We should have been more suspicious at 5AM, when a chain-smoking guy opened the back door of an aged little sedan, and said, "OK, OK" - his only English. We had been told there was no direct transport from Hoi An to Kon Tum. But we kept looking until we were sold this early pick-up in what we were told would be a van for transfer to Da Nang to catch "big air-con bus leave at 7." This little car was the van's replacement, and the "big bus" in Da Nang turned out to be only a big van - with aspirations to be something much bigger.
We had no written tickets, but were just pointed at a row of mini-bus/vans facing out from the bus station's east boundry - each van with the cities of its route painted on the nose. The fellow squatting in front of a Ford marked "Kon Tum - Da Nang" said, "OK, OK" and motioned for us to get in.
After sitting in the dark and otherwise empty van for a few minutes, we used pen, paper and pantomime to try and find out the departure time. I pointed to my watch and asked, "Toilet?" "OK, OK" was barked with a gesture toward a knot of people sitting on tiny stools at the tea and noodle stalls behind the van. Behind them was my destination - worthy of its own Dispatch.
The sun comes up and the other passengers materialize just before we roll, two hours late, toward Vietnam's central highlands. All 14 seats hold young Vietnamese workers. Except for the driver and his assistant, each rider brings aboard various bits of luggage for us to examine in an attempt to guess what they are up to: A heavy toolbox and hand saw; a plastic bag of manuals of some kind; 50 kg. sack of something; rolls of rubber hose - and 7 large cardboard crates of incessantly peeping baby chickens.
A mile out of the station, we stop to pick-up a woman waving at the side of the road. She climbs in behind us and people shift a bit to make room. The driver's assistant is hanging out the side hawking for more, while the van does all possible driving stunts to speed us along - horn blazing and chicks peeping in reply. This process continues for the next 2 hours as we drive west - until, counting the unhappy baby, and the coughing old man - we are 20 plus cargo. We slow and stop again - right in the middle of the road as usual - and 7 men run to the van, greeted warmly by the assistant (that I now refer to as the "door gunner"). Surely they come to greet a long lost uncle and maybe his chickens - but no. Is it possible? In they pile! Our bags are jammed on top of the chicks. They peep in protest - and keep peeping and peeping and peeping.
The door gunner now has a man sitting on his lap and motions yet again for me to slide over. I hold out my hand a say, "Dong!" (money) - we both know I was overcharged for these seats. He turns away, "OK, OK". I have an arm braced against a window post to keep the crush from flatting Jean and her camera - which is clicking away out the window at a wondrous countryside that rises up from the coast. We follow a wide river valley that narrows into a canyon, climb over several twisting passes, past waterfalls and farms and over the mountains that make-up the spine of this long and narrow nation.
At some point, the chicks begin to escape their broken cases, peeping urgently at their freedom - they flow into the few spaces remaining inside this van. It is an Adventure, and Jean laughs when she points out we still have more legroom than we did on the 19 hour United Airlines flight that brought us here.
Six hours later, we turn south toward Pleiku, on the new Ho Chi Minh Trail Hwy. We pass through Doc To, the site of a Special Forces camp that was attacked by NVA tanks - a reverse Battle of Kinh Mon of sorts. In the van are now 28 humans. I calculate that a chicken peep requires at least some energy and therefore each chick should have already expended calories equal to its body weight. Peep, peep, peep!
My sense of adventure is growing weak and almost snaps when we find ourselves at a bus station 13k out of town - and they want us to hire motorbike taxies to take us to a hotel. I know that the boxes of little peepers, the rolls of irrigation hose and other cargo must be bound for Kon Tum town, and refuse to let Jean exit the van. The chicks peep, peep, peeping around her feet. The door gunner pulls our bags off, and I put them back on. They point to the taxi drivers coiled around our discussion. I force a smile and again point to the "Kon Tum" painted on the van. "OK OK" the driver relents, and we tag along to drop off the cargo, including helping to capturing the escapees. Peep peep! We made it alive to Kon Tum - sadly, not all the chicks did.
I started my first tour in Vietnam in these highlands in early 1968, flying the Birddogs of the 219th Recon Airplane Company - call sign "Headhunter". The job was very different than it would be later on, up North in the DMZ. Headhunters were scattered all over 3 provinces of the highlands, in ones and twos - plane, pilot and crew-chief would stay in a small Special Forces camp, Provincial or District airstrip - flying in support of whatever activity was going on at the time. I had to become familiar with many of these interesting little spots, mostly populated by minority hill peoples we use to call Montagnards. The Viets called them savages. Kon Tum was one of those interesting little places.
I spy an unmarked SUV parked outside the only real hotel in town. It is loaded with packs marked "US ARMY." This could still be a very interesting little place! All we need now is a local trekking guide, a cold beer or two - and some dinner for my hungry bride. "Honey, how does chicken sound?"
- Rooster wRangler Rod