Top Gear: Vietnam Special


the presenters of BBC's Without Limits posing for a group photo
We modified three bikes and one jeep so that a group with different physical disabilities could embark on an ambitious adventure for BBC: Without Limits.


The Vietnam Special

Top Gear came to Vietnam in 2008 to film one of its best-regarded Christmas Specials. Jeremy Clarkson, James May, and Richard Hammond rode 1,000 miles from Ho Chi Minh City to Ha Long Bay on a Vespa, a Honda Cub and a 125cc Minsk.

The 12-man crew were incredibly professional, and the presenters were friendly, funny and down to earth. They each had the gift of the gab, and the four camera operators were adept at catching each funny turn of phrase and ensuring there was follow-up footage to complement them.

Explore Indochina was tasked with prepping the three bikes and providing three 650c Ural motorcycles to carry camera operators and sound engineers. Digby took the lead cameraman on his Ural and spent much time with Clarkson.

Clarkson's Plan for Top Gear: Vietnam Special

the Top Gear crew in Vietnam
Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond in Vietnam for the Top Gear Vietnam Special
While travelling incognito to Vietnam before the shoot, Clarkson dined at a floating restaurant in Ha Long Bay and devised the idea to make the bikes drivable on water. We were given about a month to make it happen.

We were sceptical about constructing such floating motorcycles until Digby walked past a lake in Hanoi full of swan pedal-powered craft popular with romantic teenagers. He thought cutting off the fibreglass seat and connecting the Minsk’s chain to the small pedalo paddlewheel at the back of the swan was feasible. So we got to work and, after some weeks of trial and error, were confident Richard Hammond would not drown while riding it.

The BBC wanted the Honda Cub to resemble a Thai-style long boat with a long propellor shaft at the back. Digby dismantled a spare Honda Cub, turned the engine around, found a way for it to swivel on a base plate made from the back wheel, and ensured the primary chain drive sprocket was facing the rear so that the drive motion would turn the propeller shaft.

The Vespa proved the most difficult, but some last-minute brainstorming found a way to connect it to a large Mississippi-style riverboat made with two canoes. It was only tested once, in a pond near a main highway, two days before the shoot in Ha Long Bay.

Behind the Scenes

Richard Hammond's pink Minsk motorcycle
Explore mechanics after the creation of the Top Gear pink Minsk swan boat
Digby and crew embarked on an adrenaline-fueled work binge for ten straight days, where no one slept more than three hours a night. To their credit, the presenters rode in the rain and covered some serious mileage, especially during the first few days. Delays meant that much of the filming went on late into the night; the snake in Dalat was eaten after midnight.

James and Richard were experienced riders, but Clarkson was a complete beginner, and his Vespa was awful to ride. He was fortunate to survive the first day because the thread on his Vespa’s drive shaft was shot, and the back wheel almost came off in heavy traffic. We installed a spare engine, but it was 12 volts, unlike the classic 6-volt Vespa he was riding. Electric surges slowly burnt out the wires in his classic Vespa, causing multiple breakdowns for the rest of the shoot.

Worse was to come on the last day when Clarkson had a bonafide slide on a busy road. He mistakenly accelerated while changing down a gear and was very lucky not to be run over by a truck.

While the presenters had a basic plan, most of the magic came from them acting on the fly. They would typically choose a random location and banter until the director called it a wrap. Much credit goes to the editors and film crew who made sure just the funny dialogue made it to the final cut. Case in point was the scene where May and Clarkson painted Richard’s Minsk pink. After a few beers outside the hotel, they performed for about 40 minutes, which was edited down to about a minute’s worth of TV. Each time something funny was said, they would jazz rift the same joke before moving on. They were flexible enough to get a random chef into the action, and when a lady stole a can of pink paint to spruce up her bicycle, they were ready to get it on tape.

The only staged scene was when the presenters sat for their Vietnamese driving licenses. Local Vietnamese film school extras sat in their exam class, and the driving test was fake. While on the road, local people paid little attention to the presenters. Foreign tourists, however, acted strangely when filming occurred in popular tourist destinations like Hoi An. As Richard said to Digby, “Getting famous is fun. Being famous is not”.

Filming in Ha Long Bay

Explore Indochina attaching a Vespa to two kayaks for the Top Gear Vietnam Special
the Top Gear swan boat contraptions in action
We worked the entire night before filming in Ha Long Bay to get the amphibious bikes ready. We did not know if they were going to work. A last-minute change to James’s craft dramatically changed its balance. When they started filming, a strong gust hit the three craft at an angle, pushing them towards a rocky pier. Water got into James’s craft, which would have sunk but for its inflatable foam. Luckily rescue divers were on hand.

All of the filming in Ha Long Bay was done on the fly. The amphibious bikes really did float for many kilometres around Ha Long Bay. It was a remarkable sight. While a helicopter flew overhead, speed boats with camera operators followed each presenter. Their final destination, a floating village, was decided upon at the last moment. Richard’s steering wire broke, so he went around in circles. James was left behind, but we rigged it up with better floats, and he was able to catch up. A very opportune water current allowed James and Richard to drift towards their final destination. It was amazing to see them pull it off.

TV History

group photo we took while filming Top Gear: Vietnam Special
Top Gear: Vietnam Special had a very positive impact on tourism in Vietnam. For many years afterwards, backpackers would dress up and ride over Hai Van Pass, and to this day, tourists can watch the special while cruising Ha Long Bay. Digby’s wife still rides James May’s Honda Cub while the Pink Minsk sits in his garage.

You can see the entire thing on Youtube these days, we’ve added the first episode below. On our own channel, we also have some behind the scenes footage of the creation of Richard Hammond’s, James May’s and even Jeremy Clarkson’s boats being built, too!

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Digby Greenhalgh

By Digby Greenhalgh

Digby Greenhalgh is the founder of Explore Indochina, and a recognized expert on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. All motorcycle tours are designed and guided by Digby.