Pop Goes The Motorbike In Vietnam by Bill Bainbridge
Original location: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/LAC.20070120.MINSK20/TPStory/Travel
Locals have turned fixing a Minsk dirt bike into a fine art. All they need is a bit of string and a ratty old T-shirt.
There are two things you need to know about a Minsk.
The first, as everyone in Vietnam will tell you, is that the Belorussian-manufactured two-stroke dirt bike is so simply designed it can be fixed almost anywhere, by almost anyone with almost anything. According to the Minsk Club website, all you need to run this trusty old buffalo of a bike is “a spark, a puff of air and a splash of petrol,” preferably in the same place at the same time.
Among Hanoi’s expats – enthralled to the cult of the Minsk – stories abound of clutch plates fashioned out of pop cans, air filters from old T-shirts and engines rebuilt on the side of a mountain pass by nine-year-old buffalo herders.
The second thing you need to know about Minsks, but which everyone in Vietnam will neglect to tell you, is that the reason the bikes’ owners are so well versed in the art of improvised motorbike repair is that the Minsk is such an utterly decrepit piece of engineering that it breaks down continually – and almost always when you are a substantial distance away from anything more useful than an old T-shirt and an empty pop can.
Now it may appear that the second piece of information flows logically from the first. Eventually, it appeared that way to me too. Unfortunately, I made this realization long after my three friends had converged on my house in Hanoi looking for a trip into Vietnam’s northern mountains.
“Great, let’s hire Minsks. They’re really good because it doesn’t matter where they break down you, can fix them with nothing but an old Coke can,” I said.
Hanoi does happen to have a supplier of the only reliable Minks known to man at Cuong’s Repair Shop.
Unfortunately, riding in Hanoi’s traffic at peak hour means entering a crazed tangle of motorbikes intersecting at every possible angle at high speeds.
My friends – a lawyer, an architect and a civil servant – are not quite the hardened dirt-bike-riding men-of-leather-and-steel they imagine themselves to be. One look at the Hanoi traffic and they were ready to hop a plane to Hoi An in the south for a bit of sitting on the beach and shopping for smart trousers.
“No problem,” I said. “Overnight train to Lao Cai, hire Minsks there, avoid the traffic, then ride up to the mountains.”
Actually, there is a third piece of information you need to know about Minsks: Reliable Minsks do not exist in Lao Cai. In fact, there are almost no Minsks at all in the Chinese border town. If they’re any good, the locals hang on to them. If they’re not, apparently they rent them to tourists.
After being met at the station by a tout with a proficient knack for lying his head off, we headed to a café where we were promised four reliable and attractive 125-cc beasts. Two hours later, he had managed to scrounge two dishevelled, but worthy-looking Minsks, a new(ish) Honda Wave scooter and a decade-old Honda scooter covered in Hello Kitty stickers.
Our friendly tout tried to persuade us to replace the Minsks with two more Hondas, but we were already down to two of the wonder bikes and would have none of it.
We really did have our hearts set on Minsks. Not so much on riding them but definitely on being photographed looking cool while standing in front of them and a Vietnamese mountain background.
We first headed east to Bac Ha: a hill tribe hamlet populated by the Flower H’mong, one of Vietnam’s ethnic minorities. The H’mong are said to have migrated here from southern China about 300 years ago and have retained their language and traditions, including the startlingly beautiful costumes with brightly coloured embroidery.
Bac Ha is less famous than nearby Sapa, but that is its chief blessing. The good people of Sapa spend their time cornering tourists and pressuring them to invest in a throw rug that will leech purple dye like it is bleeding to death from a severed artery. But at the Bac Ha Saturday market tourists go relatively undisturbed while the locals get on with the important business of selling each other noodles, pigs and textiles.
And the best thing is, it is only a two-hour ride from Lao Cai through spectacular mountainous landscape. At least it is if you’re on a little Honda with Hello Kitty stickers. If you’re on a Minsk, it might take a bit longer. Say about eight hours longer.
A whirring sound and large pop preceded the first Minsk breakdown, high on a mountain pass about 15 kilometres from Bac Ha. Fortunately, a nine-year-old buffalo herder was nearby. I can’t tell you what he knew about buffaloes but let me tell you this: He knew distressingly little about Minsks.
No problem. Within minutes, three local guys had stopped and were standing around the bike necking rice wine from an old plastic bottle. We did our best to look bewildered by the complexities of the Minsk in the hope of eliciting some sympathy. It worked and a tool kit consisting of a hammer and a couple of bent spanners came out.
Our two Honda-riding buddies headed to town for lunch and a massage. We wouldn’t be far behind. These Vietnamese equivalent of bush mechanics know Minsks like the backs of their hands and could rebuild one with as little as a nail file and a bit of string.
We hovered in the shade taking occasional polite sips of rice wine and watched as rotating shifts of passersby pulled the engine to pieces, threw some offending bit of machinery off the side of the mountain, reassembled it, then failed to get the spark, puff of air or splash of petrol remotely in the same vicinity as one another.
No matter, this happened only three more times over the next four hours. At least the nine-year-old buffalo herder was learning a lot about Minsk engines.
A few shrugs of disappointment later and after pushing the bikes about two kilometres up a practically vertically inclined hill, we found just what we so desperately needed all along: a garage/café with a stash of cold beer. For a mere five times the price charged to locals, the mechanic happily rebuilt our engine entirely, being sure to fashion a new head gasket from a bit of a cardboard box. Eight hours later, we were back on the road to Bac Ha.
The next day, we opted to take the mountain road to Sapa. The best thing about Sapa is it is only a three-hour ride southwest from Bac Ha down the breathtaking mountain road past cascading waterfalls and terraced rice fields. At least it is if you’re on a little Honda with Hello Kitty stickers. If you’re on a Minsk, it might take a bit longer.
There are many more articles about motorcycling in Vietnam and you can read more by following this link