Road trip

Villemain [Left] and Renaud [Right] - Two for the road!
Road trip fuelled by a dream

Inspired by the travels recorded in the book, Paris Saigon, two Frenchmen follow their dreams on the Saigon-New York-Paris road trip through five continents, writes PEGGY LOH

IT all started in 2005 when Frenchman Tristan Villemain read Paris Saigon.

That book records a road trip by Edouard Cortes and Jean-Baptiste Flichy, in a Citroen 2CV they named Bucephale, over 16,000km from Paris via Kabul to Saigon, now known as Ho Chi Minh City, in 2003.

Their adventure was inspired by the first Paris-to-Saigon car rally pair, Guy de Larigaudie and Roger Drapier, who left Paris in July 1937 in a second-hand car and arrived in Saigon eight months later after 12,000km and 16 countries.

The first Paris to Saigon rally pair in 1937
Sixty-seven years later, Cortes and Flichy followed that route and had their Paris-Kabul-Saigon adventure published in a book in 2005.

Villemain was so fascinated by Cortes and Flichy’s adventure that he read the book six times and dreamt about taking the same route.

He learnt that Cortes and Flichy left Bucephale behind when they returned to Paris in 2003 and their book included an appeal to help repatriate the car back to Paris.

Well-thumbed copy of Paris Saigon

As he read the book over and over again, Villemain’s eyes were riveted to the Epilogue on page 325 where the authors issued a challenge loosely translated from French to read as:

“Hello Adventurers! If you open the atlas and want to visit Asia, then you should go to Saigon. Bucephale, a Citroen 2CV car, there needs you to bring her back to France. I have her keys kept in a small souvenir bottle that I got from Afghanistan, and if you want to take up this challenge, come and get the keys from me. Bucephale wants to come back to France!”

Following A Dream

As Villemain considered how Cortes and Flichy acted on their dream, he was restless with a desire to follow his dream to travel the world. So in that same spirit, he took up the challenge on page 325.

Now, Flichy already had a few responses to his challenge but he must have felt Villemain’s earnest interest. After more detailed discussions, Flichy gave him the car keys and drew a map to help him find Bucephale, which was left in a strip of no-man’s land between Vietnam and Cambodia.

Bucephale in a sorry state when she was found in no-man's land!
In 2007, armed with Flichy’s map and a compass, Villemain went to Cambodia and found the car abandoned in an overgrown field. He recognised Bucephale instantly because it had the outlines of the world map and the words “Paris-Kabul-Saigon” painted on its sides, but she was in a sorry state.

Flichy had found a man to keep an eye on Bucephale for US$1 (RM3.20) a day and when Villemain offered to buy it, the man wanted a price calculated up to that current date. The price was way too high, but Villemain managed to whittle the sum down over three weeks before striking a deal to buy it as scrap metal!

The Citroen 2CV is one of France’s most iconic cars, but Bucephale was now nothing more than a pile of scrap.  The name Bucephale painted on her hood is the French version of Bucephalus, the Greek name for the legendary horse that Alexander The Great rode. It was an apt name for the car as it had already conquered 16,000km from Paris to Saigon in 2003, and now it was up to Villemain to make her road-worthy again for the journey back to Paris.

Fixing A Dream

In Cambodia, Villemain met Philippe, a Belgian doctor who lived in the quiet riverside town of Kampot just a few kilometres from the Gulf of Thailand. The car was towed and parked under Philippe’s house which was built on stilts. It was a secure resting place for the car and Villemain left for Paris to make plans on how to rebuild her.

Having come this far, Villemain was optimistic.  Besides looking for the necessary car parts, he had to find a mechanic who was not only skilled but willing to go to Vietnam with him. In the meantime, there was plenty to do to raise awareness and support for this venture, and find a fellow adventurer to join him in bringing Bucephale back to Paris.

Then in 2008, he received an email from Philippe with a photo of Bucephale almost totally submerged by flood waters.  But Villemain refused to give up. He bought a used Citroen 2CV engine and shipped it to Kampot, timing it for delivery in November 2009, when he and mechanic Dominique Surget would arrive.

Living A Dream

Renaud showing of the interior of Bucephale
Villemain’s infectious enthusiasm gained the support of many in France.  Funds were raised with the help of family and friends. 

In fact, fellow countryman Quentin Renaud was so keen that he sold his apartment and car and left his carpenter job to join Villemain on the trip.

After a month spent rebuilding Bucephale, she was ready for the road. On Dec 29, 2009, Villemain and Renaud started their Saigon-New York-Paris adventure — the first such trip — which would cover 35,000km and five continents.

Leaving Vietnam, they drove through Cambodia and Thailand, stopping in Phuket to enjoy its beaches before arriving in Malaysia on Jan 11, 2010.

Villemain showing off goggles he wears
in Bucephale when it rains!

They were in Kuala Kedah, asking for directions to the beach when they met John Tan, who was admiring Bucephale. With her canopy made of makeshift plastic sheets secured on removable pipes and her sides emblazoned with a world map, now repainted with the words “Saigon-New York-Paris”, she stood out among other cars in the seaside town.

The affable Tan not only showed them the beautiful seaside of Kuala Kedah, but also directed them to Penang’s popular Batu Feringghi.

Later, he joined them to walk on the skybridge of the Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur and showed them the sights and Peranakan culture in Malacca en route to Danga Bay, Johor Baru. There, he introduced them to friends in the Iskandar Regional Development Authority who extended warm hospitality and helped them with immigration and forwarding procedures to ship Bucephale to their next destination, Indonesia.

The young adventurers in front of
Iskandar Malaysia's office in Johor Baru
Speaking in halting English, Villemain recalled with a shudder that he saw frogs in a Cambodian market, stripped of their skin alive. And though Renaud has a more adventurous palate, he was just as horrified to see deep-fried insects eaten as snacks in Thailand. These were some of their bizarre experiences.

Having devised a “cruise-control” feature in Bucephale, they enjoyed our comfortable highways but with our sudden tropical downpours, Villemain quipped that he would wear his swimming goggles and pop his head out of Bucephale for a clearer view rather than wait for the slow wipers to clear the windscreen!


Designed for low-cost, simplicity of use, versatility, reliability and off-road driving, the Citroen 2CV is technologically advanced. 2CV, which means deux chevaux vapeur in French, literally translated as “two steam horses” from the horsepower rating, is an economical car produced by Citroen from 1948 to 1990.

The adventurers’ onward journey has taken them to Australia, where they are still discovering much of the rugged land. Then they will travel across the Pacific Ocean to South America before heading north to New York and then home to Paris.

Even if you don’t read French, you can follow their exciting trail with photos at

This article was first published in The New Straits Times, Travel Times on 5 May 2010

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