The mighty Minsk motorcycle is 100cc of pure 2-cycle muscle, a snarling beast ready to rip apart the toughest mountain roads while spreading a cloud of oil smoke that no mosquito can survive, a soviet area secret weapon known by few Americans. I had always wanted to romp through the hills on this machine and a trip through the north of Vietnam seemed just the ticket to celebrate my 63rd birthday. The best way to meet people anywhere is on a bike and the Minsk was sure to offer many opportunities.
Because contradicting rumors persist about the reliability of the Minsk, my son Rick decided to rent a Honda in case we got into trouble and needed a way to seek help. Motorcycle repair shops, although numerous Vietnam, don’t always have the right parts. Although no longer built, the Minsk remains popular for its simplicity. It might be prone to breakdowns but no bike is more basic or easier to fix, as long as you can find the parts. And cheap? A mechanic will re-build the engine for about $60 and you can buy a rebuilt Minsk, new tires and all, for $350 in Hanoi.
Driving through Hanoi to get the Minsk out of town is rather similar to entering a demolition derby. Bikes emerge from everywhere and from every direction. Half the population in town owns a motorbike and they all seem to be on the streets at the same time and heading directly at you. There are highway rules and laws in the country but none are observed or enforced. Biking means every person for himself. The only difference between a red light and a green light is the color. Because the people are used to driving this way accidents are surprisingly few. No insurance is available or required and offended parties suffering bumped fenders and sprained knees work problems out on the spot.
Horns constantly blared as we drove from town, bikes, busses, trucks, and cars darting every which way. Truong, my Vietnamese friend, was happy to lead the way out of Hanoi since road signs are practically non-existent. The names of street signs change about every block and none of the roads run straight. Rick took the lead but was soon lost in traffic. He missed a basic rule when traveling in groups: stay with the person “behind” you. I was not sure where he went when I came to a Y in the road. We were going to spend the night in Ban Lac, a Thai village outside Mai Chau. No signs led to Mai Chau nor did any indicate highway 6, the route we were using for most of the trip.
I took a chance and veered to the right and entered the start of some beautiful country, flat land covered with various crops, dancing chickens, and grazing cows. Few water buffalos inhabit this part of the country and the cows are raised for milk and for beef. Water buffalo abound in the Villages in the mountains where they are used for work and play. The country is more severe there and the buffalos are a tougher than cows. They are also tough to eat, not just because of their rubbery meat but because they are not eaten until they practically die of old age.
Highway 6 forms the first part of what is known as the Northwest loupe that leads to the former French resort town of Sapa.
The Minsk putted along fine, a cloud of smoke rising from its exhaust. Since the oil and gas must be mixed by hand at a five percent ratio, Truong’s only advice was to make sure the engine smoked. Forget about the ratio. If it did not smoke, add more oil. The 4-speed gearing is fairly low, another reason it is popular in the hill country.
Pleasant villages wallpapered the road, people busy trotting about with fresh goods, others coking and eating on the sidewalks. Temples of various religions are scattered throughout Vietnam. I stopped at several of the more elaborate ones for pictures and for a chance to sit in the shade to cool off. The heat is bad but it is the humidity that’s tears at you, 95% and up.
Fishing boats crowded into a cove at Vu Ban on the Black River. On the bank of the river I talked with an old man who pointed out several objects of importance in the area. I had no idea what he was saying nor could he understand me. Please, thank you, and knowing how to ask for the toilet are about all I have ever learned in preparation for any travel anywhere. That small vocabulary has gotten me through most European countries including Russia. I much prefer the animation of sign and body language to make a point. I really believe such gyrations gets me more in touch with the people. The women and children in Vietnam find it especially amusing and we have had many a good laugh over my wide and exaggerated body and arm swings, sucking in my cheeks and pointing to my mouth to show I am hungry, pointing and scratching my head indicating I am lost, choking myself to show the price they are asking for a hat, etc. Various objects often figure in my antics and I a carry sets of chattering teeth in my pocket for when the occasion arises. Nothing says friendship like chattering teeth.
I ran into my son just outside Mai Chau. His Honda had broken down. I always carry nylon cord and I hooked his bike to the back of mine and pulled it to the next town. We had just started to catch the border of a typhoon and the rain came pouring down. It seems that every person on any route sells drinks and pho, a delicious noodle soup. While I worked on the bike a woman brought us tea and a bowls of soup. She refused to accept any payment for it, something I discovered several times on the trip. Twice I took the Honda to shops and both times the mechanics refused payment although they had worked on it for over an hour. Truong, explained their behavior. Because I was experiencing a difficult time, they did not wish to add to my problems. Decency and courtesy over profit. What a concept! I don’t know how the motorbike shops make a living since people who go there usually need help.
We spent the night at the White Thai village of Ban Lac. Any home stay is better than the best hotel accommodations. Villagers in Vietnam willingly open their homes to travelers. There is no set price for the night and they are happy to accept several dollars in payment. I suspect that if you did not pay them at all they would not complain. Vietnamese don’t whine about anything and tend to be perpetually pleasant. We slept on bamboo mats in an upstairs room of a stilt house and were treated to both dinner and breakfast before we left. They are very subtle in their kindness. One mat was placed on the floor for Rick to sleep on, three mats for me. (I get it, I need to loose some weight!) An added bonus was the picture of a uniformed soldier in a frame on the wall. He was the father of an older woman in the home and was a decorated hero of the battle of Dien Bien Phu. An award, signed by Ho Chi Min, was tacked beside the picture.
Spectacular is the only way to describe the country of the highlands. Jagged cliffs surround lush valleys and water pours from the hills. It is always best to stop and enjoy the view rather than doing it while driving. Vietnamese roads are a challenge. Sometimes gravel, sometimes dirt or mud, occasionally paved, often washed out, they remain a trial and the moment you take your eyes away, expect disaster. It is not unusual to find grades of 12% or greater, a tough haul for the Minsk that squealed and howled like a character from “Deliverance,” at every incline. The water, muddy on the lowlands, starts to clear the higher you go until it becomes crystal clear. The one temptation I could not resist was to jump in for a cool dip every few miles, swim suits optional.
There are 54 ethnic groups in Vietnam. Any attempt to contact them all will end in failure because, like the country, many are so remote. Within the last thirty years two new animal species have been discovered in the hills. Nothing says remote more than that fact. Traveling though the tribal villages is a step back in time. The women still wear traditional dress, not as costumes to impress tourists, of whom there are few, but as their regular clothing. Children ride about on water buffalo, men plow fields using wooden plows, and various grains are still harvested by hand. The idea of work appears to have a spiritual concept. I knew most villagers could chip in and buy a tractor. When I asked a woman harvesting rice why they did not buy a tractor she looked at me as if I had no sense, and said, “then what would we do?”
Sapa, the coolest and least humid place in Vietnam, is the retreat destination for anyone in the country. It sits high in the hills surrounded by ethnic villages and terraced farms. Mist covers the base of the hills during the mornings and I enjoyed having coffee and watching it slowly dissipate. Sapa was my final destination and the perfect end to a perfect trip. The air is fresh and clean, the people – wonderful. I watched the women carrying goods to market. The Minsk, although taking a battering, had survived fine. All it took to keep it happy was to keep it smoking. Already I was planning the next trip, perhaps to Thac Ban Gioc waterfall on the border with China. There was one thing I could depend upon me getting there, the mighty Minsk. And was I ready to buy a fleet from my new business? Not a chance. They are fine for an old soldier who can accept smoking exhaust, dripping oil, foot pegs and exhaust pipes falling off, attempting to mix oil and petrol without spilling it everywhere, but not for travelers looking for an enjoyable and reliable ride. I have since bought a fleet of Japanese bikes. Not much personality but lots of reliability.