In order to effectively hunt and gather, Vietnam’s indigenes trekked through the mountains over an ancient network of footpaths. These trails had first been developed by Indochina’s non-human mammalian species. Thousands of years ago, such creatures as the Asian elephant, Indochinese tiger, gaur, wild water buffalo, and Asian black bear discovered the routes of least resistance through the Annamese cordillera. They not only located the most gradual gradients across difficult terrain, they also found the mountain passes, and they located the driest routes through otherwise boggy lowland areas. The pounding of hooves and feet over thousands of years deepened and widened the most-used routes into veritable animal superhighways.
The mammalian road network largely adhered to the contours of watersheds, with the widest, deepest, most-heavily-trodden routes through the region’s valleys. Where valleys became too narrow, trails ran along the tops of adjacent ridgelines or along the sides of nearby hills. Additional trails passed from the head of one stream through a mountain saddle to the head of another stream. But in open, flat country, the trails displayed less of a discernable pattern. For example, in the sloping plain located between the 1960s U.S. Special Forces camp at Plei Me and the Chu Pong Massif, a zigzagging array of trails cut across the countryside.
When tribal peoples first entered Indochina, they adopted the established trail network for their own purposes. Initially, there was no need for humans to invent their own system of footpaths. French anthropologist Georges Condominas, who lived among the Mnong in the village of Sar Luk in the late 1940s, confirmed that the Montagnard trail system followed the contours of watersheds. He wrote, “…of necessity the traditional paths that do connect villages are still the most heavily traveled. They are narrow, and whenever possible they run along valley floors….”
The primordial trail network also influenced where the Montagnards built their villages. Because the largest mammalian trails paralleled the region’s rivers, the best locations for villages existed next to those well-worn paths. As a result, the Montagnards erected villages within the most heavily trafficked valleys or where two or more river valleys joined together. For example, Georges Condominas lived with the Mnong in the village of Sar Luk, which sat on a point of land between the Mei and Kroong rivers. Those two rivers provided village residents with fresh water and fish. Game animals traveled the trails through the two valleys in close proximity to the village site, easing the task of hunting. Such a locale also ensured control of territory. Sar Luk’s position at the mouth of the Mei gave its residents the ability to monitor human traffic along the trails adjacent to the Kroong and Mei rivers. Thus, no competing tribe could access the lower Mei Valley without first passing the Mnong stronghold.
Montagnard trails and village sites would play important military roles during the Second Indochina War. Communist forces utilized countless aboriginal footpaths to transport men and materials from the North Vietnam into South Vietnam. Overtime, the routes became known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail. It would have been more accurate to refer to the various footpaths as the Ho Chi Minh Trails. The Battle of Dak To illustrates the importance of the Montagnard trail system to communist military tactics. In the late 1967, PAVN troops sought to move against the U.S. Army in the Central Highlands around Dak To. In order to establish a position on the mountains south of the Dak To airstrip, PAVN columns marched from their Cambodian sanctuaries into South Vietnam, along a series of trails within the Sedang tribal area. Communist troops departed Cambodia, trekked down a trail situated on the north bank of the Dak Koi River. That trail then skirted the north shore of the Dak Kal River before turning south and linking up with a trail along the east side of the Dak Hodrai River. Eventually, the PAVN soldiers followed narrow trails that paralleled the streams falling from the heights of Ngok Tang and Ngok Bor Beang. After hiking to the top of those two peaks, the PAVN forces dug sturdy bunkers into the mountain’s sides and prepared for the coming American assault. It’s there, on the slopes of Ngok Bor Beang, that the Americans found the PAVN and fought a fierce battle with them in November, 1967.
To halt communist infiltration from Laos and Cambodia into South Vietnam, the U.S. Army established Special Forces outposts at Montagnard village sites throughout the Central Highlands. Since the villages sat along the area’s trail network, the Special Forces in the camps were able to monitor PAVN and Viet Cong movements. The Montagnard village and Special Force camp at Plei Me southeast of Pleiku overlooked the extensive trail network along the upper Ia Drang, Ia Takouk, Ia Glae, and Ia Pong river valleys.