Ho and the art of motorcycle maintenance
Astride a sputtering Minsk, Geoff Strong immerses himself in the peculiarities of Vietnamese biker culture.
My first prospect of visiting Vietnam was about 30 years ago, but as luck would have it a number in a lottery saved me having to face the sort of lethal Soviet hardware awaiting the blokes who went.
Late last year I finally got to Vietnam and became intimate with a piece of hardware that was both Soviet and potentially lethal. It is a motorcycle called a Minsk and given that I am writing this with all limbs attached, is probably less injurious than a Kalashnikov or an anti-tank missile, but such comparisons need to be made cautiously.
The country still goes by the name Socialist Republic of Vietnam and the hammer and sickle flies next to the national flag on public buildings. In these days of turbo capitalism, it is a quaint reminder of who won the war that I missed being drafted to fight.
And although Ho Chi Minh, who led the country for most of that war, reclines in mummified splendour in a granite Hanoi mausoleum, the lives of the average Vietnamese nowadays seem influenced less by Uncle Ho than by Uncle Honda.
To me there are few better ways to understand a culture than by engaging in what the locals do most passionately. In Vietnam, that seems to involve throwing a leg across a motorcycle and then throwing oneself to the mercy of the traffic. Doing so opens the door to places and experiences off-menu for the minibus tourist.
Following a recommendation from an expatriate Australian, I hired a bike from Cuong, who runs a repair shop devoted exclusively to the brand Minsk, in Hanoi's old quarter. By any measure, the Minsk is an eastern bloc relic exposed to the rest of the world when the Iron Curtain fell down.
In the Belorussian capital that lends them its name, they are still made with almost indestructible motors and almost totally useless "extras" like lights, horns and speedometers that seem to fail or fall off 100 kilometres after leaving the factory. But Minsks are simple to fix and apparently Cuong used to race one with tweaked carbies and trick pistons.
As I burbled my way through the twisty chaos that gives Hanoi its charm, I couldn't help comparing it with the 900cc Japanese four-cylinder, double overhead camshaft, quad carb snorter I use to commute to work back home.
I concluded that racing 125ccs of Minsk two-stroke would be a touch less exciting than racing my Victa lawnmower and considerably less of a buzz than the chainsaw. I suppose, like all of us, Cuong gets his kicks from what is available.
But by riding a Minsk, I could hardly be accused of going native, rather the reverse.
The locals in the cities now go to extraordinary lengths to be seen on a Honda or some lookalike usually from China with names like "Jailing," "Laifan", or my favourites "Faster" and "Fairy Horse".
So keen are they to own the Jewel of Japanese motorcycling that they have spawned an industry in Honda forgeries, mostly Chinese clones that local spivs cover with Honda-looking stickers.
A Rolex watch in its western form might cost $15,000, a facsimile can be bought on the street here for about $20 and will keep time for maybe a year. In a similar spirit, you can transport yourself, that Rolex, a family of four, six chickens and a pig on your brand new "Hongda" that will cost a fifth of something with a similar sounding name.
These days Vietnam has gone from Soviet satellite to satellite TV. In the countryside, poor peasants might still plough rice paddies barefoot behind buffaloes, but in towns, cheap Internet cafes spring up packed with a generation of young globalists who want to Hotmail the world. Several hot males are still cybercourting my 16-year-old daughter months after our visit.
In the decades following the war, earnest state factories cranked out what the planners thought was needed by the masses. For transport they churned out bicycles. They were not very good bicycles, as one of my friends on the recent trip can attest when one he was riding collapsed and nearly catapulted him across a bridge handrail into the Mekong delta.
While the committees decreed production of worthy proletarian needs, the proletariat had other ideas and the cities were filling with the new middle class who wanted speed, flexibility and status, an idea that in the West has translated into roads choked with cars.
In Vietnam the void has been filled by the motorcycle and for about a decade (without any apparent irony) the status model has gone by the name Honda Dream. Out in Vietnam's chaotic streets, the Dream and its clones have become something of a nightmare.
Nominally, I suppose there are road rules such as stopping at traffic lights and driving on the right side of the road, but for a country still (to resurrect Cold War rhetoric) under the yoke of communism it seems contradictory that the roads are laissez faire. I had been warned in advance but nothing really prepared me for Vietnamese traffic.
Especially in the main cities, traffic flows in an organic rather than structured way. What side of the road do they drive on? As I said, officially on the right, the side of their former French colonial masters, but that wasn't the reality. The answer is: any side. It can look a bit like the interlocking fingers meeting on a hand, but that's the straight bits. For something really exciting, try an intersection.
Another curiosity is the Vietnamese antipathy for rear-vision mirrors: most motorcyclists remove them entirely. Many road users don't even look sideways. Some guidebooks say the locals translate to the roads their Asian attitude to life - have a goal, go for it and don't be distracted. Perhaps, but maybe it is also a translation of the big heroic communist propaganda billboards you see everywhere - factory workers, soldiers and farmers all staring off into the distance.
What this doesn't explain though is the minority of motorcyclists who retain their mirrors, but turn them inwards so that they only reflect the rider's stomach. I didn't think the bourgeois activity of navel gazing was sanctioned by the party.
The result is a road toll to die for. In the country's biggest city, Ho Chi Minh, the two-week toll is about the same as Victoria's for a year. It seemed that if we in the west wanted to improve the health of the average Vietnamese, don't worry about sending doctors and nurses - send driving instructors!
So why did I bother with a Minsk? Blame it on slavish devotion to a phenomenon unenvisaged by the state planners - nostalgia. OK the communists beat us in Vietnam, then we beat the communists on the world stage and for a while that left us with no one to hate until radical Islam obligingly filled the void.
As memories of the gulags and re-education camps fade, Muslim extremists assisted the amnesia by flying into buildings and making their woman dress up like dome tents. Suddenly the old enemy started being viewed with a fonder light. In the US now, communist memorabilia is being greedily snapped up by collectors and eastern bloc technology is finally respected for its rugged simplicity.
In the streets of Hanoi, the most chic and stylish of the expatriates have translated this into an embrace of their latest accessory - the Minsk.
A word about motorcycles: they are less a form of transport than a mechanical prosthesis. You don't sit on a motorcycle - you become joined to it. Driving a car is no comparison.
There is no closer relationship possible with a machine bar having an implant or being connected to a life support system.
The result, the motorcyclist as centaur: half human, half machine and joined at the groin.
The bar, which serves an imaginative take on local food, is also popular with government and party heavyweights who are escorted to private rooms upstairs. They are attracted by the quality and range of the rice liquor that it serves.
Allegedly containing all manner of plant and animal extracts favoured by emperors and their concubines, its drinks are purported to manage all sorts of health miracles. Particularly in favour is the touted ability to remove stiffness from those parts of the body where it is unwanted and reinstate it in parts where it is.
Once, on the pretext of looking for something else, I went to the street of the living mannequins". Here the shopkeepers specialise in dress material but they are too parsimonious to invest their capital in artificial store dummies to display their wares. No, with local wage rates, it is cheaper to hire pretty girls to do it instead. From there we wound our way through the tiny back alleys of the thieves' market, where anything from American and Russian war surplus tank axle grease to brand new DVD players can be had for a haggle.
Another day he took me along some tiny tortuous back alleys to a spot where an American B52 was shot down and its remains piled into the centre of a pond like a junk sculpture with a housing estate grown up around it.
Back on the main road nearby was a row of restaurants apparently specialising in the culinary delights of man's best friend.
A row of vehicles with red military number plates indicates one sort of clientele and signs advertising Fosters Lager indicate another. I declined the taste temptation on the basis that some of my best mates are dogs.
I was left with a hand-drawn map to find the old French hill station of Ba Vi by myself. It is about 60 kilometres outside Hanoi.
I remember a feeling of elation on the way there. For a few moments I had the sunny road among the rice fields to myself, but the elation did not last long when I caught up with a line of old diesel fuming Russian trucks.
Ba Vi was up a steep road (tourists are charged a fee). There is a rest station with a swimming pool used by the military and through the heat haze the Red River looms below. But there came a point where the gradient had the bike struggling in first gear, and as I wanted to get back to Hanoi by daylight, I turned back before reaching the summit.
In doing so I got back just in time for peak hour where bikes crowd the roads knee to knee but that was not before seeing some of the highlights of the highway Vietnamese-style. This included one serious motorcycle accident and a less serious one, where the protagonists were attempting to use fists to inflict on each other the sort of injuries they could have had if it was more serious.
Best of all was the sight of a flotilla of newly constructed wardrobes being carried towards the city in trailers towed not by cars nor even by bikes of Minsk size, but by mopeds. I was impressed.
I also have vague memories of another tour, this one by night. One of the highlights seemed to involve a bar with a transparent vat of rice liquor known as rou.
Normally this stuff is sold in bottles containing some dead creature such as a lizard or snake that is supposed to imbue it with certain qualities. In this case the vat was about the height of an adult human and in it was a brown bear. Out the top protruded plastic tubes that allowed patrons to drink if they desired.
I did not desire, so we fired up our bikes and rode to a bar known as the Tac Ke, which translates as The Gecko. Cages of tac kes (said to be an endangered variety) were out the back and that was the speciality.
What we were served was gecko-starfish liquor, described as 'speed in a bottle". The drink was whisky-coloured with a faint aroma of furniture polish and a taste not unlike cough syrup, a rather pleasant cough syrup, actually. Joined by the patron, we decided we had some coughs that needed curing.
I think one or two sips might have cured coughs to the year 2020 and by the time we departed in a plume of Minsk fumes, there was a thunderstorm and then there was a car that ran a red light and took no notice of the horn that agreed to work on that occasion and I seem to remember feeling very surprised to be falling into my hotel bed and not a hospital one. I contemplated the cloudy, souvenired bottle on my dressing table and paid homage to the life forms that had made it possible.
The next day (or was it the one after) when I felt better, I went back to the thieves' market. I took pictures of some smiling guys who made coffins. Then I came across a bunch of guys selling secondhand car parts. 'American?" inquired one of the blokes. It was post-September 11 and very few Yanks were showing themselves but he didn't believe me until I pulled out my Australian passport.
Perhaps oblivious to the role we played being all the way with the USA, he spat out the word 'American!" again. And this time 'Brrrrrtt," making the swinging gesture of spraying a machine-gun from his hip.
I nodded and as I rode off he yelled after me, 'Osama Bin Laden", and gave a thumbs-up gesture. It was just another reminder of who won the war I didn't get drafted to fight. As if I needed it.
The Age newspaper (Melbourne Australia)