ADV Rider Magazine

Slow Bike to China

by Sean Goldhawk

Sean Goldhawk wrote this article about his time exploring Vietnam with us for ADV Rider Magazine. He took a real interest in our 125cc Minsks and 650cc Urals!

Slow Bike to China

Less than 10hp doesn’t seem like enough to get a fully loaded bike around the steep inclines of the Chinese-border area of northern Vietnam, but Sean Goldhawk found the strange-looking, custom-built Minsk-Honda hybrids were the right tool for a spectacular Asian adventure.
Some research confirmed the mountainous region to Hanoi’s north in Vietnam was an adventure-riding nirvana with stunning views and countless singletrack trails. Our mate and trip instigator, Ian Heath, lived in Hanoi so had the inside line on how, when and where. He contacted fellow Vietnam resident Digby Greenhalgh from Overland Indochina, the mob behind a number of high-profile TV shows including Top Gear does Ha Long Bay. Digby recommended we hire his sweep rider, Long, a mechanic by trade rather than a tour leader, and with basic English skills. Long knew the terrain and that’s what we wanted to tap into.

The Pace of Life

Meshing into the local environment is a major part of the Vietnam experience, and the slower pace of life forces a rider to absorb the surroundings. There are no cars outside the cities, so scooter traffic tootles along at around 30kph carrying wardrobes, livestock and other unlikely cargo. Powering through hill-tribe villages would’ve been plain rude.
Excess speed would also have made a collision likely: water buffalo, chicken, dog, pig, baby – we had to swerve around one that crawled out of a hut – or one of the many other obstacles that made the ride so entertaining were everywhere. The area was remote in that there were no roads…at least not what we considered roads. But it was well populated and we had to keep the brakes covered even at half the speed we’d ride in the Aussie bush. A trip to a local hospital wasn’t recommended.

Long Travel

Long led a spectacular adventure on trails that required a hefty amount of local knowledge. Only the main roads were marked on maps or GPS. One in particular we dubbed ‘The World’s Best Singletrack’ for its combination of drop-offs, elevation changes and varied scenery, including a pine forest and an overgrown section.
They know how to do singletrack in ’Nam, mainly because most trails are ridden by locals on scooters. But not all of them. We learned the hard way to tell if they were going to be rideable or too steep. A smooth, polished line showed scooter use and a trail was good to go, but a cut-up path indicated water buffalo, and they like things on the vertical. Erzberg terrain with scooter power was best avoided.
The food was fresh, tasty and no-one got crook – although dog is an acquired taste and we gave the bee vodka a swerve. The locals were so damn happy and friendly it set us thinking how we’d stuffed that up back home, and we wondered if the situation could everbe reversed. And the trails exceeded expectation. Every night the local homestay accommodation, or hotels in the bigger villages, made sure we had enough beer in the fridge. Breakfast and dinner was a local restaurant and lunch was out on the trail.

Fix Anywhere

We spent more time ogling the gorges, canyons and rice terraces than studying the trail, so low speed equalled high entertainment. And most importantly, when we were trickling along a single- track with a 500m drop on one side, the last thing we needed was horsepower. Or weight. Or seat height. Add in polished red clay and the low power output, combined with the ability to put both feet flat on the floor, and we started to really recalibrate our adventure-bike selection criteria. I lost count of the number of times I thought, ‘I’m glad I’m not on a 1200 here’.
Then consider that with carefully selected local parts, the small-capacity, locally developed Minsks could be rebuilt in any village from Hanoi to Beijing.
The custom-built bikes really shone, but we took some convincing at first. When we specced the adventure, with instruction to include dirt and lots of it, we expected to ride Honda XR250s or something similar. But we were directed to the Belarus-made Minsk with limited suspension, an 18-inch front wheel and an engine from a Vietnamese-made Honda 125cc scooter. We thought medieval torture would be preferable to eight hours a day in the saddle of those boneshakers, but happily we were wrong.

Its Own Reward

There were too many ride high- lights to convey in this short yarn, but top of the list had to be the positive and open nature of the locals. The smiling faces, the high fives the kids gave that near knocked us off our bikes, the impromptu game of Frisbee in a hill village that had every- one involved, the man with a giant pig on his bike laughing like a maniac when I shifted down when I meant to shift up, avoiding nails on the planks of a rickety bridge, the sweet smell of star anise drying on the side of the road…they were all small things that left big memories.
The jaw-dropping scenery prevented major-road access, so the best way to see this area was by bike. But it seems inevitable traffic will increase, bringing with it bigger roads and more tourists. And yes, we’re aware of the irony of highlighting the trip in a magazine to entice more people to the area. That’s likely to change things more rapidly.
In the meantime, if you like your adventure packed with blink-and-you-miss-it moments, then a northern Vietnam border crawl is the go. If nothing else, the trip will remind you a simple life is also a rewarding one.
The locals are genuinely happy with next-to-nothing and enjoy a lifestyle unhindered by western rules and regulations. They kept the secret we threw out a long time ago. So act quickly. You can always slow down when you get there.

The Motorcycles

The Pimped Minsk takes the all-steel, ex-soviet Minsk 125 and replaces the woeful, oil-burning, two-stroke mill with something much more viable – an electric-start, 125cc, four-stroke Honda Future motor with increased reliability and super economy. And no choking fumes to inhale. The Honda has a four-speed box with centrifugal auto clutch, but this is converted to manual-clutch operation. The ’box has a down-for-up shift and a circular pattern, meaning you can shift from fourth to neutral – causing much humour and many slow getaways.
Next up, the original and average front drum brake has been binned and an 18-inch steel rim is now laced to a Honda scooter disc-brake hub. The 18-inch rim was chosen because it’s quick-steering and low to the ground…and you can’t get 21-inch tyres or tubes outside of Hanoi. The rear wheel now matches the front, so one tube/tyre fits both ends. The front tyre is a Vietnamese-made SRC brand which stands for Steel Reinforced Concrete (probably) and offers minimal grip but zero wear. Yet, strangely, it goes well on red clay.
Forks are from Suzuki, the rear shocks from a Vietnamese-brand bike and both suspension travel and ground clearance are…challenging. We had three working fork seals between three bikes, but there was nothing to worry about there. Footpegs could’ve been wider to help when standing and there’s a big gap between first and second.
On the plus side, the Pimped Minsk runs a chaincase for minimal maintenance, mudflaps, homemade waterproof panniers and neat, home- made bungee straps. Clutch operation is super light and seats are locally made and really plush.
The Pimped Minsk blends the best of the built-tough original machine with local knowledge to result in a bike that’s ideally suited-to-purpose. Plus, for the less-technical riding, Explore Indochina also offers pimped Ural 650s with disc front brakes replacing the original drums.