Minsking, Uncle Ho, and Snake Wine was collected on Horizons Unlimited website.
Original location: http://www.horizonsunlimited.com/gregfrazier/news/2004-04-01.shtml
“Nowhere have I seen worse drivers than in Vietnam. I think it is sheer lunacy for anyone who lacks substantial experience driving in similar countries to attempt to do so here.” So said a purported traveller of over 50 countries in the tourist book I had purchased. Under “Road Rules: the book read “Basically, there aren’t any.” Reading further it stated, “Over half the road fatalities in Vietnam are suffered by motorbike drivers.”
An inquiry to the Vietnam tourist office got a response of “Our country has 80 million people with 40 million motorbikes and cycles, and no training for the drivers. We recommend for safety and security you book a guided tour if you want to ride a motorcycle over here. And we strongly suggest you not travel alone.”
What had piqued my interest was a short article in the Bangkok Post newspaper saying that due to the high number of road accidents the Vietnamese government was going to hire 7,000 new traffic police and boost the budget for equipment. I had just survived the annual Highway Killing Days in Thailand (Christmas and New Years) where they were snuffing four per hour, and 80% of all accidents involved motorcycles. A month earlier, I was in riding in Laos where one health worker told me motorcycle accidents accounted for more accidental deaths per year than any other factor. Before that, I had been riding in Cambodia, where motorcycles were killing more per day than gunfire, mines, and unexploded ordnance. I thought, “Just how bad can Vietnam be? Worse than India? Worse than Sao Paulo, Brazil? Worse than Taiwan?” I had survived those places, plus the last months in Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos.
An acquaintance had just returned from riding solo in Vietnam. He did not have what I would term “substantial experience driving” a motorcycle and had survived, plus added he would go back. Faced with another period of Highway Killing Days (Songkran, or Water Festival) in Thailand, which included the locals throwing at Westerners buckets of water, firing it from high-pressure water guns, or using fire hoses to douse us, especially when on a motorcycle, I booked a flight into Hanoi to seek risky adventure.
Vietnam had a maximum legal size for a motorbike of 125-cc; therefore, my 1,000-cc BMW was not allowed to cross the border into the country. Some have managed to get “big bikes” into Vietnam, but once inside unknowingly face confiscation by authorities. I decided to take my chances on finding an adequate motorcycle once I got there as I had done on one of my earlier rides around the world, so flew in with my riding gear, tool kit, and a handful of cash.
On the way into Hanoi from the airport, I saw a flat motorcyclist in the first four kilometres. He and his 100-cc Honda had been run over by a dump truck making a left turn in front of him. Wearing no helmet, his head had popped grey matter 10-15 feet away as if someone had stepped on a tomato, and his motorcycle was the width of a bicycle. I thought, “Maybe it is as bad as the tourist book says it is over here.”
Vietnam is roughly the size of New Mexico, but it is long and thin. North and west of Hanoi are mountains, to the south flat fields and beaches along the 2,000 miles of coastline. The population density is more than 225 persons per square kilometre, making the country one of the world’s highest for a mostly agricultural country. Per capita income is around $300 per year. That made me wonder how people could survive on $20 to $100 per month, especially in major cities like Hanoi.
The price to western tourists for sleeping, eating, and local sightseeing was low. I opted for a clean hotel in the Old Quarter with cable TV, air conditioning, 24-hour hot water, elevator, restaurant, in-room bathroom/toilet, telephone, and free Internet use for $22.00 USD per night. Cheaper could be had for as little as $5.00, but I needed the room for only a few nights, and wanted something secure for my cameras and personal belongings while I hunted for a motorcycle during the day. The fat cats can also be right at home in Hanoi. Nearby was the Sofitel Metropole Hotel where rooms started at $200.00 per night and probably came with a turndown service at bedtime with a packaged chocolate on the pillow. I was quite comfortable with my $22.00 per night room. While my hotel did not have a lounge, my room came with a stocked refrigerator that included beer for seventy-five cents.
Two blocks away I found Master Mechanic Cuong’s Motorbikes at his shop Cuong’s Motorbike Adventure. He specializes in “Buying, Selling, Repairing and Renting.” His fleet is comprised mostly of Russian-made Minsk 125-cc two-stroke motorcycles. These are larger than the average motorcycles in Vietnam, which run in the 100cc to 110cc range, and used to come into Vietnam in large numbers from the Minsk factory in Belarus. The factory has shifted to bicycle production and last year produced only 40,000 motorcycles, few of which made it to Vietnam. I was able to locate the Minsk dealer in Hanoi, who had six new motorcycles for sale, for about $600.00 each.
Once I found Cuong, I was faced with some options. I could purchase a motorcycle, use it, and then sell it back to him at some loss. For $5.00 a day, I could rent one. Or I could buy one, ride it down to Ho Chi Min City (formerly Saigon), about 1,200 miles south and sell it there.
While I was trying to decide on what to do over the next three weeks, Digby Greenhalgh dropped in the one-room shop. Digby and his partner Dan Dockery run a motorcycle tour company called Explore Indochina and are principal movers and shakers in the Minsk Club. Digby was collecting a couple of clients who had booked a short tour. He told me what I could expect if I rode Highway 1A south to HCMC. He used terms like “flat,” “rice fields,” “Traffic,” “good paved road,” and “pretty boring,” but did sprinkle the description with “nice beaches,” “DMZ, “Viet Cong tunnels” and “Saigon city.”
Then, I asked him, “Well, what’s up here in the north?” He said, “Thick jungle, red mud, hill tribes, remote villages where no one speaks French or English, the Ho Chi Minh Trail, Laos, China, mountains, and Cat Ba Island. I hear the road to Mai Chau and Diem Bien Phu may be closed, so you would have to figure out a way around. You could make a nice loop, take a couple of weeks, and end up back in Hanoi. It might be a bit risky though, being out there alone and not knowing the bike, language or customs.”
He hooked me with one word, risky. I slammed down the map, said “Gimme one of those Minsks and point me west, out of town. I’m no reclined rider. Let me see how you define risk. I’m up to the challenge, I just want to know if the Minsk is?”
Digby smiled at me like I was a newbie to the motorcycle adventure game, then said, “Trust me mate, it’ll do you right.”
The Master Mechanic set me up with a “cheater Minsk.” It had been punched out to 150-ccs and used a Yamaha piston to give it more grunt. The spindly Minsk forks had been replaced with some heftier MZ forks. Junk levers had been replaced, and the rear shocks were off a Honda. I later learned that nearly 90% of the Minsk parts are now made in Vietnam and Cuong knew what needed fixing to make the stock Minsk reliable.
Mine looked knackered. It lacked a speedometer, tachometer, ignition switch, or indicator lights for charging or turn signals, all having been removed. In fact, it had no key; the theory being if it had a key it would get lost. It did have turn signals, and they worked after a bulb was replaced. The paint was faded, the tank scratched, the seat was torn and rust was eating at the Russian chrome. The mechanic made up a spare parts kit for me that included major electrical components, cables, spark plugs, an inner tube, and then handed me a cloth-wrapped tool kit. He said, “You know anything about motorcycles?” and I told him, “a little.”
He said, “If it won’t start, or runs poorly, check the spark plug or replace it. If that doesn’t fix it, start replacing electrical parts with the ones we give you. In any city or town where you are going, you’ll be able to find someone who can work on these Minsks. Oh, and here is a repair manual.” He handed me a photocopied 50-page Minsk Repair Manual, written in English.
I wandered back to my hotel thinking it was a bad sign, being given a dirty pile of tools, spare parts, and a well-thumbed repair manual before heading off into the unknown with a bike that looked like it should be used for parts instead of a rider. As I read the manual while having a dinner of beef and French fries, chased by several Halida and Tiger beers, my trepidation level slowly went down. When I closed the manual, I felt it had told me enough to know the motorcycle was pretty simple. Then, I saw the author’s name, Digby Greenhalgh.
The next morning it was raining, a good heavy rain, and I had not brought my rain gear from my apartment in Thailand where they had not seen rain for months. I decided to play tourist for the day, try to find an XL rain suit, and plan to leave the next day. While hunting a rain suit on the streets of Hanoi, I found Uncle Ho.
Contrary to the express wishes of Ho Chi Minh (Uncle Ho as he is affectionately called), he was not cremated. Instead, the Russians embalmed him and the Vietnamese have him in a very nice mausoleum that is maintained at ice-box temperature. Each year the mausoleum is closed while the embalmed corpse goes back to Russia for maintenance. It was open as I passed by so I joined the respectful pilgrimage line.
Before I got to the entrance, the guards made me leave my small packsack and cameras at a kiosk. Since I had my walking around cash, an inch thick stack of dong (Vietnamese money) in the packsack, I pulled my dong out and stuffed it in my front pants pocket. The dong was a tight fit, so I kept it in with my fingers to keep it from popping out in front of everybody.
As I entered the deathly quiet mausoleum, another guard made me take off my dark glasses. Wearing dark glasses was a sign of disrespect and I obliged, not wanting to be disrespectful in any way.
My glasses are bifocals, so without them, I could barely see Uncle Ho as we quickly moved forward to file past his prone corpse. As I approached, another guard tried to pull my hand out of my pocket. I later learned having your hand in your pocket is another sign of disrespect, and I agree. As my hand came out of my pocket, so did my dong, landing on the floor. Then things got exciting.
The guard pointed at my dong, then at the prone Uncle Ho. Without my glasses, I could not see if big dongs or little dongs were being offered to Uncle Ho, so I started to try to sort out a respectful presentation. This had slowed the quickly snaking line to a halt while I fumbled with my dong and tried to figure out why the guard was getting frisky, and then two others joined him. They were trying to force my dong back into my pocket, and I was unsure why. Then they got me moving with an escort on either side. I was hustled along the hushed walkway and into the sunlight outside. No one had said a word. Once outside I was admonished in rapid-fire Vietnamese, sternly I think. My response was the same as whenever I am confronted with perceived personal stupidity. I said, “I am sorry about my dong, please forgive me for my stupidity for having so little. I am a Texas tourist.”
That seemed to do the trick. The guards seemed to knowingly nod, then went back inside leaving me on the sidewalk, dong in hand. Later I learned no one placed money, or anything else, around the sarcophagus. Earlier in the day, I had visited a pagoda and was told that to leave money (dong or dollars) in front of the Buddha was for good luck, which I had done. No one told me it was bad form to do the same in front of Uncle Ho and without my glasses, I could not clearly see much past two feet in front of me.
My experience with Uncle Ho, while short, taught me much about Vietnamese culture and respect. Next time I will wear my clear glasses and leave my dong with the sack. The inch-thick stack was only worth about $5.00 anyway, not worth being disrespectful for.
The next day I rode the Minsk out of Hanoi headed to Dien Bien Phu, the Last Stand for the French. Digby was right about the road being closed. I had to double back, then find a boat that would take the motorcycle and me three hours up the Ho Song Da reservoir. As five locals lifted the 200-pound Minsk up and onto the bow of the boat, then ten took it off at the end and up a steep embankment, I was thankful it was not my 500-pound BMW.
I did some poking around in the small villages along the way. I saw much more Minsk motorcycles than in Hanoi and soon became confident that if something did go wrong with mine, there would be someone who could sort it out if I could not. In the mud and ruts of the jungle tracks, I was grateful to have the small bike as it almost happily slipped and slid through the red and brown muck. Had I had the BMW I would have been flopping in the tracks. On the Minsk, I fell not once.
Age or wisdom was a factor in my decisions as I turned around several times after deciding not to go further into the jungles. Looking down one muddy footpath into a village below I knew I could slip and slid down. I also knew it would be a long day and possible night pushing and pulling the Minsk back up the kilometre of mud if the trail did not go onward and eventually double back to the road. Ten years earlier I would have gone into the village without thinking about returning. Experience has taught me not all roads continue and pushing and pulling overburdened motorcycles is for the younger and foolish.
There are more articles about motorcycling in Vietnam and you can read more by following this link