Russian Chainsaws vs The North Western Vietnamese Mountains by Matt and Trace Ward
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Belching smoke and with a high-revving high-pitch whine, the Minsk is a cast iron machine geared to challenge the unexplored territory hidden throughout northern Vietnam. Chiseled from steel, welded with rust, and camouflaged in mud, the Minsk is the sweaty workhorse of Vietnam’s rural economy. Seen hauling pigs, buffaloes, lounge chairs, coffins, horses, and even full, occupied, and bubbling fish tanks, the Minsk will get you where you want to go. It’s tough, cheap, and simple to fix, a fresh piston will set you back $18US (including labour), while a new set of tyres can be had for $20US. Found around the world in all the truly interesting places, like Afghanistan, Mongolia, and Vietnam, this bike is a true testimony to former Soviet Power.

Mat: It was after reading this that we decided to look into buying a couple of Minsks for travel in Vietnam and Laos (we read it on the website of the Minsk Club of Vietnam – a bunch of expats who would rather ride an old farm bike than be seen on yet another Honda scooter).

Offroad Vietnam Motorbike Adventures - Russian Chainsaws, Vietnam Biking Report. Local Minsk.

So we arrived in Hanoi and tracked down “Cuong” a legendary Minsk mechanic. He fixes the local expat’s bikes, hires bikes out to tourists, and sells reconditioned bikes. The beauty is he replaces just about everything on a Minsk with gear that works and sells them for US$400. Unfortunately, the carburettor on Trace’s bike was not new, but that is another story. The fact we would own the bikes, and that they were the familiar Minsk would also mean that there would be a very good chance of getting the bikes across the border to Laos to meet up with Jeremy in Feb.

So after inspecting the bikes and taking them for a ride, we agreed to buy them if a tool kit and two sets of spare parts were thrown in on the deal. Cuong also agreed to get his boys to spray kiwis on our bikes if we found a stencil.

Next door to Cuong’s shop we found some fantastic motorbike gear. We bought a jacket and a pair of pants each. I bought a German-brand jacket and pants that have cunning Dupont materials, 3M materials, removable lining, and CE-rated protection inserts for US$97. We looked the gear up on the net and it was going for US$650! I think the German company sends the materials here to be made up and we got the seconds or maybe the results of a back door deal. We also got good full-face Taiwanese helmets at a shop that Cuong recommended. We felt that protective gear was pretty important in Vietnam, especially after our first day riding when we saw two fatal motorbike accidents that would have happened within the 20 mins of us arriving. Unbelievably they were within 3km of each other. Quite shocking to see 3 dead teenage guys lying on the road. All head injuries, no helmets. We looked like Robocop, but we were going to be safer, dry, and warm.

We planned to head north to Sapa via Mai Chau, Son La, Dien Bien Phu, and Lai Chau, then head to Lao Cai and take the train with the bikes south back to Hanoi. Good times.

The first afternoon was bitterly cold as we headed over a pass to Mai Chau where we stayed the night. The next morning was just as bad. Wet freezing mist, with little visibility. Numb finger stuff. Trace and I both wondered what kind of trip we had got ourselves into. But on the second day after a couple of hours in the cold, we descended to lower altitudes and it was a lot warmer (it remained like this for most of the trip). We pulled up at a local hotel in Moc Chau which had a heater and hung our wet gear up and life was good.

The next day we decided to head on a side trip to the Laos border (at Pa Hang). A good excuse to have an explore. The border guards looked very surprised to see us and were firm about us staying away from the border barrier area, but overall quite friendly. The senior guy spoke a little English and we managed to confirm that it was likely that we could cross the border with the bikes at Na Meo further south. So after a couple of photos, (which initially they did not allow, but Trace warmed them up to it) we headed back to Moc Chau.

— or tried to head back to Moc Chau. Halfway back Trace’s bike died and despite having a long hill to crash start it down, I could not get it going. So amongst about 50 villagers I pulled the toolkit out and took out the spark-plug, which was coated with black deposits. After finding a new spark plug in the kit and taking longer than I should have to get the thing back in (the thread on the engine was cross-threaded and the pressure of so many people watching me – and laughing – was too much) we fired it up and headed off. Back at Moc Chau we checked the new plug and it too was black after only 20 kms. After reading the very helpful Minsk repair manual we were given by Cuong I knew this was not good and meant that the bike was running too rich. But I did not want to play with the mixture settings too much because I did not really know what the hell I was doing, so we took it to a local “XE May” shop (motorbike mechanic) and he turned it. He was the first of three mechanics we would take Trace’s bike to (using a phone call to Cuong in Hanoi for advice and translation) as well as untold tinkering by me before we resigned ourselves to the fact that Trace’s carburettor was bung and bought a new one in Dien Bien Phu (which Cuong said he would pay for). In all, I think we would have taken the spark-plug out 30 times. We did learn quite a bit about the bike though. Good practice for when we get away from Minsk mechanics in Laos.

So from Moc Chau, we headed north, staying in Son La for the night. The next day was a bit of hard work with Trace coming off in the sand at some road works, landing ungracefully on her helmeted face in the sand. Luckily her neck is so fused from falling off horses that she didn’t bat an eyelid and once I had bent the wheel back in line she happily hopped back on headed off. So small – so tough. The ride was also tense because of Trace’s bike problem, with our cleaning and replacing her spark-plug many times. We spluttered into a small place called Muong Ang and decided to call it a day rather than head to Dien Bien Phu in the dark. In Muong Ang we stopped at what I think was a tire shop and used a wire grinder to clean her plugs in the hope we would make it to Dien Bien Phu 42km away before we had totally fouled the 5 plugs we had. I got my stand fixed after breaking it as I tried to bend it lower. Then just as I was wheeling my bike to the “guest-house” Trace had found, I dropped it and broke the brake lever and its bracket. Sigh. And I got some mild food poisoning that night. Big sigh.

Offroad Vietnam Motorbike Adventures - Russian Chainsaws, Vietnam Biking Report. Riding on a misty day.

We had been expecting a lower level of friendliness in northern Vietnam, but this could not have been further from the truth in the rural areas. Maybe not up to Laos’s standards, but friendly and helpful all the same. At our numerous stops to get Trace’s bike going, the locals virtually pushed us away so they could help.

I think that one of the most interesting aspects of our ride was the clothing and jewellery of the ethnic minority women. If we had not been in areas with very few tourists, I would think they were dressing up as they do for a tourist show. Apparently, there are around 50 different ethnic minorities in Vietnam (OV: 54). I can only tell the difference between Hmong and Dao. For this reason alone, it would have been interesting to have a guide to explain aspects of minority culture to us. We were told by a guy that had 5 guidebooks on Vietnam (yes 5) that women are “sold” at a young age (their family receives a dowry) and are treated in most cases as possessions or the family worker. We saw many indications of this first hand with the women carrying large loads (really large loads) of firewood or the like while their skinny black-leather-jacketed husband walked (or rode) behind smoking.

After making it to Dien Bien Phu we hung about for 5 days. A couple of these were to get the bike looked at and to test the bike on a ride to another border with Laos, then we had an aborted ride north where we had to turn back after 2 hours of riding and 4 hours at a small Xe May, then we waited for 2 days because we were told that we could get visa extensions there for US$10 (by the immigration office itself) but after 2 days waiting we were told we could be issued the visa extensions and needed to go to Hanoi to get them. Frustrating considering I had 3 days left on mine. We did not want to rush back to Hanoi so we ended up posting our passports back to the awesome woman at our hotel in Hanoi and she sorted extensions out for us. Dien Bien Phu is where the French really had their arses kicked by the Viet Minh, so there are quite a few interesting sites to check out (which we did after being stuck there for 5 days). Not that there was any real information anywhere in English about the sites or history. I found an Internet cafe and googled Dien Bien Phu to learn more about the place!

From Dien Bien Phu we headed north to Lai Chau. Or at least I think its current name is Lai Chau (OV: Muong Lay). This area of Vietnam is incredibly confusing as far as town names go because a massive dam is under construction and they are swapping the names around due to the need in the future to relocate communities. Crazy stuff. We left Lai Chau (OV: Muong Lay), rode for 2 days then arrived in Lai Chau?? Or how about: “how far is it to Tam Duong?” “here Tam Duong” “I thought this was Pa So” “yes” “mmmm” long pause — “oh you mean the other Tam Duong, that’s 25 km away”!!! The language barrier is hard enough without swapping town names on us. Speaking of which, when you get to Vietnam you breathe a sigh of relief because the French changed the Chinese-type script to the Latin lettering we are familiar with, but with additional squiggly bits to indicate the various intonations for tones and certain letters. On appearance, this would seem much better than the Thai, Cambodian, or Laos script that is unintelligible to us. But it isn’t, well as far as trying to speak the language goes. For instance, depending on the intonation of the an in “Ma” it can mean at least four totally different things (horse, rice seeding, mother, or ghost). It is very discouraging to be greeted by a completely blank face when you try your best to pronounce something as basic as “Pho” (which is critical because it means noodle soup!). The actual pronunciation is something like “far-ar”. At most meals, we would try to pronounce “toi an chay” correctly (we are vegetarian) but in the end, would give in and just show them the written words with the cunning little dots and commas in the right place. Luckily tofu is pronounced “dough fu” so we usually get that out. I have also mastered “Ca fe phin” for the strong filtered coffee, as well as “bia” for beer!

From Lai Chau (the first one) we went on what we thought would be a relaxed day trip of 55km to Sin Ho to check out the Sunday market. It was not relaxing. Quite fun though. The road which we found out later used to be notoriously bad was now “new”, which means “under construction”, which is probably worse. The Vietnamese attack a road that is being upgraded by having many many teams working at once in different areas. This is good for the progress of the road, but terrible if you are trying to travel it, as just about the whole road is cut up or spread with rocks. Trace loved it though so we plodded on, up, and up. By the end of the road works, we were at 1,600m after leaving Lai Chau at 200m. From there the road was old which was vastly better than the “new” and we made better time to Sin Ho. Due to the fact that it took us 2.5 hours to travel the worst 20km to Sin Ho, we missed the morning market, but this meant that as we neared Sin Ho we passed all the minority women heading back. They were awesome. If I had have been walking rather than riding I would have been able to get some amazing photos. You have never seen such fantastic faces as the ones we saw on that ride.

The next day we headed north again, with a side trip to the Chinese border, before getting to Tam Duong (or whatever it’s called). After Trace had slept for 15 hours we left for Sapa, climbing through the mountains to arrive at a very touristy, but beautiful town. The Queenstown of Vietnam. Sapa may be touristy, but it was just what we felt like after our 1,200km on the bikes. We chilled out for six enjoyable days (including our first wedding anniversary) before heading to Lao Cai and getting the overnight train south with our bikes back to Hanoi.

Offroad Vietnam Motorbike Adventures - Russian Chainsaws, Vietnam Biking Report. Ricefield road.

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