Published on April 2nd, 2014 | by Bedlam


The final leg of my Vietnam expedition commenced in Da Lat, where I’d woken late, having slept off the previous night’s enormous feed of squid, prawns and Tiger beer. I rose lethargically and prepared for the 290-odd kilometre ride to Ho Chi Minh City that would complete my Vietnamese motorcycle adventure. Gear loaded, and a tankful of two-stroke fuel mixed, I set off on what was expected to be a leisurely downhill run from the mountain town to the pearl of the orient.

As I set off down the narrow, twisting, jungle roads it seemed that my little 125cc Russian mule wasn’t in a great way. When the road opened up a little, it became obvious that the bike wasn’t at its best, and it struggled hard to accelerate. I’d suspected the night before that the long haul from the coast up to the mountain town of da Lat had taken something from the bike. They say doing 300km is a big day on Vietnamese roads, and I’d done at least 460km the day previously, not including the short cut I started, but abandoned, which would’ve added another 40 or so. The last hour or so had been hard on the bike too, as I’d ridden it hard up the mountain, racing the falling darkness with a non-functioning headlight. Plus, there is the pothole factor. To move a hundred kilometres forward on Vietnamese roads requires closer to three hundred kilometres travel to dodge and weave between the moon-crater potholes. It had been a big day.

Now, as I opened the throttle, it was obvious the Minsk was feeling the effects of that trip, and even travelling downhill it was obvious the engine was sluggish. I paused to pose for a couple of photos of myself and the mighty Minsk together, aware that I hadn’t taken any of us together in the week we’d been on the road. When I set off, it seemed that the condition of the engine was declining rapidly. With no option but to proceed, I punted it on toward Ho Chi Minh.


Loaded and ready to roll.

As the gradient flattened out, I felt the engine tightening. Or was I just imaging it? Nope, it tightened, and I felt it trying to seize. As I rolled off the throttle sweeping around a corner, I felt it tighten further, and when I pulled the clutch in to kick it back a gear, it locked up and died. When I let the clutch out it struggled, gripped, then fired again and continued on. I was startled. I’d heard blokes argue about the ability of a piston to seize, then release when clutch-started, but never believed it to be possible. Now the fact that it was indeed possible was the only thing that prevented me from sitting on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere.

I held the throttle open, determined not to let the little Russian workhorse leave me stranded, and took in my surroundings. I reckoned I was about 50kms from da Lat, which left me a long way from anywhere, in the midst of the Vietnamese jungle. I’d seen some nasty shit happen to Willem Dafoe, Chuck Norris, and Johnny Rambo in that jungle, and I desperately didn’t want the Minsk to leave me stranded there.

We laboured on in this manner for a while, the Minsk somehow firing along. Soon after, miraculously, we came out of the jungle and I could see some semblance of a township in the distance. I breathed a sigh of relief. The Minsk was about to shit itself, of that I was in no doubt, but at least now I knew I’d be able to jump on a passing bus and make it to HCMC.

As though seeing the village as a place to lay down and die, the Minsk’s power deteriorated as it entered that tiny civilisation. The village itself spanned less than a hundred metres along the road, and among the handful of roadside buildings I saw what appeared to be a mechanic’s workshop. That is to say there were half a dozen scooters in various states of repair out the front. I aimed the Minsk at it, and willed it to get that far. As I reached it, the Minsk went into the blurting death throes that only a two-stroke is capable of, and came to rest at the front of the workshop.

From inside the workshop, which consisted of a small brick building with an awning and a concrete slab set in the heavy dust, four Vietnamese blokes peered out at the little Russian bike and the large white bloke that had come to rest outside their workplace. I returned their confused gaze, and set about the futile effort of trying to restart the bike. Seeing my futility, they approached the bike and took over from me. It was apparent then that one of the blokes was an adult, and clearly the appointed mechanic, while the other three were teenagers, who did as the older bloke told them. It became apparent also that neither of them spoke a word of English. With my complete lack of Vietnamese language, it promised to be an interesting discussion.

The best prospect appeared to be selling the seized bike to the mechanic to whatever he offered, cutting my losses, and getting onto the next bus headed to HCMC. I had no real expectation of getting the bike running again and making it to HCMC.


Analysis and diagnosis.

The group set to analysing the problem of the Minsk, trying to kick it over, (in accordance with Belorussian engineering logic, the kickstart lever being on the left side of the engine) and pulling the spark plug out. Across the language chasm, I tried to explain non-verbally that the problem was neither electrical or spark related. Using my left hand to portray the bore, and my right fist to portray the piston, I attempted to explain that the piston had tightened and seized. They stared at me blankly, and it occurred to me that my game of charades was probably depicting prison sex rather than engine problems. I abandoned the effort for fear of making the wrong type of friends in that small, isolated, jungle village.

The mechanic gestured at my backpack, strapped to the back of the seat. I removed it. Without a word, the four blokes wheeled the bike up onto the concrete slab of the workshop. I followed, taking in the unique atmosphere of the village, built on the very edge of the single lane highway.

What happened next amazes me still. In the couple of seconds I spent stretching my back and rubbing my numb arse, the group dropped the engine out of the bike and removed the head. I stared incredulously, thinking it wasn’t humanly possible to remove and disassemble an engine that fast. I even double checked to convince myself it was the same bike. The group worked with a fervour that astounded me, yet with the same, casual demeanour the Vietnamese do everything. The only problem was their attention span, for they were not only working on my bike, they were somehow juggling several scooters with it. One moment there’d be four working on the Minsk, then halfway through a task, he’d just move across to another bike and pick up on it. Then a second would join him. Then another would walk across to a different bike and do something with it, and the Minsk, which I was impatient for repair, stood unattended. There was no obvious pattern to it, they just seemed to come and go between different projects. I demonstrated my impatience, and pointed to the highway heading south, gesturing that I needed to get moving.

“Ah, Saigon.” The mechanic said.

“Yeah, Saigon.” I agreed.

“Saigon, Saigon” he repeated.

I nodded, and pointed to the bike, then back to the highway. “Saigon, Saigon”

piston broke

Piston broke.

The mechanic nodded, and continued working on a scooter. Clearly we agreed on the destination, but my bike was no closer to being restored to a functional state.



A short period of huffing and puffing seemed to convey my message, and one of the assistants returned to work on the Minsk. Soon after, another joined him. Then another. A while later they were all back working on it. Then they each drifted off again. For the next couple of hours this pattern continued, as they all drifted around the variety of bikes in the workshop. Eventually, one of the young blokes plucked the piston from the engine and triumphantly held it out to me, pointing at the great gouge mark up the side of it.

‘No shit,” I responded. “Can you get me another one?’

Thence ensued a great conversation between the mechanic and I, with much said, but neither of us understanding a word of the other. Not that anything needed to be said. I needed a new piston, that’s all there was to it. After a couple of minutes one of the kids put the piston in his pocket, jumped on a scooter and headed off down the road.

It was a long time before anything else happened. For a couple of hours I stood around in the dust while they tinkered away at the various bikes in the workshop. I paced. I sat around. I watched the sun set on the surrounding jungle. In the dwindling light, a bus went through town, headed for HCMC. I wondered if it was the last for the day, and I seriously contemplated flagging it down and cutting my loss on the little Russian bike and its single cylinder hand-grenade engine. The rational part of me saw it as the only smart option. It was now dark, there was no sign of a replacement piston, and I didn’t like the prospect of finding a decent bed for the night in this Vietnamese equivalent of Bumfuck, Idaho. As is my way, the reckless, adventurous part of me shouted down the sensible voice and I decided to stay and see how it panned out. Like a B-grade movie that promises an interesting ending, I decided to sit it out and see its conclusion.

As if to reward my faith, the kid came buzzing back on the scooter and triumphantly held out a new piston in box for me to admire. I cheered him, then urged him to the Minsk. It wouldn’t take long to get the engine back together, and I could get on my way. The collective of child mechanics had other ideas, and started packing up to go home. No amount of desperate pleading or financial incentive could convince them to stay. I expressed my frustration, and my determination to make it to Saigon that night. It interested them not at all. Before leaving, I at least got their assurance that it would be done first thing in the morning so I could be on my way early. I suggested 7. The mechanic suggested 9. We settled on 8.

The kids directed me down the highway, where, if my interpretation of the sign language was accurate, there was a hotel. I headed down the road in darkness, while all the villagers stared at me as though I’d just stepped out of a flying saucer. I found the hotel. I read the last chapter of The Quiet American and absorbed the experience of having the book in the very landscape that Greene had so vividly painted.

I woke the following morning at 9am, angry at myself for having slept so late. I knew the mechanic would be shitty with me as well, having bullied him into starting early. I showered, packed my stuff and trotted up to the workshop. The mechanic was not angry with me at all. In fact he hadn’t even touched the bike, and it remained strewn across the workshop floor while he worked on other bikes.

I expressed a combination of gratitude for the work they’d done, and frustration that it wasn’t finished. Actually, there was considerably more frustration than gratitude. The group’s response was incredible. As one, the four guys converged on the bike, reassembled the engine and mounted it back in the frame even faster than they had disassembled it the day prior.





I was simply stunned. Part of me wanted to scream, “Why the fuck couldn’t you do that yesterday?” But I couldn’t. I was awestruck by what I’d witnessed. Like a four-headed, eight-armed freak, they had attacked the job and completed it faster than I thought humanly possible. The workshop and half the village was immersed in thick two-stroke smoke as they kicked it into life.


It lives!

The kids beamed at me proudly. I smiled back in relief. The mechanic looked at me sternly. He scribbled on a pad and held it up to me: 50km/h

“Yeah, fifty ks. No worries.” I said.

He didn’t believe I was convinced, and tapped the pad with his pen to reinforce the point. “Ya, Ya. Fitty! Fitty!”

I strapped my bags to the bike, then set about settling the bill, apprehensive as to what to expect. On the speed limit notepad, the mechanic scrawled ‘500,000’.

I did the conversion in my head. About 30 Australian dollars. A new piston and rings, and about 4 hours labour. These guys were just incredible. I thanked him and offered him 700,000 Dong, because I had 7 crisp 100,000 Dong notes among the bundle of paper money in my pocket. The mechanic counted it, then handed two back. I urged him to take it, and in a language he’ll never speak, I told him how grateful I was for his help. He refused, and handed the two notes back to me. I offered them to the young blokes in his workshop. They refused also, albeit with beaming smiles.

I thanked them at length for helping me out. They responded at length, most likely telling me to piss off out of their workshop so they could get on with it.


Preflight inspection

I set off triumphantly, at the mandated 50 kilometres per hour. At least that was my estimate, the bike didn’t have a speedo. Four or five kilometres out of town, without warning, the engine seized again. Rock solid this time. I was shattered. If I’d abandoned the horrible Russian shitbike yesterday and hopped on a bus, I would’ve already been in HCMC. Instead, I was stuck Christ-knows-where with a non-functioning piece of Soviet shit. I turned the bike around and coasted back towards the village. A couple of attempts to clutch-start the thing were futile, and the bike dragged its back end like a dog with worms. I decided to ride the heavy push-bike as far as it’d coast, then ditch it in the jungle and walk back to the village and catch a bus.

After a while the little horror machine built up decent momentum running down a hill, and I willed it to keep building speed and carry me over the next rise, which was quickly approaching. Then for some reason, I found the urge to have another attempt to clutch-start it. The consequences were simple- there was the faint hope that it’d run again, and I could push further south towards another village and HCMC. If it didn’t start, the momentum lost meant we wouldn’t make it over the rise, and the journey was over.

I didn’t think about it very hard, mainly because I’m not capable. I flicked it into second gear and dumped the clutch. The bike shuddered. The rear tyre chirped, then just scraped along the ground. My heart sank. Then the horrible, spiteful bastard of a machine barked into life. I reefed the throttle open, and the miserable little thing responded with the power it had when I set off, almost 2000 kilometres ago.

I pulled the clutch in, and let the engine scream itself stupid while I wheeled the bike round and pointed it towards HCMC, and we were off in the right direction again. I pinned the throttle. Screw the 50km/h suggestion, if the bike was going to break down again it was going to do it at full noise, not puttering along. I kept it pinned all the way to the first proper town I came across. After filling it with fuel, I pinned it again and held it that way until we entered the sprawling traffic nightmare that is Ho Chi Minh City. I weaved through the chaotic maze of trucks and mopeds, flogging the bike, constantly expecting it to die. It revelled in the hate, and performed better than it had before.


On the road again.

That mutual spite got us to the destination, where I’d arranged to sell the bike to a Canadian bloke on a backpacker’s website. When the guy turned up as arranged, my conscience compelled me to warn him about the unreliability and recalcitrance of the bike, and offer him the opportunity to withdraw from the deal. But then he spoke. In a whiny, nasally Canadian voice, he looked at the technical manual I had with the bike and announced, “Oh yeah! I’m an engineeerrrrr, this stuff’s like porn to me!”

He told me about his extensive riding experience in Canada, and how the Vietnamese roads would be no challenge to him. Then, as I kicked the bike to life, mainly to drown out his voice, he asked, “So where’s the clutch?”

To hell with warning him about the bike. Darwin would determine whether he would make it.

I took the cash from him, and absconded while he tried to comprehend the synchronisation of clutch and gear lever. God only knows what evil things that Russian hate-machine did to that Canadian, but that’s not my problem. I’d completed an incredible journey through a magnificent country, despite the best efforts of the Minsk.

The Vietnamese are a magnificently hospital people. Their country is amazing, and perfectly suited to motorcycling. But Soviet motorcycles are hideous bastards of things that should be completely avoided.

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About the Author

Undereducated and over-opinionated, Bedlam hails from northern NSW Australia. He has motorcycles in the blood, as well as traces of cheap port and rum.

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