photographer from Sioux Falls, S.D., who lost his right foot to a land mine in 1971. “But the minute I stepped off the plane, I felt as though I was completing something. It was very emotional. One thing I know for sure: I don’t feel any animosity toward these people.”
Nguyen Van Bao, at 71 the elder statesman of the ride known as the Vietnam Challenge and a 33-year veteran of the Vietnamese army, pedaled briskly and stayed in the pack just behind Jensen. Twenty-five years ago, during the Americans’ Christmas bombing of Hanoi, he was guarding a power plant that U.S. jets attacked in seemingly endless waves, killing and wounding a score of people.
“Actually, I hated you Americans then,” Bao said. “If anyone had said that on New Year’s Day in 1998 I’d be bicycling from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City with American veterans, I’d have said they were, well, crazy.
“But that was then and this is now. This is a new chapter.”
The Vietnam Challenge - which is being followed by tens of thousands of U.S. schoolchildren on a Web site (www.askasia.org) - is sponsored by World T.E.A.M (The Exceptional Athlete Matters) Sports, a nonprofit organization in Charlotte, N.C., that specializes in sport events for disabled people. It is supported by the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation (VVAF).
Riding new 24-speed Cannondale mountain bikes, the participants - some neither veterans nor disabled - who left Hanoi on Thursday include 39 Americans picked by T.E.A.M. Sports and 14 Vietnamese chosen by Hanoi’s Communist government. Hanoi ignored a request that it include in its group someone who had fought for what was then South Vietnam, the U.S. ally in its war against the North.
Traffic thinned two hours out of Hanoi and the landscape flattened into clusters of flooded rice paddies where water buffalo and peasants sloshed through knee-deep water. “So beautiful, so peaceful,” said Diane Evans of Northfield, Minn., a nurse who served in the southern town of Pleiku and later spearheaded the campaign to build the memorial to women veterans in Washington.
With the Americans and Vietnamese riding as a single team in which the slowest rider sets the pace, Greg LeMond of Medina, Minn., hung well back, stroking at a leisurely clip. A three-time winner of the Tour de France and a T.E.A.M. Sports board member, he was 13 when the war ended.
“To tell you the truth, I get more inspired riding with disabled athletes than I ever do with so-called able-bodied ones,” LeMond said. “Professional athletes get caught up with money, but these people never forget exactly why they are out here.”
Before setting off, T.E.A.M. Sports and VVAF presented a check for $200,000 to build a new orthotics clinic at Hanoi’s Bach Mai Hospital, where 30 patients and staff were killed in the Christmas bombing of 1972.