Road to redemption
Along the Ho Chi Minh Trail from Hanoi to Saigon
I’ve finally realised why US pulled troops out of Vietnam. They got fed up waiting to cross the streets. So relentless is the flow of scooters in Hanoi that after two days I give up, get into a Jeep and drive to Ho Chi Minh City.
Now, you’d think driving a former US Army Jeep down the Ho Chi Minh Trail would be, to paraphrase the late British comedian Kenny Everett, not in the best poss- ible taste. The truth, remarkably, is the opposite, as these are highly prized war trophies and cult vehicles.
The company behind the jaunt is Classic Car Journeys, run by Englishman Steve McCullagh, who back in 2006 had it all: a top job as managing director of a car leasing firm, a company-provided Porsche and a jet set lifestyle. But he didn’t have a life, particularly when it came to his twin loves of travel and classic cars, which is why he jacked it all in after taking 60 friends on a driving tour of southern India in Hindustan Ambassadors, the Indian equivalent of 1950s Morris Oxfords.
He’s still doing that, as well as tours around southern India and the Himalayas, and in 2012 added the Vietnam tours, making his the only company to do self-drive tours in that destination. It is my first time in Vietnam, and my immediate impressions as we drive through Hanoi to meet Steve’s fixer Cu’o’ng Phung (the man who sorted out the Top Gear team with transport for their 2008 jaunt through the country) are that the city has a shambolic postcolonial charm and that its people manage to look simultaneously serious and optimistic. The former, presumably, is because of centuries of suffering under the French and the Americans, and the latter because they hope all that is behind them.
The US left thousands of Jeeps when its troops pulled out in 1973, and although no one could use them until petrol became freely available in the late 80s, the canny Vietnamese stored them away, and they are now worth up to about $30,000 each.
And since the route we are following is known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail, it seems appropriate to call at the museum celebrating the path that kept the North Vietnamese Army supplied for almost a decade.
The US Air Force bombed the trail 70,000 times, but still the Vietnamese kept coming, carrying food, guns and ammunition across rivers and swaying rope bridges on foot, bicycles, horses and elephants. Compared with that, all we have to worry about are the charming idiosyncrasies of 60s Jeeps. The steering is vague, the gearbox needs a gentle hand, and the brakes a firm foot. In short, it is the