Win’ing In Vietnam

Pain is relative. No matter if it’s physical, mental, or in some cases financial. A few months ago, my pain was both mental and financial – all thanks to Frankenwin II, which happened to be very much an appropriate name for such a makeshift machine. Crafted from recycled junk, forged in the 8th circle of motorcycle hell, and if all of this was the prerequisite for disaster, this contraption carried us for 2,646 km through paradise.

Better known as the Honda Win, these cheap motorcycles have become a staple form of transportation for bold tourists who dare explore the beaten, munted roads of Vietnam.

The beginnings of our Vietnam trip was more or less simple. We felt that in order to lessen the stress of traveling, we would just ‘go with the flow of things’. Having too much of a point-to-point path wasn’t a big priority for Yen and I. During the first week, we were more than comfortable hailing taxis and spending lazy torturous hours riding on sleeper buses. That was until we were left stranded on the streets of Hanoi after a return bus trip from Sapa. Deciding our own exploratory fates became compulsory after that, since it seemed the wind wasn’t quite pushing our sails in the direction we wanted to go.

We needed our own set of wheels and we needed them fast. After two dedicated days of searching the net it became apparent that purchasing a car was way out of our budget. It would either leave us beyond poor, or have us selling our bodies or kidneys on the street corner – just to make enough for a towel wringing of petrol.

Our search continued, and in the end we took notice to the most obvious choice there was. It was as much a book to throat epiphany as one could hope for. With eyes wide open we made a decision: we were getting a motorcycle!

Half of the time, searching online can prove to be more than useful. Other times it just takes some inquisitive questioning of the locals to get the information you need. Since Yen spoke the native tongue this was her department of expertise. And it didn’t take long for her to narrow our search to one suitable and trustworthy bike shop.

Our first Frankenwin was purchased from a very confident, helpful, and knowledgeable shop owner. He, like many bike shops, could be found in an alleyway a little outside of the main city of Hanoi. The refurbished bike we bought, or Frankenwin, had the frame of a motorcycle, but its engine was equivalent to an expensive blender powered on rubbing alcohol.

The saavy shop owner was indeed a seasoned salesman. Delivering a convincible sales pitch, he claimed that our soon-to-be Honda Win was to be rebuilt with all the finest refurbished parts. Little did we know, all of his motorcycles were actually fully refurbished with the best parts one could salvage from an abandoned junkyard. The motorcycle was literally being constructed when we arrived to pick it up. Yet, as they gathered, welded, and spray painted our Frankenwin, Yen and I stood in a haze of excitement, murmuring to one another about how we were about to embark on a road paved of pure freedom. We forgot one major thing – neither she nor I knew how to ride a motorbike.

Amidst all the sparks, spraying, and cranking, the perfect exchange of supply and demand was forged. The Vietnamese had discovered the perfect business (and the multitude of motorcycle repair shops scrupulously exacerbated this theory): scavenge and mold together all the rusty materials you can salvage, sell it to any frothy-mouthed tourist willing to buy it, then open shops every ten kilometers or so to repair them when they inevitably break down. Pure genius.

As I said, I had no riding experience prior – besides a brief introduction in New Zealand that is. Even so, I definitely didn’t have the amount of logged hours to fully understand all of the many distinctive rhythms and textures of such a commanding machine.

But, in Vietnam when Benjamins are exposed, everyone will turn away from the many safety measures adopted in the U.S. These measures soon become enigmatic and pretty much irrelevant, lost in a blur of will power and green bills.

The full extent of my riding lessons lasted 20 minutes or so. My choice, and Yen’s willingness to put her life in my hands, was indeed a very perverse decision. We both turned an irresponsible blind eye to considering the wider range of consequences, such as getting seriously hurt, injuring others, or worse…killed.

Without much thought behind it, we purchased Frankenwin. Our first Honda Win took 15 minutes to build, 45 minutes for the speaker wire-filled alternator to burn out while in transit to Halong Bay. And, an additional two hours for the entire rear breaking system to detach itself. Yay! A harrowing return trip back to the shop of origin, and roughly 7.8 million VND ($350 USD) later, Frankenwin II was purchased – from another shop right next door to the first. Within a day, our trip was reanimated and ready to commence once again.

Over the course of the next three weeks, our learning curve was one drawn out by a kindergartner whose only skill was to scribble outside the lines of reason. Along with the many issues of riding in Vietnam, there was dealing with Frankenwin II, who had its fair share of problems.

To list a few: the headlight was mounted too high and provided little to no visibility when it was turned on (this was quite a frightening experience during night rides to neighboring cities or when we oftentimes became lost). There was also a blown rear tire, a bent rear rim, one broken turn signal, engine seize due to an oil leak, non-working speedometer, non-working gas meter, non-working horn, broken automatic starter, broken connecting rod, and a dropped chain… most of which were ongoing. If you can imagine operating a machine that breaks just as fast as you can put it back together, then you would be close to understating the troubles we endured.

As it struggled, and it did, we cursed every moment as the money poured into new mechanic donors willing to part with their creative talents and mechanical transplants… building, welding, and zip tying the clink and clatter of our tiny model crotch rocket.

It was a perilous journey no doubt. At times we were forced to ride off road in fear of getting smashed by the same giant buses we once rode on. They would deliberately barrel towards us with near head-on collisions while trying to pass slower vehicles in their lanes. Within minutes of riding, we would be completely sore from bouncing up and down unpaved dirt roads that were peppered with mortar sized pot holes. Also, I’m sure our lungs could still use a bit of filtering after being exposed to so much road dust. By the end of each day’s ride, one could have mistaken Yen and I for a couple of coal miners.

Obviously the bike fulfilled its duty and delivered us to Ho Chi Minh City. Between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh, we enjoyed the many spoils of the country and its people. Incomparable to any of the other countries we traveled to, Frankenwin II made the trip personal enough for us to take notice of just how much of a gem Vietnam truly was.

During the journey we made stops in Hanoi, Sapa, Halong Bay, Ninh Binh, Phong Nha National Park, Hue, Da Nang, Hoi An, Nha Trang, Phan Thiet, Ho Chi Minh City, and Mekong Delta. Luckily, save for a few butt bruises, we arrived at each location without having suffered a single scratch or any roadway PTSD. But, it was still at a financial expense we hadn’t accounted for. Not including the cost of the bike, the total repairs rounded up to over $500 USD – putting us way over budget for a motorcycle that was supposed to be both manageable and inexpensive.

As used up as it was, when we finally let Frankenwin II go, it was like saying goodbye to a very old and beloved dog. Probably a pain in the ass (and maybe not even the best company), yet, there were still so many cherished memories.

Despite our insults and poor care taking efforts, that second-hand rice cooker of a companion carried our fat asses for three weeks. And it proved both of us wrong by doing the impossible — getting us to our final destination, one that had seemed so far out of reach when we began the ride.

We are very lucky to be alive. One, because we had so many close calls. There was one of the days when a bus cut into our lane. Within seconds I was forced to make a decision. Either continue on my current path and play chicken with the behemoth, or, ride into a patch of sun dried rice grains that was laid out by a farmer. I do feel guilty about my choice, but it was all about self, and selfless preservation in that instance. Personally I feel that I made the right choice in the end, no matter how many grains of rice were lost in the process.

I was told that if you can ride a motorcycle in Vietnam you can ride one anywhere in the world. Looking back on that I believe it to be a very true statement, and I myself can say that I’m a testament to its revelation. The entire mobile society in Vietnam moves like one giant hive mind. On the roads no one talks, nor do they honk. Everything just seems to flow like a gentle river – little do you know that underneath that gentle flow is a raging undercurrent. I’m definitely not saying that no one has a mind of their own. There is great individuality within the culture, but on the road it is a hazard to take a nose dive into that undertow of unpredictability untrained and unaware of what to expect.

Both Frankenwin I & II were a hell of a gamble. Would I make that same bet again? Nope! I would rather allow Coco, my chihuahua/terrier to drive us through Vietnam next time around. Even so, at this moment I am truly grateful that I was able to experience it, enjoy it, and talk about it.

5 thoughts on “Win’ing In Vietnam

  1. Out of curiosity how much did your engine rebuild cost? Mine just died and I am near central Vietnam and worried about much it will be. My story is similar to yours.

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    1. That’s rough John. To be honest the price varies a lot. The costs of repairs usually varied between 30-75,000 VND. However, there were a few repairs that cost us a little over 100,000 VND. A whole engine replacement would probably cost around 300-500,000 VND. It sucks, but most mechanics will be legit, and they won’t try to scam you.

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    1. Naw, it probably looks more courageous than it actually was. It was however an amazing adventure. Hopefully there will be more of those to come – minus the safety hazards. Thanks for tuning in.

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