The Montagnards were our allies, but they also worked for the North Vietnamese, who promised them autonomy over the highlands after the war. The Montagnard gentleman standing next to me in the old uniform shirt and hat, carrying the machete-ax, was either trekking home or off to tend a North Vietnamese shelter. There was no telling.
North Vietnamese soldiers traveled the infiltration trails that ran through Phu Bon province, heading east in small groups toward the populated lowlands along the coast. Sometimes, having already trekked for a couple of months from North Vietnam through Laos into South Vietnam, they used the northern part of the province for R & R.
The NVA soldiers traveled mostly at night, led by local Montagnard guides who knew the trails and stream crossings like this one. They covered seven to nine miles a night, depending on the difficulty of the terrain. Midway between shelters a new Montagnard guide would take over, escorting the group to the next rest shelter. At dusk they’d set out with their new guide, who would hand them off again at the next midway point. Other Montagnards serviced the rest huts with water and food for the infiltrators.
One of our team’s missions was to count heads along the trails, and sometimes to gather intelligence by intercepting a few of the infiltrators, which invariably made the local Viet Cong insurgents unhappy with us. Since we were laughably outnumbered, there was always the risk that one day they’d get unhappy enough to decide to wipe us out.