The Minsk and the Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance

As Vietnamese Disdain the Soviet-Era Relic, Expat Bikers Fall for the 'Beast From Belarus'


THAC DA, Vietnam -- On the obstacle course at the seventh annual Minsk Olympics here in northern Vietnam, Richard Rastall twisted the throttle on his Soviet-era Minsk motorcycle and gingerly accelerated up a four-foot grass embankment. The bike lurched. Its speedometer fell off.

"It goes with the territory, I suppose," said Mr. Rastall, a 30-year-old Englishman who lives in Hanoi, fishing in his pockets for duct tape. "But you've got to love these bikes, really."

That is a matter of debate, actually. Increasingly, upwardly mobile residents of Vietnam's cities scorn the Minsk, a noisy, smoke-belching, breakdown-prone dirt bike that has changed little since it was introduced by the USSR's Minsk Motorcycle and Bicycle Factory in the 1950s. With its primitive design and a following mainly among poor villagers, it is a reminder of decades of Soviet influence and lack of choice.

Yet those same qualities have given the Minsk a second life among a core of expatriates and Vietnamese who have fondly dubbed it the "Beast from Belarus." They see a cheap article of retro chic that can reach Vietnam's remotest corners and, when it inevitably breaks down there, can easily be fixed. Its biggest fans can be found in the Minsk Club of Hanoi (slogan: "In Minsk We Trust!"), whose calendar of trips and events culminates in the Minsk Olympics, two days of stunts, motorbike polo, live music and on-the-fly repairs.

The object of their devotion has a simple two-stroke engine with a 125 cubic-centimeter capacity, an anachronism in an age of sophisticated 450cc offroad bikes and electronics-laden 1200cc "crotch rockets." It can reach speeds of 50 miles per hour, under optimal conditions. Used models here can cost less than $500.

Minsks still ply the crumbling roads of ex-Soviet client states from Afghanistan to Mozambique. In Vietnam's far-flung reaches, they are often the only mechanized transport around. Locals here nicknamed them "buffaloes." Smugglers use them to spirit chickens, cigarettes and other contraband across Vietnam's snaking border with China.

This way of life may be under threat. The Minsk's manufacturer, OAO Motovelo, lost $10.5 million in 2008, according to Belarussian media reports, as Japanese and Chinese bikes encroached further into the company's main markets in Russia, eastern Europe and Asia. The factory has been plagued by strikes and protests, and the government there is trying to help the company restructure its debts.

Motovelo officials say production has returned to normal after recent labor disputes, and the factory is still making the 125cc model, partly thanks to demand here. "We're aware of the fan following in Vietnam," says Motovelo director Nikita Shrubok.

Just in case, some mechanics and riders in Vietnam are cannibalizing old bikes for spare parts. On a Monday this summer, Phung Duc Cuong trekked about 40 miles from Hanoi to a junkyard in Te Lo village, seeking backup parts for the 50 Minsks he rents as part of a tour business.

The 40-year-old mechanic picked through the remains of Russian-made Volga cars, broken Honda scooters and rusting cranes and trucks and emerged with two carburetors, one cylinder, a generator and a speedometer. It cost about $11, one-fifth of the price of buying them new, he figures.

The junkyard owner, Tran Van Quynh, says he expects prices to rise. "There are fewer and fewer Minsks coming through the gates these days," he says.

Riders here also have innovative ways to keep their bikes running. Digby Greenhalgh, an Australian in Hanoi who has written a 60-page manual on Minsk maintenance, reckons they can be patched on the fly in some cases "with just a rock and stick." In a pinch, he writes, part of the license plate can be used to fix a balky clutch.

Dan Dockery, a 35-year-old restaurateur and music promoter in Hanoi, recalls touring in the mountainous north of Vietnam when his bike's frame snapped. The Englishman secured it with pieces of bamboo and lots of duct tape, and rode more than 10 miles to the next village. "It's amazing what you can do with a bit of duct tape," he says.

Some expat riders have started saving their Minsks for out-of-town jaunts, turning to Honda or Yamaha scooters to get around Hanoi's hectic streets. But they also say Hanoians' attitudes toward the bikes are starting to shift.

"They produce so much smoke that people just look at you when you're stopped at a red light," says Giles Cooper, a 34-year-old Hanoi-based lawyer. "In the end, you just turn the engine off."

The Minsk Club was formed over beers a decade ago. An early outing came about in 1999 when Mr. Dockery, then an English teacher, learned from a student that a Minsk executive was due in town on business. Mr. Dockery organized a welcoming committee at Hanoi's international airport, treating the unwitting executive to vodka shots and bouquets. Dozens of Minsks escorted the director's car into town, their exhaust possibly obscuring his view, Mr. Dockery recalls. On the way back, he says, a number of the bikes broke down.

The club's Minsk Olympics, held this year at Thac Da, a 90-minute trip by bike from Hanoi, attracted scores of Vietnamese and expat riders. In 110-degree heat in the foothills of the Ba Vi mountains, they competed to fling inner tubes over trophies from speeding bikes. They dabbled in Minsk polo, which involves two teams of riders, two goals and one large pink ball. Later, a local expat rock band, The Offensive, performed Ramones songs.

The main draw was the battle for the "Piston" trophy. Riders attempt to navigate a winding course of embankments, ditches and tightly spaced trees in the slowest possible time, with penalties incurred each time a rider touches a foot to the ground.

Slow-motion crashes forced many riders out of contention. Mr. Dockery showed well: With the finish line nearing and his bike sliding gradually out of control down a grassy slope, he leaped from his Minsk and over the finish line, stylishly avoiding a foot-fault penalty. The ponytailed 35-year-old won a round of admiring applause.

His efforts were eclipsed by a controlled performance from manual-writer Mr. Greenhalgh. His nearly error-free round brought him his third Piston trophy.

The real victory, perhaps, came later. For once, the fleet of Minsks made it back to Hanoi without a breakdown.

-Nguyen Anh Thu in Hanoi and Nonna Fomenko in Moscow contributed to this article.



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