Vietnam & Laos on Vintage Minsks

Discussion in 'Ride Reports - Epic Rides' started by Sideoff, Jan 4, 2015.

  1. Sideoff

    Sideoff Been here awhile

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    My girlfriend Amarett and I are headed to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, leaving this week. I have some work to do there, and then we'll take off for 3-4 weeks riding in Vietnam & Laos, returning to Vietnam and ending in Hanoi, where I also have to be for work. In other words, it's a tax deductible vacation.

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    Our bikes for the trip are two vintage 125cc two-stroke Minsks. If you're not familiar with this bike, they were made in Belarus, and at one time (many years ago) they were the mechanical backbone of the rural economy in Northern Vietnam. I am not sure how that happened exactly, since Belarus is not particularly close to Vietnam, but they must've come over the border from China. 13 years ago I rode one through Vietnam from Hanoi to Saigon. It ran great. Back then Minsks were everywhere. Now, not so much. But that was one of the first big international moto trips I ever did so the Minsk has a special place in my heart.

    Here's an old pic from that trip.

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    Last year when I was in Vietnam for work I barely saw any Minsks at all on the road, except the one I myself was riding. The roads are full of modern scooters and mini four-strokes, but no Minsks. The younger Vietnamese actually kind of look down on them, because they represent the past, and they're smoky and noisy and clunky to ride. But some expats and local Vietnamese are starting to collect and recondition them. And man they just keep going and going. They're great little bikes. Not because they don't breakdown, but because they are so simple to take apart and fix on the side of the road. But in the modern Vietnam where everything is clean, new, and sporty, the tough, smoky old Minsk doesn't really fit anymore. Most kids would rather have a honda or a vespa.

    The most practical choice for this trip would surely be a 110cc Honda Win or a step-through scooter. But the Minsk has an undeniable appeal, plus the two stroke power, which is notable in a country where engine size is limited to 175cc.

    When our friend Anton (an American designer living/working at our factory in HCMC) said he'd found two old Minsks for sale in Saigon last week, we were all over it. $440 apiece with legal registration (in Anton's girlfriend's name), new tires, and whatever mechanical work they need.

    Some pics Anton sent from the bike shop:

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    Here are the bikes themselves, just got these pics from Anton an hour ago.

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    All packed, ready to head out on Tuesday. No fancy riding gear or body armor for this trip. Helmet, rain jacket, hiking boots, and carhartts.

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    Found this book online and read it cover to cover.

    http://www.minskclubvietnam.com/pdf/mInsk-repair-manual.pdf

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    From Chapter 1: "The Minsk is a practical and pragmatic bike with no flash or sharp design. It is made of steel not chrome and prefers to be greased not polished. It is a war-horse which carries its wounds and scars well and can be repaired with just a rock and a stick."

    That's some straight-up poetry right there. Respect to Mr Digby.

    With a little help from the manual, we put in an advance request for the following spares. A concern we have is finding Minsk parts out in the countryside. Not likely to be as easy as it once was.

    - transformer (1)
    - electrical box (1)
    - generator (1)
    - carburetor (1)
    - clutch pads (1 set)
    - brake pads (1 set)
    - throttle cable (1)
    - brake cable (1)
    - clutch cable (1)
    - spark plug (2)
    - headlight bulb (1)
    - front tire tube (1)
    - rear tire tube (1)

    If any Minsk fans notice something missing from the list above please let us know. Also, any leads to Minsk mechanics in the area would be awesome.

    Amarett and I are on a tight budget. Flights were booked with airline miles. We'll sell the bikes at the end and hopefully get some money back. My business is in startup mode, by which I mean I'm living on credit. But off we go anyway.
    #1
  2. DeeG

    DeeG Huh?

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    Sounds like a great ride! The spouse and I are heading to Thailand for New Years 2016. NYE in Bangkok with my son and his wife, then they head to Phuket and we go north to Chiang Mai. Hoping to spend two-three weeks up there, riding around.

    I wanted to take side trips to Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar...just because.... :-)

    But he's not to keen on the idea. I get the feeling he thinks its not a good place for Americans to go. ???

    We'll see. Have fun!
    #2
  3. Sideoff

    Sideoff Been here awhile

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    Back from the trip! What a blast.

    Of course I had images of keeping up with trip reports from the road, but you know how it goes. Now I am home and unpacked, and looking forward to reliving it through a trip report.

    Something I did not mention in that first post: before we left for this trip, Amarett had spent only maybe 5-10 hours total on a motorcycle. She has a learners permit in the states but not a license. Right before we left there was a little window of nice weather so we took out the bikes and went for a cruise in the Gorge.

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    Then we flew to Bangkok and spent a few days hanging out in the city and going out at night.

    Some authentic hill tribe handicraft bracelets for sale on the street in Bangkok.

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    Went out to the nightclubs and of course the red light district. By coincidence, some friends from Portland were in Bangkok at the same time we were, so we explored the night scene together.

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    And from there to HCMC. We landed at night and Anton met us at the airport. We went straight from there to Anton's house to pickup the bikes. For Amarett, having spent so little time on a motorbike, to show up directly from the airport after a flight fomr bangkok, at night, in saigon traffic, first time in vietnam, on a moody, clunky, vintage, kick-start, two-stroke - it was a do-or-die kinda moment. Man she hopped on the bike and after a near-miss with a car in the first 30 seconds, followed me 30 minutes to the hotel downtown. 5 minutes from Anton's I looked over and she was all smiles, obviously having a blast. Riding in saigon is an experience.

    Our first look at the bikes (the red and blue ones):

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    Headed out for her first time in HCMC traffic.

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    #3
  4. Sideoff

    Sideoff Been here awhile

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    Next day, first thing, we got up and headed to the factory to pickup our bags for the trip. We made some adjustments to the bags and made sure everything was going to fit.

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    I had some meetings in HCMC, so we spent a few days there. Also we needed to get some tools and other stuff for the bikes. I had put in a spare parts request with the guy we got the bikes from, and he provided some of the things on the list but not others. After like 6 days in cities between Bangkok and HCMC, I was really excited to get on the bikes and get out into the countryside. At the moment, tracking down Minsk parts in HCMC seemed like too much of a hassle, as I was pretty busy with other stuff during the day. We really ended up really regretting that decision later! Especially not having an extra generator. but I was really glad we decided to stay for an extra day to get tools and supplies.

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    We found Amarett a helmet.

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    And a face mask... Fendi!

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    Spent some time wandering around and checking out the markets

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    This little piggy went to market...

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    Went out for Snails an d drinks with Anton, his GF Huong, and some of their friends.

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    And finally, metup for beers with VietHorse from advrider. If you are headed through SE Asia I highly recommend looking him up. He's an awesome guy, really into moto, and had lots of great advice about where to go and which roads were best. He drew up a quick map on a coaster.

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    We had originally planned to cut into Cambodia right away and go North to Laos from there. But Trung's advice was to stay in Vietnam and cut directly into Laos from Dalat, because the riding and roads were more interesting. He said eastern Cambodia is pretty flat and the roads are straight and boring. Good advice, we took it!

    That night we transferred all our backpack stuff to our moto bags and got set to hit the road first thing in the moring.

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    #4
  5. B10Dave

    B10Dave Long timer

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    Great start. Looking forward to the rest of your report...Dave:lurk
    #5
  6. VietHorse

    VietHorse Long timer

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    Recalculating... recalculating.... HCMC-Vietnam :)
    Oh my, I just saw my face up here :freaky
    When we can have another beer'clock?
    #6
  7. Comrade Art

    Comrade Art Working stiff

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    Vietnam is a captivating place. Looking forward to the rest of your trip :D
    #7
  8. hardwaregrrl

    hardwaregrrl ignore list Supporter

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    :lurk
    #8
  9. going south

    going south hero & Zero...

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    Ok I'm in for the ride.... :deal
    #9
  10. Sideoff

    Sideoff Been here awhile

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    Getting out of HCMC was a breeze thanks to the back road route recommended by Trung. We were headed for Dalat, which is kind of a tourist town. Figured that would be a good shakedown run for the bikes and for Amarett to get used to riding in Vietnam.

    After a few hours of city jumble we were out on nice countryside roads and having a great time with the ride. Stopping for for or coffee or energy drinks and just generally soaking it all in.

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    We were taking our time, and decided to make the trip to Dalat a two day journey, with some detours recommended by Trung.

    I could do a whole post just on the sheets and bed-spreads of SE Asia.

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    Stopped for snacks at a little roadside spot and the kids brought out their English phrasebooks. Tall & ugly ha!

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    We taught them the palm slapping game, and thumb wrestling, both of which they showed great enthusiasm for, and I am sure they are still doing it now.

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    Typical gas station

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    This kid was realy proud of his wooden gun

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    In a moment of moto-love, I snapped this pic of my red minsk, and a red bus unexpectedly drove by right just as I clicked the button.

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    We pulled into Dalat after dark, which was a little dicey with the twisted crowded hilly road into town. Got a room there and passed out immediately. Next morning we trekked around Dalat a bit.

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    We had considered spending the night in Dalat again, and just chlling for the day, but in what was to become a pattern on the trip, by mid-day we both decided that we wanted to get back on the bikes and keep going. The riding was already so much fun that it was hard to get excited about hanging around a town full of tourists and doing guide-book activities. Dalat is a beautiful town, just not where are heads were at right then. We wanted to keep riding.

    My shifter return spring had broken the day before so I was having to coax the bike to switch gears every time. Just as we were loading up to head out on the road, this really cool guy appeared who knew all about minsks, and showed me an easy fix. He sliced an old inner tube into thin strips (giving me an extra for the road) and then tied the shifter to the fuel petcock. Problem solved. This fix held for the next week or two until I finally got around to replacing the spring in Dong Ha a couple weeks later.

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    #10
  11. PDX Alamo

    PDX Alamo Been here awhile

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    Just got back from the South America adventure and Vietnam is next on the list, Ill be following this one for sure and your right down the road from me.
    #11
  12. MeinMotorrad

    MeinMotorrad Long timer

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    In.
    #12
  13. Sideoff

    Sideoff Been here awhile

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    Right on! Let me know when you're up in the gorge and lets grab a beer!

    Welcome!
    #13
  14. henderson

    henderson Adventurer

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    we want more, more!
    #14
  15. Sideoff

    Sideoff Been here awhile

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    We left Dalat mid-day and decided to take a back route out of town. We were on dirt and back roads pretty much right away.

    This was total moto-bliss. Dirt road through the countryside, awesome country, outrageously friendly people, everyone waving and stopping to chat when we stopped for a break. It was Amarett's first time on a road with this kind of riding and we were both just loving it. Not moving very fast, and stopping a lot, but having so. much. FUN!

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    The minsk has only a few inches of travel in the suspension so you really feel every single bump and dip. I got up on the pegs and twisted the throttle for a bit, but it felt like I was going to damage something, so I settled in to a slow speed, just bumping along with one hand on the bars and the other hand free to return friendly waves. Just soaking it all in. I lost the bolts to my gas tank, fixed with zip ties.

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    Stopped for an energy drink and saw something we ended up seeing a lot of out in the countryside. Not trying to gross anyone out with these pics although I realize they are a bit disturbing. It is what it is. Some people eat dog in Vietnam, especially outside the cities. They also have dogs as family pets. Nobody views that as ironic. There are dogs that are pets (usually kept on leash, near their owners), and other dogs that are for eating. When a dog hunter tries to steal a dog that is a pet, the hunters sometimes become the hunted (Read this LINK).

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    I have no idea how many miles we covered. It can't have been much. We left Dalat late in the day and were totally absorbed in our surroundings. Evening crept right up on us. There was a moment, as it started getting dark, where we wondered whether we would find a town before dark, since we didn't have camping gear. We considered asking someone if we could sleep on their floor. But sure enough, the houses started growing more frequent, and just as dusk settled in a little town appeared and we found an epic room for $7.50 with a balcony and everything.

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    Now we felt like our trip had really started. I could see that things were really clicking with Amarett: like the whole moto thing, and why it's so awesome to travel on one. Which was a relief for me as well, to see her having fun. Because you know, it's a pretty rough way to travel: bumpy, dirty, and raw. Especially through a developing country, traveling the backroads on an old two-stroke. I live for this shit, and to see Amarett having so much fun too made me even happier.

    We were totally exhausted that night but stoked to be on our trip! We pulled out our cell phone map and realized: holy crap, we are still a LONG way from Hanoi!! I even took a screenshot.

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    #15
  16. Sideoff

    Sideoff Been here awhile

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    Next day started off well enough. Nice breakfast, beautiful roads. Because of our backroad exploring after Dalat we hadn't actually made it very far, so we wanted to really cover some ground and make it up near the Laos border.

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    Instead, after maybe 30 minutes of riding, the blue bike died and would not restart. We could get it going with a bump start, but not with the kick. Some friendly folks appeared to help problem solve but could not figure out the issue either.

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    So we bump started the bike and backtracked to the nearest mechanic. Here we hung out for like 2 hours while he problem solved his way through every system on the bike trying to figure it out. Cleaned the carb, checked all the electrical connections, and on and on. Eventually he gave up. Bike dead.

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    We called Anton back in HCMC and he gave us the number of the guy we bought the bikes from, who is a Minsk specialist and who speaks a little english. His trick? Pour a few caps of engine oil into the cylinder head through the spark plug hole. Second kick: engine cranked and we were back on the road.

    The mechanic had a tap/die so we got him to drill/tap a couple mirrors on the bikes while we were there. And add a horn to mine.

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    Back on the road, bike running good.

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    A little further down the road I see Amarett pull over in my new rear view mirror. Crap. Turned around, flat tire, from a broken spoke. We were right next to a shop so rather than change it there we rode it to the shop and got them to do it.

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    Mechanical issues had eaten up a lot of time and it was getting late. We had barely covered any miles that day, but we didn't want to get stuck out on the road with another breakdown after dark, so we called it a night. Next morning, met this backpacker couple riding two up on their fully loaded Honda Win.

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    Back on the road a little while longer and the blue bike's engine seized. Kick starter wouldn't budge. We thought we were really dead in the water here. We didn't want to backtrack. We decided we were going to continue north no matter what. That meant either towing or hitching a ride.

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    We hooked up the tow strap but decided to see if we could flag down a truck before we started towing. Our confidence in the blue bike was pretty shaken at this point. And now we were on our third day in a row of slow travel, covering only maybe 50-75 miles over the three days, between back roads and mechanical issues. Still a long, long way from Hanoi. We were considering other options like riding two-up on one bike, or getting a scooter or Win for Amarett.

    While we were waiting I decided to see if I could get it un-seized. I put it in really high gear and just started pushing it with the clutch in and then releasing. On the third or fourth try, it un-seized. A few more pushes and it started feeling normal again. It still wouldn't kick start but i got it started with a bump start. Wow, back on the road.

    With the bike running, we stopped in the next little town for another diagnosis on the bike not kick-starting.

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    Opening up the engine, here's what we saw inside:

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    Oh man, not good. Looking a little deeper we found this.

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    We were starting to get a bit discouraged. Topping it off, Amarett was feeling nauseous. We decided to flag down a truck and get to the next city, but after waiting for a while, we did not see any trucks with space. Amarett was feeling more nauseous. My stomach was starting to feel weird too.

    Crap, food poisoning. We needed to get somewhere private. Like, immediately.

    Forget about flagging down a truck. The mechanic said he could source a new piston and have the cylinder re-bored overnight. This was a really small town we were in, but they had one guest house just a few hundred yards away and we bee-lined for it. By that point I was having the sweat/chills/sweat/chills. Made it just in time. It came on so fast. In less than an hour we went from feeling fine to praying to the porcelain god.

    The next 12 hours involved a lot of ugly things you probably don't want to hear about. You know how it goes.

    Ironically, the food poisoning meant we would have been stuck in that little town no matter what, regardless of bike issues. Nevertheless, that night, all fever and sickness, with a broken bike, the feeling of discouragement was pretty intense. In three days we had barely moved.

    Next morning, new day, feeling good. We were able to eat some food and keep it down. A new larger piston had been sourced, engine had been bored out, and the mechanic was busy cutting some new seals.

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    He'd spent 9 hours the night before riding to the next town, finding the piston, getting the engine work done, and riding back. Plus however many more hours back in his shop. Total cost for the repair including parts was around $50. We were back on the road by noon.
    #16
  17. Oldone

    Oldone One day at a time!

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    #17
  18. Ben Carufel

    Ben Carufel Boxer Addict

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    Wow, loving it!
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  19. hardwaregrrl

    hardwaregrrl ignore list Supporter

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    Holy crap!!
    #19
  20. Rixrider

    Rixrider Adventurer

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    Food poisoning: wouldn't wish that on anyone (well, ALMOST anyone...... ; ), but what a great report/ cool adventure!
    Looking forward to more.
    #20