Within the Annamese Cordillera is a sub-region known as the Central Highlands. The Central Highlands are actually the southernmost segment of the cordillera. The Americans knew the Central Highlands as the mountainous region stretching from the 17th Parallel south to the area of Da Lat. However, the Vietnamese have defined the highlands as the mountain and plateau area that extends from Kontum Province in the north to Lam Dong Province in the south.
At several locations along the Vietnamese coast, the Annamese Cordillera and Central Highlands reach all the way to the South China Sea. Once there, the mountains fall precipitously to the waterline. At those places, there exists a great contrast in scenery and color between the flat blue sea and the towering green mountains. The mountain ridges that push out into the ocean traditionally formed obstacles to north-south movement within Vietnam. French colonial administrators worked to end the geographical isolation imposed on Vietnam by the east running mountain ridges. Construction crews eventually graded narrow, winding roads over all the defiles.
By the middle of the twentieth century, Route 1, the main north-south highway within Vietnam, cut a path through the high ridges, forming a number of passes. The passes from north to south include Ngang (near the 18th Parallel), Hai Van (north of Danang), Cu Mong (south of Qui Nhon), Ca, Co Ma (south of Tuy Hoa), and Ru Ry (north of Nha Trang). The most physically imposing is Hai Van Pass north of Danang. A steep, curving two-lane road climbs from the populated lowlands outside of Danang to Hai Van’s summit. During the First Indochina War, the French built a concrete pillbox and observation tower at the pass to guard its approaches, an indication of the strategic importance of the pass in French military calculations. At the top of the pass, the South China Sea lies over sixteen hundred feet below. The white, frothing waves striking the rocky shoreline at the foot of Hai Van are barely visible from the heights above.
Among those who experienced firsthand the Central Highlands, the mountain vastness brought on both feelings of awe at their beauty and repulsion and foreboding at their ruggedness and inaccessibility. On clear bright mornings, when the sun rose large and orange over the Eastern Sea, the light green highlands, with its triple canopy jungle, could look inviting, even picturesque.
But during the months of the northeast monsoon, the highlands took on a very different aspect. Frequently hidden behind low-hanging clouds and soaked by the light mists known to the French as “crachin,” the hills and valleys of the highlands appeared ominous. British travel writer Norman Lewis, who journeyed through the highlands in 1950, remarked on the appearance of the hills through the crachin. Lewis wrote, “The whole district of Dak Lac [in the highlands] is seen as if through dark glasses. There is not a great deal of colour. It is a study in smoky blues, greens and white…In the morning the mountains float above a cauldron of mist in which islands slowly materialize [sic]….” [Lewis, Dragon Apparent, 103]
The Vietnamese believed ghosts haunted the highlands. And although the Americans didn’t believe in the Vietnamese ghosts, many GIs still feared the highlands. Author Michael Herr wrote, “…the Highlands are spooky, unbearably spooky, spooky beyond belief” [Herr, Dispatches, 93]. GIs came to consider the highlands as a malevolent force, an entity opposed to their presence on the Asian landmass. It was not only the PAVN and Viet Cong troops hidden beneath the jungle canopy that sought the destruction of the American expeditionary force, the land wanted to annihilate the Americans too. Philip Caputo described the intimidating character of the highlands. While in a helicopter west of Danang in 1965, he wrote, “We were flying parallel to the mountains; the Cordillera spread out before us, and it was the most forbidding thing I had ever seen. An unbroken mass of green stretched westward, on ridgeline and mountain range after another, some more than a mile high and covered with forests that looked solid enough to walk on. It had no end. It just went on to the horizon. I could see neither villages, nor fields, roads, or anything but endless rain forests the color of old moss. There it was, the Annamese Cordillera, hostile and utterly alien” [Caputo, Rumor of War, 82].
The Central Highlands could appear heavy, large, and immovable. The highlands anchored Vietnam, giving the country a solidness not apparent along the wind- and wave-swept coast. During the height of American involvement in 1968 and 1969, when so much movement and violence enveloped Vietnam and its people, the highlands held firm. For the Vietnamese, the highlands represented Vietnam’s future, its survivability, its eternal character.
The highlands are notable for another reason. In the mid-1960s, in the Central Highlands, the American empire reached its zenith. The American expeditionary force, with its helicopters, green-clad troops, and armored personnel carriers struck the highlands with the power of a typhoon, only to break apart, dissipate, and recede back to the east.