The Minsk: A Guide to Renting & Enjoying Your Big Honkin' Soviet Motorbike
So you want to really get out and see the far north on your own? Well, one way to do it is to get yourself a Minsk. Built in Minsk, Belarus, by the Motovelo corporation, these sturdy 100cc machines come in two different models: 1) the older classic Minsk, which is a model of Soviet-style "function, not form" design principles; and 2) the sport Minsk, which came around due to late Soviet innovations and the fall of the iron curtain, and is a higher-profile bike with better suspension, something like a standard motocross bike, but with the same engine as the classic Minsk.
Sure, you'll see lots of 100cc scooters out on these roads, but a Minsk is still your best bet for reliability, durability, and easy fixability, as just about everyone up this way has one and can help you with even major repairs. Hairpins and bailing wire often suffice as replacement parts, and even the smallest little country repair shop is staffed with someone who can tap apart the crank case and fix major problems. Stop on the most deserted stretch of mountain trek, and you'll be amazed when, after only a brief pause, you'll be greeted by Montagnards (who've been watching you the whole time), who come down out of the hills to diagnose and fix a sick Minsk with little more than their farming machetes. Locals appreciate your adventurous spirit (or call you crazy) for striking out on these old hunks of metal to explore their country. Once a security guard at a hotel gave my bike a full tune-up just for the love of the bike and to ensure I'd have a safe trip. And these bikes will make a mechanic out of you: The principles of the internal-combustion engine couldn't be clearer than if Fred Flintstone himself designed it.
Be sure to learn the phrase Xang Fa Dao (sounds like "Sang Fa Zow"), which means "gas with oil," and Nam Fa Jam, which means "5%." Minsks are two-stroke, or two-cycle, motors (something like your lawn mower, weed whacker, or go-kart back home), and you need to mix 5% oil with the gas. In the countryside, folks at gas stations are very adept at this because they're used to dealing with Minsks and other two-stroke machines, but be careful in cities, where gas station attendants know only scooters. Be vigilant to ensure your bike gets the right mix of gas and oil, as not doing so is the easiest way to give yourself problems down the road. When filling up with gas, be sure to turn off the fuel line connecting to the engine, and help the attendant, who will either measure a cup of oil and then thin it out by adding gas directly to the cup, suspended over a funnel into your tank (and a few extra hands are appreciated for this little operation), or mix the oil and gas in a separate can. In either case, watch closely and see that the bike gets oil. When you start off, keep the fuel line closed and make some slow, swerving turns to mix the gas; then open the fuel line to the normal setting.
There are lots of kind strangers on the roads of the northeast, and relying on your Minsk and a bit of "trail magic" is certain to get you there.
There are two good rental agencies in Hanoi:
- Mr. Cuong's Motorbike Adventure (1 Luong Ngoc Quyen St., on the east side of the Old Quarter near the city's major ring road; tel. 04/3926-1534) is the best place for straight-up rental. Cuong is a mechanic and keeps a large stable of Minsks in good condition. Each bike is nearly rebuilt after every rental. You'll pay the standard $7 per day, which includes a good helmet, but that's where service stops. Mr. Cuong's place is open daily from 8am to 6pm, and he's a very understanding man, cutting you little breaks like charging for a half-day if you bring it back early and lending extras at no cost to you.
- Mr. Hung's Vietnam Adventure Tour, on the other hand, provides motorbike rentals as well as comprehensive guide services. For just $30 per day, you can hire a bike and an accompanying guide with his own bike. Choose from a number of well-planned routes around the north, enjoying ease of navigation and easier connection to locals. If you're considering going it alone, some folks have reported that Hung's bikes aren't quite as well maintained as those at Cuong's , but if you're looking for more of a tour, Mr. Hung's is the place to start. Find him at his small storefront travel agent just north of Hoan Kiem Lake at 5A Dinh Liet St. (tel. 04/3926-0938), and someone there can take you to his repair shop on the city ring road at 162 Tran Quang Khai St. (just around the corner from Mr. Cuong's).
When renting a Minsk, you'll have to leave your yellow paper, a rather valuable little Customs certificate that you'll need (or face a fine and some bureaucratic hassles) when leaving the country. Most shops ask that you pay in advance and sign a contract that gives you complete responsibility (to the tune of $350-$500, depending on the bike) for the bike's well-being. Demand a lock and use it when leaving the bike for long intervals (most Minsks do not have key ignitions and therefore are easily started by anyone).
Safety -- Demand a helmet and wear it; go slow; and honk to alert other vehicles when passing. Stay alert! Vietnamese roads are chaotic, and something or somebody is always leaping out onto the roadway or veering into your lane. The hardest part about any trip in the north is navigating Hanoi's crazy traffic and finding your way out of the city; in fact, both Mr. Hung and Mr. Cuong are given to leading their more inexperienced clients out of the city center to more sane open roads.
What to Bring -- In the little metal storage cases on the side of the bike (for older models) or under the seat, pack an extra tube, a patch kit, a few spark plugs, a spark-plug wrench, and a crescent wrench; most rental shops will provide it all, but be sure to ask. Minsks leak oil -- in fact, just getting close to the bike usually means you get a few smudges on you -- so bring two sets of clothes: one grungy pair of long pants, T-shirt, and light jacket that you won't mind getting covered in oil and road splatter during the day, as well as a clean set of dry clothes, including something warm like a sweatshirt or fleece for those chilly highland nights. Minsks can be outfitted with handy saddlebags, or else you can bungee your gear onto the rack at the back of the bike. I take everything I want to keep dry and wrap it in plastic and tuck it in the bottom of the saddlebag or bungee it tight to the back of the bike. I then keep a light day pack of daily-use items (camera, journal, wallet, and so on) on my back or at the top of the saddlebags. A "dry bag" is good to have at the ready should you hit some rain and want to just tuck away readily used items and valuables (I also drop my money belt into the dry bag if the rain starts). Be sure to bring bug repellent, a flashlight, and a hat for day hikes and cave exploring. Wear long pants, preferably jeans, when riding, and wear boots, if possible, and at least shoes or sneakers, if not (no sandals), but bring something light like flip-flops for the evening.