Montagnard Village Near Qui Nhon
This trip to the Central Highlands was my second foray outside the safety of Long Binh Post, where I was stationed, working as a correspondent for the Information Office of the U.S. Army Vietnam (USARV) Headquarters.
Most of the time, I travelled alone, but on this trip, I was paired with Sgt. Tom Shaner, a short-timer who took me under his wing to show the newby the ropes.
It was September 1971. The war was entering the Vietnamization period. The creases weren't yet out of my jungle fatigues. And my education was beginning.
The trip took seven days, We basically hitch-hiked our way up-country... taking an army bus to Saigon, then a C-130 to Nha Trang (where we spent a day, did a couple of stories and found time for a morning at the beach. Gorgeous beach, but shark warnings kept us out of the water.
Looking at a Google map today, our route made no sense, but we hopped on a mail plane that took up on a roundabout trip to Tuy Hoa, An Khe, Pleiku and Kontum. There, we decided we had had enough of the puddle-jumping mail plane and switched to a C-123 flying straight into Qui Nhon. We both wrote a couple of stories there and burned up some film before hopping on Huey to a village deep in the Central Highlands.
The Montagnard Village - the main story Tom had set out to do - would be an all-day event. The helicopter ferried us deep into the mountains and dropped us off on a trail above the village - just Tom and I and a civilian. Tom said he worked for USAID (Agency for International Development). Today I think he was probably CIA.)
We walked in and had the day to explore a village, shoot photos and enjoy the friendly people. I never felt afraid for my safety or unwelcome. According to the civilian who spoke Vietnamese, the village had not seen an American in more than a year and a half.
It was a magical place. And if you put aside the armed Montagnards patrolling the perimeter and the danger that lurked in the surrounding mountains, you might think it a nice place to spend some time.
But we were smart enough to know that the Viet Cong owned the night, and when our helicopter swooped in to pick us up before dusk, we were happy to jump aboard.
We left with a good story, some fine memories and a brass Montagnard bracelet jangling from each of our wrists. But we flew out at treetop level, following the curvature of the road back to Qui Nhon to stay below the outgoing artillery,
Even in 1971, Vietnam could be a dangerous place.