Every day hordes of motorcycles migrate across the concrete plains of Ho Chi Minh city, writhing in a demonic waltz with regal plumes of exhaust and carrying anything from extended families to scores of live geese.
Thanks, in part, to its simplistic design cues, Honda enjoys a decisive monopoly over the motorcycle industry, if such a term as industry can be gifted to the underground warren of wheeler-dealing that constitutes buying a motorcycle. In the midst of such unadulterated chaos, our group would have some difficulty tracking down a band of suitably iconic bikes to serve on our proposed motorcycle trip around Vietnam, let alone ones whose exhaust pipes were not attached with blu-tack.
The fallout from the Vietnamese war had birthed a litter of seedy bars which had been reared in grubby clumps across the city, the most prestigious of which is the aptly named Apocalypse Now, the seemingly ideal starting ground for the search.
Between the practiced gaze of the resident working staff, I spotted a wizened veteran occupying a corner table with the pseudo-magnitude of a failed sea-captain. Having heard our predicament, he took a dramatic sip of his umbrella-enamoured cocktail before uttering a name whose very mention sent local motorcycle dealers scurrying to the road-side noodle bars from whence they came. Kevin, something of a spectre in the city’s motorcycle industry but undoubtedly the Mcdaddy and someone who would resurface later in our travels .
With no direct access into the bowels of Kevin’s operation, we instead met a sprightly American duo who were willing to sell and had returned from leading a group of seven Minsk motorcycles up the fabled Ho Chi Minh Highway, a popular war-time route running up the spine of the country and one made famous in an episode of Top Gear. One of the duo’s carefully sculpted pony tail and ample girth were a nostalgic nod to his home country’s iconic cartoon character, the Comic Book Guy.
However, whilst such apparel would have condemned him to a nomadic life of certain ridicule back in the states, his exodus to Vietnam had bore fresh pastures. Now, rather than been viewed as an accessory for an unemployed addict of Warcraft, his hair was the garb of Greek mythology and he posed confidently on the street before us, a champion, a king amongst men.
We assembled in a small cafe to do business and, as the duo’s Vietnamese attaché paced outside like an attack dog, I considered our options. Fortunately mandatory insurance for vehicles was a concept as unfamiliar to the Vietnamese as multi-party elections, but what we were doing was undoubtedly illegal and the fact none of our group had ever set foot on a motorcycle’s gear lever rendered our inevitable task of evading policemen an arduous one. What’s more, a recent visit to Vietnamese A&E and some painful stitches from a scooter accident had taught me that Vietnamese drivers are a ruthless bunch, Vietnam clocks four motorcycle fatalities a day, and riding through a city is not as easy as the video game Grand Theft Auto would have you believe.
But none of this mattered now, there were four Minsks slumbering in the cavernous dark of a subterranean parking lot, waiting for us.
For those not acquainted with such testosterone-fuelled biking jargon as ‘Minsk,’ (essentially our position five minutes before purchasing the aforementioned vehicles) the Minsk is a bulky throwback to the glory days of communist Russia, when commissars roamed the countryside on them, herding peasants. Years later, a wall collapsed, a Macdonald’s opened in Moscow and the Minsks found themselves exiled to the sculpted hills of Northern Vietnam where they were adopted by the communist-resilient North Vietnamese as a sentimental reminder of the ideology they had fought so bitterly for… and to carry grain.
When we were introduced, I noticed our bikes had been stripped to near skeletal remains, no doubt by the frugal innovation of some of Ho Chi Minh’s most dedicated mechanics, and crucial parts like wing mirrors and headlamps had been whored out to Honda Wave motorcycles across the city. My bike had been further castrated by a smothering of sickly pink paint and now lay shivering next to the phallic shrines of motorcycles that crowned the garage.
It took a further four days and endless crusades across the city in search of mechanics before our bikes all started at the same time. Without functioning mufflers the occasion was a sonic recreation of the eruption of Krakota, the engines’ roars spewed across the road, easily drowning out the insectile drone of passing traffic. With our worldly possessions strapped hastily to the back like refugees, we fastened our $5, and undoubtedly polystyrene, helmets and readjusted our goggles.
The open road stretched before us. Well, that and the glittering legions of Vietnamese motorcyclists, polishing their headlights in anticipation having scented fresh meat on the early morning haze.