The Minsk (Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam)

I bought the bike within minutes of seeing it.  It was a piece of junk, and it suited my purposes perfectly.

It was an old Russian Minsk, a simple 125cc bike that has not changed in design since before World War Two.  Minsks are tough; they can drive over any terrain, from muddy mountain roads to the open highway.  Minsks are notorious for breaking down constantly, but their simple design make them easy to fix with no more than a screwdriver, a wrench and some scrap metal.  Plus they are cheap.

The seller was a British chap, about 22 years old with a childlike face and long brown hair pulled back into a pony tail.  He smoked a cigarette nervously while I looked over the bike.  He wanted $450 for it.  I offered him $300, and we went to the local bia hoi stand to discuss business over a few rounds of dirt-cheap Vietnamese beer.

His reasoning was simple – the bike might be a bit old and clunky, but she will hold up if you take care of her and she will take you all the way to Hanoi with no problems…well, not that many problems.  Besides, he added, she had made the journey between Hanoi and Saigon dozens of times.

His last claim was indisputable; it was obvious the bike had been back and forth between Hanoi and Saigon many times.  The question was whether she could make the trip one more time.

I looked at the bike more closely.  The headlight worked, the left turn signal didn’t, and horn worked when it was in the mood.  She had a new paint job – blue paint with a black leather seat.  The British guy had fastened an improvised luggage rack on the back using only the legs of a metal stool and a bungee cord.  It was a kick start, as there is no battery or starter switch – just a raw combination of gasoline, fire, and air.  She had no speedometer, and no odometer, just kilo-meters.

I asked start her up.  He smiled nervously, scratched his head and cast his eyes to the ground.  Ahh, how did he describe the bike?   She’s a bit temperamental, she is… But he got her started easily enough, and it seemed like you had to get your ‘touch’ just right.

The engine sputtered to life and coughed blue smoke out of the exhaust.  He revved the engine and she rattled violently, shaking all of her screws half-loose in the process.  He said it was a two-stroke, one lung engine.  I had no idea what “one lung” meant, but from the looks of how much it was smoking and coughing, I guessed it lost the other one to lung cancer.

We settled on a price – $300 – and he assured me I would easily find another buyer in Hanoi.  I handed him the cash, and he handed me the key and a plastic bag containing two wrenches, one screwdriver, two spare spark plugs, one spare headlight, two spare brake cables, one spare clutch cable, a couple of spare clutch plates, and an old greasy rag – but no owner’s manual!   He smiled, patted me on the back, promised me I would learn a lot about motorcycle mechanics, and gave me the papers for the bike, which were registered in some Vietnamese guy’s name.  Apparently it is illegal for foreigners to own motorcycles.

By the time I looked up from the papers that slippery Limey was off with my cash!  I had just made a sizable investment, for better or for worse, and my plans had changed drastically.  No more “open bus ticket,” no more tourist trail, and no more Lonely Planet guidebook.  Just me, the Minsk, and a beaten-up road map of Vietnam.

This was going to be quite an adventure.


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