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Top Gear: Vietnam Special

filming the swan boat in action during the Top Gear Vietnam Special

Top Gear: Vietnam Special

Back in 2008, Top Gear came to Vietnam to film one of its best-regarded specials. Jeremy Clarkson, James May, and Richard Hammond were each given 15,000,000 Vietnamese Dong (at the time worth about 400 US dollars) and were challenged to travel 1,000 miles from Ho Chi Minh City up to Ha Long Bay in the north.

the Top Gear crew in Vietnam

BEHIND THE SCENES: MAKING THE AMPHIBIOUS MOTORCYCLES

We made it possible for Top Gear’s presenters to ride out into Ha Long Bay. Watch how we made Top Gear float!

James May’s Honda Cub boat
Richard Hammond’s Pink Minsk boat
Jeremy Clarkson’s Vespa boat

The Original Plan

Explore Indochina got this gig because we were mates with the fixer in charge of scouting out the route. The original plan was for Clarkson, Hammond, and May to drive second-hand cars from Vietnam into Cambodia, Laos, and then back to Vietnam. It was a fool’s-gold idea because you could not buy second-hand cars at that time, let alone get permission to drive them across the border. 

Well, you never say no to dumb money, so we dutifully turned up at the Laotian border and handed the fixer one of our 650cc Urals so that he could scout the final Vietnamese leg of the intended journey (fun fact, the fixer was also a writer for the Lonely Planet guide book, and he used the photo of himself on our Ural as his bio shot in the LP Vietnam Guide Book 2009). This gave us plenty of time to convince him that the car plan was silly and instead they should do it on motorcycles, and if they did, then ‘pretty, pretty please’, could we carry the camera operators on the back of our bikes.

Our cunning plan bore fruit, as Clarkson had also scouted out Vietnam privately, and he too had concluded that the whole car idea was not feasible. So, after the usual exchange of many emails, Explore Indochina was tasked with providing three 650c Ural motorcycles to carry camera operators and sound engineers. Digby carried the lead cameraman on his Ural and thus spent a great deal of time with Clarkson.

Digby and Jeremy Clarkson on a country road

Richard Hammond's Pink Minsk

We were also tasked with prepping the Pink Minsk (which is still in our garage) and May’s Honda Cub (Digby’s wife still rides it). Then someone at the BBC thought it would be a great idea if the presenters could ride their bikes out into the water. The original plan was for them to ride/float some 50 meters out to a floating restaurant that Clarkson had seen while scouting Ha Long Bay.

This floating motorcycle idea seemed a little too ‘la la land unicorn blood’ until one day, Digby walked past a small lake, made famous by John McCain, who crash-landed into it in 1967 after being shot down while making a bombing run over Hanoi. 

Long and short is that nowadays, Truc Bach Lake is crawling with kitschy, swan pedal-powered ‘romantic’ lover boats, so he thought we might be able to connect Hammond’s Minsk to one somehow. After all, these swan things had chains on them, just like motorbikes. Once that process started, he also began thinking about how to convert a 50cc Honda Cub into something that could power a Thailand-style propellor shaft. The Vespa was too complicated for Digby’s small brain to sort out, so he asked a super-smart Swiss friend with no toes to work it out.

Richard Hammond's pink Minsk motorcycle
Explore mechanics after the creation of the Top Gear pink Minsk swan boat

The Rest is TV History

Many enthusiasts consider the Top Gear Vietnam Special to be the best on record, or at least in the top three, along with the drive to the North Pole and the chase out of redneck America. Digby will not spill the beans. You’ll just have to come on a ride with him and ply him with a few too many beers. What happens in Vegas, after all, stays in Vegas. Suffice to say that the 12-man crew were incredibly professional, and two of the presenters were remarkably friendly, funny and down to earth. It was a fantastic, classic, adrenaline-fueled work binge for ten straight days, where no one slept more than three hours a night, and we all emptied the minibars with gusto at every hotel we stayed in.

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