In July of 2022, I was invited by JP Klovstad, a tour leader & photographer based in Ho Chi Minh City, to make a road trip in a vintage American-War era Jeep. Starting and ending in Hanoi, the route would loop around northwestern Vietnam and include some of my favorite destinations. The trip's main objective was to check the road conditions and driving times for a longer tour JP was to conduct the following week. I also had a prior commitment, another road trip in Ha Giang Province, so I opted to part ways with JP in Mu Cang Chai, only participating in the first five days or roughly 800 kilometers.
The primary purpose of this article is to discuss the pros and cons of traveling in these old refurbished US Army Jeeps and to compare them to common methods of transportation such as small motorbikes, cars, trucks, and vans. The secondary objective will be an overview of road conditions on what I consider the most interesting legs. Having just completed my eighth significant road trip in mainland SEA in less than one year, I am in a good position to discuss road travel in the region.
It is important to note that the route shown on the Google Map above is an approximation of the journey as we made far too many stops and detours to include all of them.
The basic route was:
*Hanoi’s Noi Bai airport to Sapa via the expressway, and DT-152.
*Sapa to Dien Bien Phu via Sin Ho, QL-4D to DT-128 to QL-12
*Dien Bien Phu to Tuan Giao via QL-279 and AH-13
*Tuan Giao to Mu Cang Chai via QL-279 to QL-32
The Pros of Jeep travel; are pretty obvious, these old refurbished classics are cool! Everyone seems to agree with me, and everywhere you go the locals will want to have a look, a chat, take a few selfies, and put the children in the front seat for family photos. So, a Jeep is a great way to meet and interact with the locals.
They are also excellent platforms for photography; like the off-road vehicles used on African safaris, no doors or side windows means that you are always ready to spring into action and make the next photograph or video clip.
Although the seats in the Jeep were surprisingly comfortable, far better than riding on a small motorcycle, driving up the expressway wasn’t the most pleasant experience. It was hot and dusty and the exhaust fumes from the vehicles overtaking us were very noticeable. It was also incredibly noisy, so noisy that it is virtually impossible to have a conversation without screaming your head off.
However, as we depart Hanoi’s Noi Bai Airport and head north up the Lao Cai Expressway (CT-105), the cons of Jeep travel become apparent in short order. Completed in 2014, the 245-kilometer expressway cut the road travel time between Hanoi and Lao Cai City in half. This modern highway has a maximum speed of 100 km/h and the Jeep is the slowest vehicle on the road. How slow? Impossible to say as the speedometer doesn’t work. JP estimates we are doing 70 km/h, never mind at least the fuel gauge works.
Once we left the expressway behind us in Pho Lu, Bao Thang District, and got out into the countryside, the journey became much more pleasant. I was particularly interested in traveling to the Muong Hoa (Sapa) Valley via DT-152 as I had never done this drive before and really can’t recall many people talking about it.
As we started driving the uphill DT-152 leg it became apparent that the fuel gauge really only works when the fuel tank is nearly full and on level ground. This particular Jeep had an auxiliary electric fuel pump fuel which was required when traveling up steep inclines. At this point, we learned to keep the vehicle’s fuel tank and auxiliary jerrycan topped up at all times.
The district roads (DT-xxx) are often in poor condition. They don’t appear to do any maintenance on these smaller country roads, often waiting until the road is virtually unusable before they resurface the straightest, easiest sections. Curves, switchbacks, and other tight bends or curves are often completely ignored.
In this case, DT-152 which connects to the valley at Thanh Phu, Nam Sai Commune is in surprisingly good condition and is an excellent choice for folks who have their own transportation and want to travel off the usual well-traveled route. By utilizing DT-152 to the valley it is possible to bypass touristy Sa Pa town and take a much more scenic route.
We spent Sunday night and Monday in the Muong Hoa (Sa Pa) Valley. I stayed at Tavan Heaven Homestay while JP stayed at another property, a possible choice for his upcoming tour. The next morning, I got up early to shoot in the rice terraces while JP continued his research by checking out potential trekking route.
In the afternoon we took the Jeep up the road toward Seo My Ty, Vietnam’s highest freshwater lake/ reservoir. In the not-so-recent past the 12-kilometer drive up to Seo My Ty was a brutal journey up what appeared to be an old riverbed. However, the locals have built a proper concrete road that now connects Ta Van village to the lake, and although it’s a little steep, it’s now easy to reach by car, motorcycle, or on foot.
On Tuesday we departed Sa Pa for Dien Bien Phu via Sin Ho in Lai Chau Province. In Sa Pa town, at the “new” market, we take road QL-4D, one of Vietnam’s most spectacular drives through O Que Ho Pass. Also known as Heaven’s Gate or Tran Tom Pass, this is Vietnam’s highest mountain pass and is well known by Vietnamese photographers who often shoot here in the late afternoon or at sunset.
From O Que Ho Pass to Lai Chau City is an easy drive on a perfectly good stretch of sealed highway. At Lai Chau City we join DT-128, which in 2019 was under construction/repair and in a terrible state. Now that the construction has been completed and the road has been resurfaced, it is a lovely stretch of perfectly good tarmac road.
Sunday is the big market day in Sin Ho, but on this particular Tuesday it was fairly busy. It is a small market, in a remote mountain town that normally sees few tourists. As is often the case, the people who trade here are the main attraction. Dressed in their finest traditional clothing, the Hmong, and the Dao, the people of the mountains, gather at these markets not only to trade but to reunite with family, friends, and neighbors, often over a meal and local rice wine.
After a stroll around the market and lunch, we continued on to Dien Bien Phu via DT-128 to QL-12 at Chan Nua. This section of DT-128 was also in reasonably good condition and makes for an interesting drive through a fairly remote part of Lai Chau. We spent the night in a typical local-style hotel in Dien Bien Phu City.
On Wednesday we started the day with a visit to the artillery monument, Ban Pa Pom Hmong village, then had an early lunch at a Thai (Tai) homestay that JP was interested in staying at on his upcoming tour.
I’d been to DBP several times and had visited all the historic sites in town but I missed the sites outside of the town proper, most importantly General Giap’s Headquarters aka “Dien Bien Phu Campaign Command Headquarters”. As the name implies, this was the General’s base of operation during the decisive battle which would see the defeat of the imperialist aggressors and the liberation of North Vietnam.
The headquarters, like many of the sites related to the Indo-China wars, doesn't have much to see, proper signage or knowledgeable guides, etc., but for folks who are interested in history, it is enough to stand in the footsteps of the people who made it.
From the General’s headquarters, we worked our way up some fairly bumpy and remote roads up to roads QL-279 and AH-13 to Tuan Giao where we spent the night in a fairly typical city-center hotel.
I should probably mention that the weather during our trip was fantastic. There was a period last summer (2022), from roughly the second week of June until the second week of August, that was unseasonably sunny, dry, and hot. Our timing was perfect, perhaps too perfect, and I managed to get sunburned on my right arm and leg. Next time I would consider wearing long-sleeved shirts and trousers and using sunblock.
To give you an idea of how lucky, it only rained on us one time, and we were fortunate to drive through it rather quickly. I say fortunate, because it was heavy, driving rain that easily penetrated the Jeep’s canopy, particularly where it met the passenger side of the windshield. In just a few minutes I was getting wet, which is no big deal but not so great for camera and computer gear.
This brings us to another issue of Jeep travel: there is limited space for luggage and no secure storage like in the trunk of a car. Your baggage is going to get dusty, dirty, and wet. You need to take the same precautions with your gear as you would on a small motorcycle; your passport, docs, and clothes need to be in plastic bags and you really should have some sort of waterproof cover for your daypack/camera bag.
Thursday was another interesting day of driving as we took QL-279 and the Pa Uon bridge across the Da River in Son La Province. From there we continued to another long bridge at the Ban Chat hydropower plant, in Than Uyen District, Lai Chau, Province.
Continuing on road QL279 we join QL 32 and drive through Mu Cang Chai Town where we found a homestay for the night. There are many “homestays” along QL-32, most of which can be better described as guest houses than homestays. The one we chose; Homestay Hoà Thảo, was neat and clean and was a good choice. With our accommodations settled, we got back in the Jeep and did some exploring in La Pan Tan and De Su Phin communes. Then we had an early dinner so I could get up to Móng Ngựa (The Horseshoe) for sunset.
Móng Ngựa (The Horseshoe) is one of the most famous rice terraces / scenic / sunset viewpoints. The site is well-known among Vietnamese photographers: during the “golden season”, when the rice has matured and turned yellow-gold in color, it is overrun with domestic tourists. But July is too early for mass tourism as this particular terrace had been planted a few weeks earlier and I am the lone tourist viewing and photographing another spectacular sunset.
On Friday I settled up with JP and headed to Sa Pa. At the time JP could get the Jeep for 1.5 million VND per day. Currently, as the tourism situation improves in Vietnam (and the region in general), and demand increases, I doubt you can rent one for less than 2.0 million VND. Presently (April 2023) that works out to be approximately $85 USD per day. That’s kind of expensive for an ancient vehicle without air-con, power steering, or drink holders.
Gasoline cost roughly 1,000,000 VND per day which was approximately $42 USD per day. Having just completed two back-to-back self-driving road trips in Laos with late-model 4x4 pickup trucks, I used around $ 35-42 USD worth of fuel on a full day of driving. So, I think the fuel cost was pretty reasonable.
There were some other expenses; a 600,000 VND charge to deliver the Jeep to the airport, and toll road fees, but these are minimal expenses that are hardly worth mentioning.
In conclusion, I think the Jeep is an excellent choice for day trips and shorter road trips, perhaps five days give or take. I intend to do another Jeep road trip in Cambodia later this year so that I can do more research on the subject. However, for longer trips, I really prefer the comfort of a four-door pickup truck or SUV. The sixteen-passenger Ford vans are also excellent and if you can put a small group together the price is quite reasonable.