Road to re­demp­tion

Along the Ho Chi Minh Trail from Hanoi to Saigon

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - TRAVEL & INDULGENCE - GE­OFF HILL

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

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