Full Metal Minsks

Vietnam

Hookers, sandworms and untimely breakdowns, Chris Fleet and Nick Sargent are taking on Vietnam aboard a couple of Russian relics

It all began over a single beer in Bangkok’s famed Kao San Road; my hair-brained ideas seldom meet with mutual minds, but when they do, it never fails to ignite the fuse of my whims. Nick was like me, a backpacker tired of the tourist trail that herded free-spirited people from island to island and temple to temple like cattle. He longed to break free and we both knew that there was one surefire way of doing it: on two wheels. One beer was all it took to plant that seed of adventure in the minds of two young men and we would part ways that night, re-uniting in Saigon, Vietnam, ready for the adventure to begin.

Leaving Saigon

Neither of us had much riding experience but we were determined to purchase the notoriously dodgy yet wonderfully classic Minsk motorcycle, a Communist relic left over from the days of the USSR. It was the workhorse of the Soviet Union and can still be found serving the locals of Vietnam and even places as far-flung as Afghanistan. The bike maintains a cult following among backpackers and bikers alike and it wasn’t long before we’d tracked down a dealer.

VietnamPhoto: Chris Fleet and Nick Sargent

Kevin was a British expat who seemed to be living the good life in suburban Saigon. He bought these ageing machines from travellers returning from the north, serviced them, and sold them to travellers who would subsequently take them back up north again, continuing their life cycle. After parting with a cool 2,000,000 Dong (£170) each, Nick and I were motorcycle owners for the first time in our lives. The bikes seemed almost identical with matt- black paint jobs and odd parts seemingly bastardised from other bikes. They each coughed unhealthily as we kicked them into life and all 125ccs roared and rattled loudly at every crank of the throttle. Both were sluggish, Russian beasts that were no doubt going to cause us trouble, but if we’d wanted reliability we’d have gone to the Hongda dealership. These were our machines and we loved them already. Highway 1, Vietnam’s main artery, stretches from Saigon to almost every major city until Hanoi. As we joined it, a steady stream of mopeds and bikes slowly poured out of Saigon, parted occasionally by a speeding truck or tourist bus like a shark swimming through a shoal of small fish. Everything seemed possible in that moment of glorious embarkation; we were on top of the world.

Our introduction to Vietnamese roads was swift and unforgiving. One rule that became very obvious was that size matters, and being the smallest mode of transport on the road, we mattered least it seemed. Even being as busy as it was, Highway 1 was simply a potholed, single-lane carriageway with no central reservation and just a small bicycle lane into which we could escape oncoming trucks.

With the light fading on our first day’s ride we began to search the roadside for motels. The next morning, my bike begrudgingly coughed and spluttered into life, happily chugging away as we gently coaxed Nick’s bike to do the same. Though they looked similar, each Minsk held a different personality and so they earned their nicknames. Mine moaned and groaned, drank way too much but got the job done; he was ‘Boris’ the vodka-swilling Russian. Nick’s bike was lazy and unreliable but could surprise at times; she was ‘Natalya’ Boris’ slothful bitch of a wife. They weren’t the kind of couple you’d invite to a dinner party.

Vietnam
Photo: Chris Fleet and Nick Sargent

A couple of hours of Highway 1 mayhem took us to a small turning that would see us leave the main road behind. We were headed to the small surf town of Mui Ne and soon we found ourselves alone on empty coastal roads, cruising at our own tempo. The Pacific Ocean crashed onto sandy beaches over our right shoulders casting a gentle mist in the morning air and the rising sun warmed our sweaty backs. Leaving the busy highway was liberating; our minds had become so preoccupied with basic survival that we had forgotten to enjoy the ride and now Vietnam was making up for it in abundance. We rolled into Mui Ne on top of the world and hit the beach.

Welcome to Party Town

More empty roads awaited us for the morning’s ride; beachside highway followed by farmers’ fields where traffic was so  infrequent, roadside locals would stare and greet us with a wave. It wasn’t just us, everybody seemed happier here just a short distance from the main highway. Soon we were joined by a couple of young Vietnamese guys both clinging to a tiny scooter, fascinated by our machines and the novelty horns we’d attached to them. A rudimentary form of communication ensued as we cruised at a relaxing 40mph through the brisk countryside; it mainly consisted of thumbs up and some pointing but even so, both sides got the gist. As our new friends waved a goodbye and left to go about their day, the faint sound of inevitability began to grow and before long Highway 1 appeared in front of us again beneath a cloud of black smoke. You could even taste the carbon.

It was a daunting prospect yet that necessary evil was the fastest way north and we still had a lot of ground to cover if we wanted to make it to Nah Trang, a notorious party town that happened to be our next stop. Natalya had other ideas, however. Just 30 miles from our destination, halted by traffic, she gave up and refused to start again. Fortunately, Vietnam being Vietnam, a motorcycle mechanic was just a few feet away and surrendering to our own ignorance we handed her over to the experts who promptly began undressing her and prodding her with a screwdriver. Nick and I could do nothing but sit back and watch as Natalya’s guts were spilled all over the floor. Some scratched heads and 100,000 Dong (£3) later, still none the wiser as to what the problem had been, we were back on the road, tearing towards Nah Trang as the sun touched the horizon.

Vietnam
Photo: Chris Fleet and Nick Sargent

Vietnamese roads are pretty dodgy in the daytime but plunge them into dark- ness and they’re downright terrifying. We discovered that the Minsks’ lights were run off of a dynamo and that, without constant revving, would burn no brighter than a tea lite. Even after a 100,000-Dong repair job, Nick was still wrestling with Natalya to keep her alive and the pressure was on to get to the beach where the hostels, bars, seafood and cold beers were waiting. Employing my newfound ‘thumbs up/point’ Vietnamese communications system we found the way and weaved through the pitch-black streets until the promenade – the only lit street in the city – appeared before us. It had been a day of highs and lows but it wasn’t enough to make us question our adventure – far from it! Hindsight and beer reduced the problems of the day into fond anecdotes. It seemed that Vietnam had a way of redeeming itself with breathtaking scenery and an unrivalled character no matter what hurdles we had to overcome.

Nah Trang is Vietnam’s Las Vegas, a backpacker haven of booze and beaches fuelled by tourist dollars. It boasts everything from packed-out bars and clubs to family fun at an offshore theme park. Taking just one day off the bikes we managed to squeeze in the entire Nah Trang experience, firstly at the deserted ‘Vimpearl Land’, which, so the rumours told, existed only as a front for laundering money for the Russian mob. All mafia ties aside it still made for a cracking day; having an entire theme park to ourselves was eerie but convenient. A day of waterslides preceded an inevitable bar crawl and our day off was enjoyed down to the very last second.

Going fourth

The next day as newfound friends either snoozed in their hostel beds or were herded onto tourist busses, we were kicking our machines into life, roaring out of town and once again leaving the tourist trail behind us. It was a pleasant day and even as we rejoined Highway 1, under the haze of a hangover, we felt on top form, as did our bikes. Further north and away from the city the traffic fizzled down to a trickle and for the first time on that wretched road we began to relax and notice the beauty that surrounded us. Usually dominated by oil-splattered buildings sat shoulder to shoulder, the roadside had now opened up revealing rice paddies filled with women in straw hats all toiling away as far as the eye could see. The cloud of smog had lifted and even wildlife returned as butterflies kamikaze’d onto our visors.

VietnamPhoto: Chris Fleet and Nick Sargent

So far the bikes had both been behaving themselves, but as mountains loomed over us and the road began to climb, our confidence started to waver. My motorcycling naivety had caused me to overlook one rather glaring problem with Boris; he had only first and fourth gear with second engaging on the rarest of wonderful occasions. It had been relatively easy to deal with on the flat ground we’d so far encountered, but as we drew closer to the centre of the country the mountains closed in and it would soon become an issue.

I adopted a tactic that involved not stopping under any circumstances. Leaving Nick behind, I proceeded to ascend at speed, weaving my way past crawling trucks and busses and around tight hairpin bends in fourth gear. It was working and as I passed the ominous wreckage of a recently overturned truck the road began to level out. Soon I’d reached the top of the pass. While I was celebrating my victory however, Nick had been having problems of his own and when he finally rounded the corner Natalya was all but spent as he drifted to a silent stop beside me.

Now we were in a pickle. Every other time we’d broken down thus far it had been beside a helpful mechanic; now it was a much different story. Aside from an empty truck parked up on the muddy patch of ground where we stood and a small shack tucked into the trees, we were surrounded by green. I’d hardly even noticed it as I’d raced up the road, but the foliage had really closed in and, for the first time on the trip, we were in Vietnamese jungle.

Rumbled in the jungle

We cleaned Natalya’s spark plug and tried, in vain, to kick her back into life. Neither of us were bikers and the next step stretched beyond our limited expertise; we were losing the fight. At that moment the door to the shack swung open and two figures began to walk towards us. They were tough to make out in the glare of the midday sun and we squinted in a bid to discern the pair. As they came closer, however, it all became clear very quickly.

Vietnam
Photo: Chris Fleet and Nick Sargent

One was a fat, sluggish Vietnamese guy dressed in dirty jeans and a sweaty vest, who scratched his crotch as he walked. The other was a skinny woman in her 40s dressed in what was once a yellow cocktail dress and stiletto heels but was now simply grubby reminders of what they once were. Behind them, through the open door of the shack, a single hammock swayed back and forth. Simultaneously, both Nick and I realised where we were: we had broken down at the top of the pass outside the world’s worst brothel.

The guy took one look at us, a final scratch of his crotch, grunted, and then made a beeline for his truck. The woman smiled a toothless smile and beaconed us over to her shack. Nick and I responded with the international gesture of ‘no boom-boom for us, thank you!’ but she saw it as an invitation and joined us on our mud patch. “No start?” she said, pointing to the crippled Minsk, “No” Nick replied, “no start” and with that she snatched up the pliers which had been resting on the seat, squatted down in her tiny dress and began tinkering away with Natalya’s engine.

Nick and I looked at one another completely bewildered but helplessly thankful; it seemed that every citizen of this enigmatic country, from kids to old folk, doctors to hookers, knew their way round a bike like a well-seasoned mechanic. Rubbing her now-oily hands onto her dress she threw a boney, exposed leg over Natalya and struck down hard on the kick start with her stiletto; the bike rattled into life. Our amazement almost masked our gratitude as she bid us farewell, tottering off to welcome new truckers to the mud patch. The whole encounter left us giggling like schoolboys at the absurdity of it all and just as we caught our breath once more, Natalya lost hers and died again. Our last glimpse of the toothless hooker was as she disappeared back into her shack, a new trucker in tow, shrugging her shoulders at our predicament.

An hour passed and with little success. We’d slowly given up on repairing the bike roadside. Certain in the knowledge of a mechanic in the next city, our fate fell to the truckers, and we stuck out a thumb in hope of a ride. It didn’t take long for us top bag a lift and soon we were negotiating passage for Nick and Natalya on the back of a rice truck. The a pair of shrewd Vietnamese entrepreneurs rubbed their hands together as the price flung back and forth between us. 50,000 Dong (£1.60) secured a ride as far as Que Nor’n and after loading Natalya on board I rode on, leaving Nick to slowly trundle his way to our destination.

Vietnam
Photo: Chris Fleet and Nick Sargent

One-night fling

It felt odd to suddenly be alone. I missed Nick’s company but at the same time it was strangely liberating not having a riding partner. I felt a sense of freedom that I’d not experienced before. I’d always quietly feared riding solo, but now it filled me with intrigue.

Though picturesque and relatively large, Que Nor’n was firmly off the usual tourist trail and even the one known Backpacker hostel seemed rather empty. As I pulled up I half expected to see Nick sat at a table, cold beer in hand, awaiting my arrival, but he was nowhere to be seen. Hundreds of trucks had passed me that afternoon and I had no idea if any had been his. With no real means of communication I had nothing to do but wait, pacing up and down the beach under growing concern that some ill fate had befallen him. It turns out that the truck had not overtaken me; in fact it had broken down not long after leaving the pass and following an afternoon of HGV repair work, a somewhat jaded Nick finally appeared, safe and sound.

It took a day and a half to fix Natalya’s apparently worn-out generator. Politics and history meant that the communist machine was less popular in the south, making spares hard to come by. We mostly filled our time lazing on the empty beach or swimming in the warm, shark-infested waters. Pleasant though it was, we were itching to get back out there. As soon as the bikes could start, we were once again carving our way up Highway 1, chasing the setting sun. We lost that race and by the time we reached another sizeable city, darkness had fallen and we were once again at the mercy of our crappy headlights.

Unwilling to search the city for the cheapest bed, and against our backpacker philosophy, we dived into the first hotel we could find which just happened to be a five-star luxury job. Put-putting onto the courtyard our Minsks seemed almost instantly out of place. Nevertheless without hesitation, a bellhop appeared and dutifully unloaded our bags, bungee by bungee, before two valets in well-pressed uniforms hopped onto the greasy machines and neatly parked them beside a shiny Lexus.

Vietnam
Photo: Chris Fleet and Nick Sargent

As we stepped inside the hotel, covered in the soot of Highway 1, oil marks streaking our torn jeans and dried sweat clinging to our sleeveless t-shirts, heads began to turn. Unabashed we wrangled a room for $25 and lived the life of luxury for just one night, emerging the next day like well-rested kings. Hoi An was our next destination. Not only was it the halfway marker of the trip, a backpacker haven and a Vietnam ‘must-see’ but it was rumoured to be home to a skilled Minsk mechanic, something we were in dire need of.

Rest, relaxation and repairs

The ride had changed for us somewhat. We could no longer ignore the many breakdowns that were cursing us and it had become clear that a real solution was needed if there was any chance of us making it the rest of the way to Hanoi. The ominous sight of the railway tracks sat just beside the road reminded us of the result of catastrophic failure; a one-way ticket and a scrapped Minsk.

Breakdown followed breakdown, sometimes simply put right with our own efforts and sometimes drawing quite a crowd of good-willed locals, sparking mechanical debate and ultimately becoming our crutch with which to limp on all the way to Hoi An.

Nestled well away from the highway, tiny Hoi An is famed for its many tailor shops kicking out anything from cashmere suits to custom Reeboks. It’s become a Mecca for travellers and having some- thing made bespoke is almost a rite of passage for the Vietnam backpacker. Thus far we’d not met any other ABRs, but not long after checking into our hostel, other Minsks joined Boris and Natalya out on the driveway and soon bikers had taken over the place. Everyone else was headed south and most had come from the Ho Chi Minh trail telling stories of horrendous downpours and perilous mountain passes covered in jungle.

Vietnam
Photo: Chris Fleet and Nick Sargent

There were seven of us in total. Doyle, Alice and Hillary were all riding together; then there was Tim from Germany, a Minsk guru who was taking his bike all the way to Jakarta, and a Swedish guy named Klaas. Everyone had had their own spate of misfortune when it came to their bikes, the little characteristics that made each one unique. Tim led us all to the legendary mechanic we had all heard so much about and with the weight of Russian steel lifted from everyone’s shoulders there was nothing left to do but have tailored suits made, get drunk and go skinny dipping.

Four glorious days of slap-up meals, good friends, parties and festivals were squeezed into our schedule, but with an impending flight home for Nick and the group’s imminent dispersion we had no choice but to leave the good times behind. With two new suits, four new shirts, a new generator and a fully functioning gearbox, we rode out of Hoi An bound for neighbouring Da Nang.

Dao Hai Van Pass and the DMZ

A quiet night in the modern city prepared us for what was to be the best day’s riding of the entire trip, the Dao Hai Van Pass. We were awake and cruising along the promenade just as the sun broke the horizon, our only company being the beachside aerobics classes that seemed commonplace in Vietnam. As more mountains drew closer, the uninviting sight of a tunnel appeared, but road signs ushered us bikes onto a road that seemed to climb sharply. It hand railed the jungle-covered slopes and opened up to reveal spectacular views of the ocean to the east as the rising sun kissed the rippling waves.

The tarmac was draped over the undulating ground like a ribbon, carving through the undergrowth and twisting at angles that only a bike could negotiate. We were alone up there, with all the trucks and busses passing through the tunnel, the old pass had been left exclusively for bikes. It was a brief, 50-mile glimpse into a world where the motorcycle reigns supreme.

Vietnam
Photo: Chris Fleet and Nick Sargent

Shortly after the road flattened out and re-joined the highway. Following a tip from Tim, we turned off east and followed a small track that led us through tiny settlements and modest farmland parallel to the highway. Ox and cart seemed the only other traffic here and curious locals took double takes as our noisy machines put-putted by. Overgrown trees engulfed the road like it was a tunnel and butterflies filled the warm, dry air. Pace of life here was slower and we found ourselves adapting to it, easing down to a slow cruise.

That was until we entered Hue where the pace exploded once more. Stopping only for the briefest of coffee breaks, we planned on paying the ancient city mere lip service, but as we tried to leave, fate had other ideas and at a busy set of traffic lights, in a true Russian strop, Natalya threw her chain and Nick was left beached in a current of mopeds.

It took less than an hour to put everything right with Natalya, but in that time under the gaze of a busy hostel bar, we decided to spend the night there, surrendering to the idea that the last two days would be a frantic dash to Hanoi.

We were up in the early hours, cutting through the silence of the morning with the pleasurable “Gggrriinngggg” of a 125 before successfully breaking free of the city. We’d made good ground by the time the sun revealed our surroundings and we found ourselves in the ironically named De-Militarized Zone.

Vietnam
Photo: Chris Fleet and Nick Sargent

During the war with America this area saw the brunt of the fighting and the scars of conflict are still visible on the hillsides. Where lush vegetation once grew only the scorched earth of napalm strikes now remain. Burnt hulks of vehicles rusted by the roadside and even the people carried a unique look in their eyes that I’d only ever seen once before in the eyes of the people of Basrah back in my army days. It was a stark reminder of what the country was sadly famous for. Out of a kind of morbid fascination, we put our mad dash on hold and paid a visit to the Vinh Moch tunnels to see where one of the coastal villages had gone underground to hide from American bombardment.

An eerie sombreness took over our morning as we lost ourselves in the rabbit warren of tunnels, the stench of carbon and phosphorous still clinging to the mud walls. Thoughts of what went on there put life’s little problems in perspective and after quiet reflection among the de-activated American bombs on display we continued into what was once Communist North Vietnam.

Cop a load of this guy

A single dusty track lined with smartly dressed school children all throwing up high fives led us there, edging us closer to our goal. As the sun set we dived into the nearest roadside hotel, rising the next morning to become slaves of the road once more. We stopped only to pee and to eat, not being choosey about where we did either, motoring down the highway as fast as our Minsks would take us.

We were no stranger to the roadside eateries, their faded plastic furniture easy to spot from the road and with such abundance, it was the obvious choice for lunch each day. Sometimes, however, we didn’t have a clue what we were eating, making noodles with… err… something a common dish for us. Our final roadside meal was served up by a very smiley couple who seemed very excited that we try their soup, speaking rapid Vietnamese and flashing two thumbs up with every bite we devoured. Later, after some investigation in our phrasebook we discov- ered that we had in fact been chowing down on sandworm soup, something of a delicacy in these parts.

Vietnam

It had struck us as odd that we’d drawn so little police attention along the way; every time we passed a policeman he wouldn’t bat an eyelid, almost as if they’d been told to ignore us. It’s actually illegal for foreigners to ride motorcycles and we’d been prepared to pay the odd bribe here and there, even setting aside a small budget for it, but without any harassment we were growing bold.

It was at the height of our boldness and within spitting distance of Hanoi that Nick was pulled over, accused of running a red light.

The cop was young, he looked about 12, wrapped smartly and proudly in the dark blue uniform and perched on top of a ridiculous pink civilian moped. He proceeded to fish into his bag of English words and explain the trouble Nick was in, culminating in an outstretched open palm and nodding gesture that would suggest ‘bribe’ in any language.

Nick responded with what still stands as the most valiant display of feigned ignorance I have ever seen, using some fine GCSE German, fully unfolding a map of Thailand and even opening up his fuel tank and presenting it to the cop, much to the humoured delight of the gathering crowd. Finally, after a flurry of shrugs he, and indeed I, was free, riding away amidst rapturous applause.

Home run

North of Ninh Binh, a mere 60 miles from Hanoi, the road opened up to a glorious, freshly tarmacked, four-lane motorway complete with central reservation. It was practically deserted, too. We’d not expected such a clear runway and we almost grew bored without the challenge of oncoming busses, suicidal mopeds, unpredictable cattle and Minsk-sized potholes. The motorway held our hand all the way to Hanoi’s front door before the city slapped us across the face and we were instantly engulfed in motorcycles like a tropical downpour of traffic.

Vietnam
Photo: Chris Fleet and Nick Sargent

Three-and-a-half Million Motorcycles call Hanoi home. They eat up every inch of space on the tight roads forming a graceful ballet as they move, somehow managing to function without fuss or bother, a testament to the engrained Vietnamese riding skill. When it comes to motorcycle balancing acts, this place had it nailed. I thought I’d seen everything, but I couldn’t have imagined what I saw in Hanoi. Full families of five clinging to one moped, cages laden with live pigs and chickens, loads wider than a small truck, and my personal favourite, a 90-liter tank containing several large carp that would wobble violently with every slosh.

Handlebar to handlebar with the rest of this mad dance we somehow navigated our way through ring-roads and alleys via palaces and slums to finally make it to the hostel district, our final destination. We cruised up to the backpacker hostel like conquering heroes, exhausted, elated and lost for words. We could hardly believe that we’d actually made it.

We’d taken on Vietnam on 40-year-old Soviet monsters and lived to tell the tale. As we drank our celebratory beers, all the hardships of the journey faded into mere funny anecdotes of toothless hookers and sandworm soup; all that remained were the good times, times we’d have found nowhere else but on two wheels.

Who’s Riding?

Chris Fleet

Age: 25
Hobbies: Photography, travel, sailing
Political views: Anti robots
Celebrity look-a-like: A haggard Justin Bieber
Quote: “I’ll pretty much take anything with decent eye make-up.”

Nicholas Sargent

Age: 25
Hobbies: Travel, volunteering, surffing
Religious views: Waves and vibes
Celebrity look-a-like: A scary Philip Schofield
Quote: “Dude, I’m crapping like it’s the coolest thing ever.”

Vietnam
Photo: Chris Fleet and Nick Sargent

The bikes

Names: Boris and Natalya
Make: Minsk
AKA: Cossack
Engine: Two-stroke 125
Strengths: Looking good
Weaknesses: Going uphill, downhill, rain, heat, any kind of obstacle
Average cost: £200

Want to do this?

When to go? It’s almost always rainy in one part of Vietnam, but dry elsewhere. For a good balance, April, May and October are the best months to visit. Get there: Flying direct to Vietnam from the UK is possible, but expensive; it’s much cheaper to go via Bangkok, Hong Kong or Kuala Lumpor. Flights to Bangkok are available from most major UK airports from around £460 return.  Fly or Hire: As it’s easy to pick up a small bike for relatively little money, going native might be wise, but if you crave cc’s there are some companies hiring larger Urals and BMWs. If you can’t bear to part with your bike and fancy a longer tour of this area, James Cargo Services Ltd can transport a BMW R 1200 GS to arrival into Ho Chi Minh City for £1,095 by airfreight or £695 by ocean, see www.jamescargo.comAccommodation: Vietnam has a wide variety of places to choose from whether you want five-star luxury or cheap and cheerful and none of it will break the bank. The backpacker scene is booming and hostel districts can be found in every city and tourist hub. If you’re off the beaten trail, use the Vietnamese word for B&B, lư quán, as although there are plenty about, they can blend in quite easily. Paperwork for you: A visa is required to enter Vietnam and must be obtained in the country you’re entering from; if you cross overland from Cambodia, for example, you must apply for the visa there. You’ll also need a valid UK licence, an International Driving Permit and liability insurance to ride in Vietnam. Paperwork for your bike: If you’re riding your own bike, you’ll need the bike’s V5C, a carnet and insurance that covers the bike for use in Vietnam. Is it for you?: Vietnam’s roads are pretty hectic and certainly not for the faint hearted. Although the road system is improving it’s still predominantly aging tarmac or, in the case of the Ho Chi Minh trail, simply sunbaked dirt. Some off-road experience would be helpful if you intend on tackling the Ho Chi Minh trail, but not necessarily essential as long as you have the time and the patience to take it at your own speed.

Useful phrases

My Motorcycle has broken down: Xe gắn máy bị hỏng (gge gan may buy hong)
Can you help me? Ban giup toi duoc khong? (ban zoop thoy duc khom?)
What am I eating? Những gì tôi ăn? (Noong gee tao an?)
Definitely not dog? Chắc chắn không có con chó? (Chak Chan Kong co con Cho?)
Thank you: Cam on (gahm un)

On the menu

Pho: Beef noodle soup, always served with a gazillion options to garnish with
Bun cha: Pressed pork and rice that’s flavoured sweet, sour, salty and spicy
Bánh xèo: A pancake filled with goodies, usually fish or vegetables
Lau (hot pot): Communal bowl of stock in which you can plonk anything from vegetables to pig’s heart
Mon cuon (rice rolls): Thin sheets of rice paper containing pork, chicken or bean curd

Vietnam
Photo: Chris Fleet and Nick Sargent

Pack your panniers!

ABR Mike Stevens, retail director of Cotswold Outdoor, has a BMW R 1150 GS; here are his essentials for travelling light in Vietnam

When travelling through Vietnam, on a small capacity machine and budget, you need to keep things tidy, light and cheap. Staying in Hostels and backpacker lodges means that you can keep your camping kit to a minimum, but you still need to consider those little essentials that will keep you comfy, clean and safe.

Mosquito net: Lifesystems Micro Net Single, £25 Always worth considering in this part of the world, good hotels will have mozzie nets as standard but the quality and condition of those in cheaper accommodation can often be a concern. This one by Lifesystems is small enough to fit in your luggage and its one-point attachment makes putting it up hassle free.

Insect repellent: Lifesystems Endurance Cream, £9 Don’t forget to pack this! A simple-to-use cream that once applied lasts up to 12 hours, thanks to its time release system.

Sleeping bag liner: Trekmates Mummy Liner, £12 Worried about the hostel linen or who may have slept in your bed the night before? This liner is small and light enough to pack right down, but provides a clean and hygienic sleeping solution. It’s made of cotton, so is easy to wash mid-trip if needs be.

Sleeping bag: Deuter Travel Lite 200, £55 (SRP £70) If you’re planning to camp or maybe want something a bit more substantial than a liner, this sleeping bag is a good alternative. Its synthetic Thermo Pro-Loft filling offers excellent warmth for the weight and it packs up incredibly small; a great travel bag for warm conditions.

Vietnam
Photo: Chris Fleet and Nick Sargent

Power: Freeloader Pico Light, £17.50 On an older, small-capacity machine, it’s unlikely you’ll have the option of charging electrical items as you go along. The Pico Light is a small but powerful answer that uses solar energy to charge phones, iPods and the like. Don’t forget your multi-adaptor for use in the hotel: Lifesystems adaptors (from £8).

Waterproofs: Trekmates Poncho, £23 You don’t want a weighty waterproof, but you will need to be prepared for the occasional heavy downpour. This poncho will help keep the worst off and a couple of Ortleib dry bags (from £15) will make sure your kit stays dry, too.

Water: Aquapak Traveller, £35 Most of the time you’ll be using bottled water but there may be the odd situation where it’s not available. As a backup, the Aquapack Traveller will provide 350 litres of safe water in a simple sports-bottle style package.

Luxury item: Lifesystems travel sink plug, £3 Ideal for those hostel baths and sinks that seem to have mysteriously lost their plugs. Possibly the best-value camping and travel accessory you’ll ever buy!