Top Gear Vietnam Special: Behind the Scenes

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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.

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Top Gear Hits Ho Chi Minh City

Setting up in Ho Chi Minh City
I was friends with Nick Ray, the fixer for the Top Gear Vietnam Special, and helped him scout the route from the Bo Y border crossing up to Hoi An in early 2008. When the producers decided to use motorbikes rather than cars, Explore Indochina was asked to provide outriders to carry camera operators and sound crew on three Ural motorbikes. We were also tasked with buying a Honda and a Minsk, while a guy in Saigon provided the Vespa. All three bikes had to cost less than US$400. We were also asked to make the bikes drivable on water. We spent about a month designing a way for the Minsk and Honda to ride on the ocean. Nothing was done to make the Vespa floatable.

The shoot started at the beginning of October 2008 in Ho Chi Minh City. I arrived two days late because I had just finished an extended tour in Laos with my mechanic Diep. While driving from the airport to the Sheraton Hotel, we got a call that Jeremy Clarkson (Jezza) wanted his Vespa to have many mirrors like a London Mod from the movie “Quadrophenia”. We bought what we could, and then Diep had to work all night welding the mirrors onto the bike. He had no welding glasses or protection, and his eyes were red and in pain for three days. Members of the UK crew refused to do the welding for safety reasons.

I entered the hotel and first saw Jezza drinking alone at the bar. I shared a room with Nick. He showed me piles and piles of randomly placed low-denomination Vietnamese Dong bills in three shoe boxes used that day for filming purposes. It rained heavily all night, worrying us because cyclones typically hit central Vietnam in October.

The following day, the three bikes were placed on the curb at the end of a park in front of the mayor’s office. We stood to the side with our Urals. The presenters appeared wearing helmets made from buckets and colanders. Underneath were actual helmets. Jezza had trouble starting his Vespa but was helped by a pretty Swedish girl he had met at the bar the night before. Eventually, he did a practice lap around the park and looked very unstable. The girl said, “He’s gonna fucking die”.

The presenters then drove out of Ho Chi Minh City through heavy traffic. James and Rich rode together ahead while I carried a cameraman who filmed Jezza. It took a lot of work for Jezza to ride through the traffic. He stalled at one intersection, and it was dangerous. He was scared, and the Vespa was an unstable bike to ride in traffic for a newcomer. It was lucky he did not crash. They drove about 15 kilometres down the main highway out of town and then regrouped for drinks and snacks. About eight support vans followed the presenters while a truck carried the bikes when needed.

I drove ahead of Jezza until lunchtime. His Vespa was wobbly.  He complained a lot, but I kept my mouth shut. I had to be careful not to accelerate too much; otherwise, the cameraman could easily fall off the bike. They stopped at a petrol station. Rich and James ate at a restaurant across the road while Jezza ate at a road stall near the petrol station. I was reading a book. Jezza asked me to order him some food, so I got him fried noodles with beef. Jezza made a joke that it was dog meat, not beef.

Jeremy Clarkson's Vespa Almost Kills Him

Filming before the rain in Dalat
Jeremy Clarksons Vespa breaks down again
To their horror, the mechanics checked Jezza’s Vespa and realised the back wheel was about to fall off. The thread on the main engine shaft was 95% shredded and could not be replaced. They had a spare engine, but it was a modern 12-volt version, not a 6-volt version appropriate for the older Vespa Jezza was driving. There were three mechanics, one a Vespa expert, but they all had difficulty swapping the engine and getting the rewiring right. There was some severe finger-pointing because Jezza could easily have had a serious crash, perhaps life-threatening. The man who sold the Vespa warned them the bike was rubbish and offered them a safer but more expensive version, but Top Gear insisted on using the rubbish one because it fell within their US$400-per-bike budget.

I rode with Jezza for the afternoon in heavy traffic towards Dalat. Jezza’s Vespa was beginning to have issues caused by voltage irregularities. Wires were starting to burn, and the Vespa would just die. At dusk, the bikes were put on the truck, the crew got in the support vans, and we all drove to Dalat, arriving there around 10 p.m. without having dinner. The hungry drivers were unhappy, but Vietnamese food was prepared at the Dalat snake restaurant. The foreign crew nibbled some fried rice but were otherwise very hungry. This would be a continuing feature of the shoot. Filming the snake scene continued past midnight, and further filming on the bikes ended around 1 a.m. We got to the hotel around 2 a.m. I helped a very polite James find his bag.

The following day, I bought a pink helmet for Rich because Jezza had squashed the original army one that Rich had worn the day before. The Vietnamese minders were unhappy because the helmet Jezza had crushed with his boot was made by a company owned by the Vietnamese Prime Minister’s son.

The STIG Cut from Final Edit

The Top Gear presenters with the Vietnamese Stig
The Stig unmasked
Everyone then went to a nearby abandoned airfield to film an entire segment that never made it to the final cut. Before the shoot, Explore Indochina was asked to find a 5’8” person to be the “Communist Stig”. One of their team fitted the bill, but we were told he had to ride wheelies. Ultimately, Top Gear shipped in an Aussie kid famous for riding wheelies on motocross bikes. They dressed him as the STIG and put him on a powerful Honda dirt bike. They set up a basic obstacle course to see which bike was the fastest. After completing the cause, the Stig would race towards one of the presenters, skid and stop as close as possible to their crotch. The Vietnamese minders said this was too dangerous. Jezza grumbled because it was his idea. The whole scene was rather pointless because the Minsk was much faster than the 50cc Honda, and none of the bikes could skid. The poor kid no doubt told all his friends he was the Stig, only to have the scene cut.

Meanwhile, clouds were beginning to fill the horizon. Again, there was no lunch, and now the van drivers were angry. Later that night, they threatened to leave the shoot.

The presenters got on their bikes and headed out to Nha Trang. I drove with Rich. It started to rain very heavily so I bought him a raincoat. It was cold, and Rich’s sparkplug cap got wet. I quickly fixed it but then got lost in the complicated streets of Dalat. We eventually regrouped outside Dalat in heavy rain and continued through the pine forest down towards Nha Trang. Jezza and James were very wet and cold. They wore no rain gear and stopped at a roadside shop to dry off. I noticed a clutch cable on the Minsk was about to break, so I asked a local mechanic to fix it. The producers decided to introduce the little 49cc Chaly scooter with an American flag on the tank. It also came with two US flags, an Easy Rider helmet with a US flag painted on it, and a speaker system which played Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA”. The Vietnamese minders did not let them use the US flags. From now on, Diep would follow the group on the Chaly, and if any of the presenters had further bike problems, they would have to ride the Chaly. I still have the Easy Rider USA helmet.

We headed off towards Nha Trang at sunset. The road was very scenic, with a long pass down to the coast. Jezza’s Vespa had feeble lights, partly due to the electrical problems and all the silly Quaddaphenia mirrors blocking it. He strapped a torch to his Vespa. Surprisingly, the presenters drove their bikes about 80 km in the dark to Nha Trang, with no filming, which was dangerous. Luckily, it warmed up as they got close to the coast. The cameras only came out for quick shots in Nha Trang’s streets. They reached Nha Trang around 9.30 pm and went straight to the Beach Club to shoot the scene where Jezza gave Rich a large wooden sailing ship.

Many foreign tourists were drinking at the club, and they were all told to keep silent and stay back beyond a perimeter. I was back at the hotel, two streets from the Beach Club, talking to the executive producer, Andy Wilman. It was around midnight when the film crew, tired and hungry, started returning from the Beach Club. In the confusion, understandable at the end of such a long and tiring day, Jezza was left behind and mobbed by the tourists. He had trouble finding the hotel, and when he finally returned, it was just him, myself and Andy in the hotel’s foyer. He was pissed and went straight up to Andy and shouted, “You care more about the crew than me. I’m out of here, you cunt”. Then Jezza spat in Andy’s direction and got in the elevator. Andy was stunned and turned to me and confided that he had been Jezza’s best man twice.

The next day, everyone took an early flight to Danang. The presenters are seen riding to Hoi An in the final show, but this was neither true nor feasible. The van drivers were fed up and left back to Saigon while the truck carried the bikes to Hoi An. At the airport bookstore were some photocopied bootleg books written by Jezza. I showed one to Jezza, who said he’d already read it. I quipped that I had heard it wasn’t very good. On the plane, I sat next to some pretty Dutch girls and told them what was happening and where we would probably have dinner that night.

Fun in Hoi An

Richard Hammonds Minsk has problems
James May and Richard Hammond have a break while filming at the beach near Hoi An
Once in Danang, the entire crew went straight to a costly US$90 p/p breakfast paid for by Jezza at the 5-star Anam Resort. This was payback for all the missed lunches. Jezza’s credit card bounced because it was October 8, the day of the Great Financial Crisis. Rich quipped that he was debt-free, having just paid off his castle.

The presenters went into Hoi An to shoot the scene where they got tailor-made clothes while I was sent to buy pink spray paint. I showed Andy and Jezza the videos of Explore Indochina making the Minsk and Honda drivable on water. They were clearly excited, realising that they could film a far more ambitious shoot in Ha Long Bay than their original plan. They called in a man from the UK, whom we nicknamed “Mr Wolf”, whose one job was ensuring the amphibious craft were safe and seaworthy. He arrived in Hanoi a day or two later with $6K in cash and special foam that would make every craft unsinkable. I asked my friend Markus Madeja to build a paddle-wheel craft capable of carrying Jezza’s Vespa.

In the afternoon, we all headed to the beach in front of the Anam Resort, where Rich and James rode in the sand while Jezza had a massage. I washed the seawater off the Minsk, causing something important in the generator to burn out. This meant Rich arrived late in Hoi An, where the producers had paid the town council US$3K to put on a floating lantern show, something only done on the full moon. Jezza and James were able to enjoy it while paid musicians played in the background, but Rich, just a little late, was not allowed over a bridge by a security guard. There was much swearing, and someone said, ‘Just bribe the little cunt’, clearly audible on the walkie-talkies. Many tourists gravitating towards the presenters heard it, and there was a quick order for radio silence.

We all had dinner off-camera at the Cargo Club. The two Dutch girls from the plane turned up, ignored me and went straight to Jezza, laughing at every joke he told. Rich confided that getting famous was fun, but being famous was not. As the shoot progressed, this became a recurring feature.

Hitting the Hai Van Pass

Richard Hammond liked our Ural motorcycles
The following day, the presenters wore their new tailored clothes, and everyone headed to the Hai Van Pass. I saw firsthand how the general public acts when seeing celebrities. Every tourist bus we passed contained waiving people pressed to the glass taking photos. I began to realise being famous was not all it’s scratched up to be. Fortunately, the presenters were unknown to the Vietnamese public, so they had an enjoyable time being invisible for once, except on that road out of Hoi An.

While riding to the Ha Van Pass, Rich really did drive his bike too close to a rubbish bin on purpose, and it was lucky the wooden galley strapped to his Minsk absorbed the force and did not cause a nasty crash. I enjoyed telling Jezza to “slow the fuck down” as he raced towards the pass. My safety concerns fell on Rich’s deaf ears when he purposely crashed into a sign at a toll gate.

Fortunately, the Hai Van Pass was very quiet in those days, allowing the crew to efficiently place four cameras in different locations, allowing just one up-and-back drive by the presenters to look like eight different drives. They filmed these drive-buys a couple of times.

Painting the Pink Minsk in Hue

Filming the scene where the presenters get their Vietnamese motorycle licenses
Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond ride the streets of Hue
Once on the other side of the Hai Van Pass, the bikes were put into a truck, and we all headed to Hue, where we stayed at the Morin Hotel. James and Jezza were drinking at a small restaurant opposite the hotel, waiting for the Minsk to arrive. Rich tried to rebuild his galley in the hotel’s foyer. He really did lift it into the spinning ceiling fan; it was lucky nothing broke.

While painting the Minsk pink, Jezza and James riffed out some slightly drunk dialogue, and a chef walked by while a random lady stole a can of pink paint to paint her bike. I filmed the whole sequence, which took about 17 minutes. In the final shot, it’s edited to under a minute. That’s the secret of the presenter’s on-screen presence – having an editor to cut out anything boring. The three of them had the gift of the gab and were quick with their banter and wit. They would typically adlib a sequence, and if anyone said something genuinely funny, they would riff that same joke a couple of times to get it right before moving on. The cameramen were always careful to shoot anything the presenters referred to to give the editor something to work with. It was all very professional. So, while a basic script was followed, all the dialogue was improvised, and the crew were quick enough to catch anything off guard.

I almost died a horrible death the next day. Pink paint covered the lens on the Minsk’s camera. Diep went to buy some acetone and returned to the hotel with it in a water bottle. It was hot, and we were in the middle of a briefing when Diep passed me the bottle. I thought it was water and took a swig. By the grace of God, I did not gulp it down, as it would have burnt its way through my stomach and into my lower intestines. Instead, I sprayed it out and screamed, gagging on tap water. The briefing carried on.

The day was easy as there were set sequences at the former Imperia Citadel followed by a fake driving test. The test was set up with paid Vietnamese actors sitting in the class. We then headed to Hue’s primary market while one crew and I headed to KFC.

Party Time on the Train

Party time on the train to Hanoi
Party time on the train
We loaded everything into the trucks and headed to Dong Hoi to catch an overnight train to Hanoi. An entire sleeping carriage and a third-class cabin for filming were booked just for us. There were many cases of beer in the sleeping carriage, which half the crew got stuck into immediately. The presenters also hit the cans and were filmed slumming it in their fake third-class carriage while making bad jokes, all of which ended up on the editor’s floor. Eventually, everyone returned to the private sleeping carriage, and it was game on. For the first time, everyone had nothing to do. The entire crew, along with James and Rich, gravitated to one room, smashing beers and listening to the Ramones. Jezza was trying to sleep next door. The train was very bumpy, so people took turns banging on the joining wall, shouting, “How’s the sleep, Jezza?”. We managed to stack the empty beer cans vertically from floor to ceiling. Jezza barged in and shouted, “Shut the fuck up”, just as the last beer can was put in place. There was silence for two seconds, then Jezza slammed the door shut, and everyone burst out laughing; James snorted, two of us wet our pants, and Rich had tears coming out of his eyes.

Hanoi to Ha Long Bay

Filming Richard Hammond on the streets of Hanoi
The presenters filmed at the Quan An Ngon Restaurant while I spent the day helping Mr Wolf and Markus finish the Vespa boat. Markus had been working on it for a few days, and it was only tested at about 5 p.m. that afternoon. It and the other two floatable boats were put onto the truck, ready to be driven to Ha Long Bay the next day.

The ride to Ha Long Bay was simple enough as the weather was great, and the harvest was in full swing. The presenters only rode the more picturesque second half of the ride. A segment filmed off the cuff in a village was funny because I heard one of the old ladies say, “Look at the size of that guy (Jezza)”. “Wow, his wife must be worn out”, quipped her friend. It was a genuine moment, and both Jezza and Rich were happy until the minders said they could not film there any more.

Jeremy Clarkson's Near-Fatal Crash

Jeremy Clarkson crashes his Vespa
Filming the scene where the presenters turn their bikes into boats
Later on, I was throwing rocks at a bottle with Rich and James when Jezza crashed his Vespa. Apparently, he accelerated while changing down a gear. He was lucky not to be hit by a car. The crew immediately hid the SD card in case the minders banned the shot. One of the crew texted news of the crash to a friend in the UK, and within an hour, reporters were at Jezza’s house looking for his wife. We arrived at Ha Long Bay, filmed a bit and then proceeded to a mechanic workshop to film the sequence where the presenters make their bikes amphibious. The crew returned to the hotel. Markus, the mechanics and I stayed up till 3 a.m. getting the three amphibious bikes ready. We purposely tweaked the boats so that Jezza’s was the slowest.

Ha Long Bay Magic

Jeremy Clarksons boat began to give him electical shocks
A cut scene where Jeremy Clackson climbed into a cave
The next day was television magic. Helicopters overhead, rescue divers at the ready, speedboats to carry crew out into the bay, and absolutely no idea whether the boats we had constructed were up to the task. Incredibly, they all worked, and the three presenters headed out from the beach and into the sea. Unfortunately, a strong wind and waves hit them at an angle. Jezza was washed towards a rocky pier, and I jumped in the water to stop him from crashing into the rocks. My phone and passport were ruined. All Jezza said was, “Why can’t mine go faster”. James’s boat sank because water got under Mr Wolf’s floating foam. This happened because we’d strapped a large rock to James’s Honda to balance it.

Everyone regrouped at the end of the pier. I tied ropes to Jezza’s and Rich’s boats, and speedboats pulled them 3 km through open water and into a stunning area with no tourists. James was effectively abandoned on the beach until Explore Indochina’s mechanics removed the rock and attached more robust floats to make it seaworthy. This was all done on the fly, and James was able to make his way out into the Bay.

I was in the lead speed boat, and we had a fantastic day following Jezza and Rich driving around the bay. The lead cameraman said it was more beautiful than a volcanic lake in Iceland he had filmed two weeks before. The boats kept going and going at a good clip. The Vespa started to give Jezza electrical shocks, which he moaned about. Jezza decided to end the show at a floating fishing village on the fly. Rich purposely cut the steering wires on his Minsk swan boat, so he went around in circles but eventually managed to make it. James, meanwhile, had caught up, and they faked his boat coming to pieces by untying the floats and removing some of the foam. A remarkable current ran parallel to the fishing village, so they pulled James’ boat into the correct position, and he could float right to the floating village. Again, it was all on the fly.

Everyone pounded beers once a wrap was called until we were picked up by large and luxurious junk. The three boats were attached to the back, and we returned to the Bui Tai Long Resort. James’ boat came loose and was lost in the Bay. We had a massive slap-up feast prepared, and everyone roared into the night. I tried unsuccessfully to nab the Stig’s helmet and boots as souvenirs. I was given an Arai helmet instead. I drank with Rich and James and gave them a Minsk Club t-shirt and a Minsk Club Zippo lighter. I was overcome with fatigue and left early, and much to my delight, I got a standing ovation from the entire crew, Rich, James, and Jezza included.

And So it Ended

Getting the Swan Minsk ready
Loading all the gear up before heading to the airport
Everyone was exhausted the next day; frankly, I have no memory of the drive back to Hanoi. Full credit to the crew and presenters. They worked their arses off for 11 days. The crew were tight, professional and, above all, patient. It was a pleasure to become a member of such a fraternity and be accepted by the presenters as a normal person; one of us, so to speak. James and Rich were easy to talk to. Top Gear never intended to ride the bikes out into Ha Long Bay. Jeeza’s original plan was to make a quick jaunt to a floating restaurant some 50 metres offshore at the main port. Explore Indochina made that whole sequence possible, and the show was increased by 15 minutes to fit it in.

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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.