Get Off the Beaten Track on a Minsk Motorbike Tour
We try to see countries from a different perspective if possible whether it is going to a local fruit and vegetable market away from the busyness of the tourist centre, taking a bike ride into the country or hiking on little known trails. We tend to shy away from the larger tour crowds when we can just due to the fact that we don’t like the jostling of crowds and vending opportunities that many tourist sites have to offer. Of course if you want to see a sight like the Louvre, the Grand Canyon or any well-known attraction it is almost unavoidable to show up and see six tour buses getting off to join you. Fortunately, there are still some amazing attractions and things to do that offer an adventure off the beaten path but close enough to your accommodation to get back in time for dinner.
Or in the case of Hoi An Motorbike Adventures, on and off very beaten and historic tracks on a an old Minsk motorcycle.
Tour Operator: Hoi An Motorbike Adventures
Location: Our tour was out of Hoi An Vietnam with additional riding opportunities offered in Sri Lanka and Laos. The tour included side streets in quiet neighborhoods, a short ride through Danang, up a steep climb along jungle and the sea as well as historic sites.
Price as of March 2015: $95 each or $140 in total for two if your partner rides pillion, check website for latest pricing
Tour style: Easy riding, some technical riding involved if you choose to drive vs ride on back
Length of tour: 1 day although many other options available for multi-day trips, also in Laos and Sri Lanka
The booking office is just outside of the Hoi An ancient town and provides anything from day trips to overnight or multi-day trips for anyone who wants to get a taste of Vietnam in a new perspective.
About The Minsk
If you happen to be a motorcycle enthusiast then you will have another treat in store as the typical motorbikes used for their tours are none other than the Minsk,
a Soviet Union era 125cc workhorse of a bike, made in Belarus, that has its own international club and has sold over 6.5 million worldwide. This is the same style of bike shown in the Top Gear special on bikes in Vietnam. Hoi An Motorbike Adventures also offers other options for those less inclined to jump on the Minsk and you can see those on their website. There is an option of operating the bike yourself (see the legalities of riding in Vietnam below) or you can ride pillion (the back) with one of their experienced drivers. My patient, loving wife agreed to ride pillion on my bike.
I have romanticized taking a motorcycle tour across a country for years and this is about as close as I could get so far. In the distant past I have owned much more powerful bikes like the CBR 600 F2 or the 1100cc Shadow Aero which offered up power when needed and stopping power to spare, even on a steep mountain climb. They were fun bikes but there was little in the way of technical challenges like knowing which gear will get you up the hill and which one will leave you watching the rest of your tour fly by you. This tour offered those challenges in spades. Riding a 125cc Minsk with a kick-start, drum brakes and a lack of speedo or any niceties provides a completely different riding experience. And my wife and I couldn’t stop smiling the whole day.
Riding the Minsk
Luckily my very limited mechanical skills were not tested on this tour. Hoi An Motorbike Adventures provides a ride-along mechanic in case you do break down. Apparently an on the road tune up does happen with these older bikes from time to time but these occasional pitstops only add to the authenticity of the bikes and the tour. One couple who rode with us had a minor breakdown and were up and running again shortly. I had my own challenges that included getting up long hills without flooding the poor Minsk and some shifting issues due to hidden neutrals, but no show stoppers. The old Minsk have personalities and temperaments like a workhorse, and it is the rider’s ability to manage them that makes the tour much more challenging than riding a scooter or a more modern motorcycle.
Riding on a flat road through the country side wasn’t a problem with the little bike, even with two adults. Following our tour leader, Tony, made riding through Danang much more
comfortable through intersections and roundabouts. Going uphill was much more of a challenge for me. Keeping the bike moving on the way up the longest hill of the day required a bit more expertise than I had and I quickly found that letting up on the throttle, not shifting down quickly enough, getting lost in a neutral I found between 2nd and 3rd, or keeping the throttle wide open could leave me stalled on the side of the road. Luckily, this tour group has a great team of riders and a mechanic watching out for us and Tony, the guide, provided many helpful tips and tricks.
The team was quite patient as I attempted to kick-start the bike (once without engaging the ignition first) and at times even had to help us get started back up a hill after we stalled. They also did their best to not make me look foolish, although I have to say that my pride was affected by not being able to completely manage a small 125cc bike. Maybe I’ll have to take a few more tours to get the hang of it.
If you have wondered how my wife managed on the back during this trip, she was amazingly happy and calm, taking some great footage with the GoPro which I have embedded as a YouTube clip at the beginning of this post. She is a brave one.
Our tour took us to historic sites such as Thap Bang Cham Tower, Bo Bo Hill (also known as Hilltop 55), Lady Buddha on the Son Tra Peninsula of Da Nang, rice fields, neighborhoods on back streets and more. It was a great experience to ride without seeing hardly another tourist at any of our stops except for our own group of six and there were no special stops to sell us tourist trinkets. We both agreed that this day trip was near the top of our list of things we have done on our gap year so far and we highly recommend it if you get the chance.
Information for Operating a Motorcycle in Vietnam
You may want to check your travel insurance policy before you ride. If you plan on riding pillion with one of the tour’s experienced riders, the legality of operating the bike will not be an issue. You will want to do some research before you decide to operate your own bike. It may be possible that if you are in an accident, your insurance may not cover your injuries or injuries to others. As always, look for the most current information at your embassy or a well-documented travel site but here are some things to know as of our March 2015 trip:
- You need a Vietnam driver’s license to operate any vehicle including a motorcycle/scooter over 50cc and International Driver’s Licenses should be accepted as of Jan 2015 – I used Australia’s Smart Traveler site to get the latest and they still warn that you need a local license
- There are reports that Vietnam will start recognizing International Driver’s Licenses in 2015 but as of this post in March, I haven’t found any official documentation that states they have implemented this policy.
- To get a Vietnam drivers license, you will need to have a minimum 3 months visa (apparently not a tourist visa) and/or permanent residence. That being said, the majority of riders in Vietnam do not have a license either according to this article
- Your travel insurance may (most likely will not) cover you so you should look into this before you decide to ride. My comprehensive travel insurance coverage does not cover me for driving without a license. According to my contract, which covers motorcycle riding, you need to hold the correct Australian license for the vehicle you are driving including motorcycles and “it must be valid in the country that you are in.”
We get an offer to rent a motorcycle or scooter almost every day that we walk into town and we see tourists riding them as well, most likely illegally without even a motorcycle license, so they are easily available. That being said, just keep in mind what you are getting into before you go as with any travel destination.