Top Gear has brought quite some car and motorbiking kickass-ness to the TV screen in recent years. One of their more memorable undertakings – together with their Self-made Superstretch Limousine Race through London – has definitely been their hilarious motorbiking journey from Hồ Chí Minh City (Saigon) in the south of Vietnam to Hạ Long city, near Hanoi(Hà Nội) in the north. It involved a bright pink bike, oversized gift carried on the back of their bikes, ridiculously colourful suits, amphibious bike conversions and multiple crashes with broken ribs to top it of. Oh and amazingly beautiful scenery as well!
The trip was part of their Vietnam special in which they were challenged to cover the 1,000 miles (1,600 km) between these cities in eight days “by motorized transport of their choice”. With a budget of several million Vietnamese Dong to spend on ‘motorized transport’, things were looking easy. But it turned out that several million Vietnamese Dong translated into ‘roughly enough money to buy a packet of crisps’, so the boys’ ended up with motorbikes that, well, were not quite the mighty steeds they had in mind.
The journey was undertaken by regular presenters Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May with the final destination for this challenge being a floating dock in world heritage site Ha Long Bay.
Of course, there were plenty of daring and deeply hilarious challenges along the way, notably their uncharacteristically generous gift-giving mood to each other. Large, bulky, difficult-to-carry-on-motorbikes gifts. That each of them had to transport for the full length of the trip Well, it’s the thought that counts.
The Start: buying classic motorbikes
The journey started gloriously at the heart of Saigon, where the three presenters were each given a shoe box full of 15 million Vietnamese đồng to buy vehicles. The presenters were all ecstatic about the seemingly vast amount of money they were given by the producers this time. It didn’t take long, though, before they discovered that it was not nearly enough to buy a car. James May discovered that a standard Fiat 500 cost 560,000,000₫ (£22,000), and their 15,000,000₫ was only “around US$1000”.. As a last resort, all three, much to Clarkson’s initial horror, decided to buy motorbikes. Some really kickass motorbikes for that matter.
Though Clarkson had previously ridden two-wheeled transport without assistance during visits to Cuba and Vietnam for his series Jeremy Clarkson’s Motorworld, he required the help of locals and an Australian tourist to start the scooter.
Funnily, Hammond was the only one whose head was small enough to fit inside a locally-bought helmet, while May resorted to using a wok and colander for head protection. Clarkson used a metal bucket at first, replacing it with a proper helmet after several hours of “learning” to ride the Vespa.
Saigon to Dalat
The first leg of the journey was from Saigon to the mountain town of Đà Lạt. Clarkson lagged behind for most of the journey, as he was initially unable to start the Vespa for an hour, and the scooter then had to be repaired twice. Hammond and May rode together for most of their journey until they reached the mountains, where May’s Cub lacked power. Once all three presenters finally arrived, they spent the night drinking Vietnamese beer, eating snake meat, and taking shots of vodka mixed with snake’s blood and bile.
The next morning, Hammond was shown his flattened motorcycle helmet, which had been crushed by May and Clarkson as a result of the previous evening’s drinking and replaced with a new pink one. May joked, “Don’t take this the wrong way. Different colours assume different significance in different cultures. To us, that is a feminine colour but to them it’s the colour of warriors.”
To Nha Trang
Shortly after, they set off for the city of Nha Trang. Along the way, the trio encountered torrential rain, May ran out of fuel and Hammond’s clutch cable snapped, whilst Clarkson did what he always does best: complaining.
Breakdowns remained a recurrent theme and therefore the producers decided to punish the presenters if they broke down, by making them complete the voyage in an unappealing vehicle: a 1973 Honda Chaly mini-bike, painted and flanked in a Stars and Stripes livery (similar to the bike seen in the film Easy Rider) and fitted with an iPod audio system continuously playing Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.”.
The presenters agreed quickly that riding this bike would be very inappropriate as memories of the Vietnam War were still rife among the local populace.
Oversized Gifts, Suiting up and a Bright Pink Bike
In Nha Trang, Clarkson gave Hammond a present: a (relatively large) scale model of a Spanish galleon, which Hammond now had to transport on the back of his Minsk. In the remainder of the trip Hammond severely damaged his model galleon twice: firstly by hitting one side of the ship against some roadside wheelie-bins (causing his mast to collapse) and later by hitting and knocking over a sign placed at a toll-booth.
The next leg of the trip passed through Tuy Hòa, Qui Nhơn, Quảng Ngãi, and Tam Kỳ, to Vietnam backpacking central in Hội An, the city famous for its dirt cheap tailor made clothing. Clarkson, May and Hammond logically couldn’t resist this temptation and each ended up with an exorbitant colourful costume for the rest of their road trip.
In the morning, they continued their journey to Huế through the Hải Vân Mountain Pass, which Clarkson praised as “…a deserted ribbon of perfection — one of the best coast roads in the world”.
Clarkson found out “someone has written PENIS on my helmet” and he and Hammond stopped at a marble sculptor to procure a gift for May: a small but heavy statue of a ballet dancer, later christened “Darcey”. Mid-way through the pass, Hammond and May presented Clarkson with a bulky painting all of which had to be ‘conveniently’ carried on the back of their bikes.
In Huế, Clarkson and May – with the help of staff at a local restaurant – spray-painted Hammond’s Minsk bright pink, while Hammond was busy repairing his damaged model ship in the hotel’s business centre. However he damaged it again almost immediately; standing up with the model, the mast got caught in the ceiling fan, breaking it once again.
His pink bike definitely rivals the pink Tuk-Tuk that traveled from Bangkok to Brighton in 2006.
After visiting the bullet-torn Citadel of Huế (one of the major battlefields during the Tet Offensive of 1968), Clarkson reasoned that the trio could not make it to their final destination in the allotted time. They therefore decided to cheat by boarding an overnight train to Hạ Long, a 13-hour journey which bypassed Vinh, Thanh Hóa and Nam Định. To kill time in the train each presenter tried to fix the damage accumulated by the other’s gift: Hammond tried to refurbish Clarkson’s ripped painting by adding a Land Rover; Clarkson tried to super-glue May’s shattered sculpture back together; and May transformed Hammond’s galleon into a Chinese junk. Upon disembarking, the trio discovered that they had boarded the wrong train and had arrived in Hanoi (Hà Nội), 79.49 mi (127.93 km) to the west of their intended destination. The trio were thus forced to complete another day of riding, during which they got lost in a rural village.
During the final push to Hạ Long, Clarkson fell off his Vespa, breaking 2 ribs and badly scraping his right arm and elbow. He finally concluded of two-wheel motoring, “I’ve always said to my children that if they buy a bike, I will burn it, and if they replace it with another one, I shall burn that too. Now, however, if they buy a bike I will completely understand — and then I’ll burn it.”
By dusk, the exhausted trio had arrived at the wharf in Hạ Long, only to be given one final challenge: to navigate the maze of 1,969 limestone islets in Hạ Long Bay and get to Ba Hàng Bar, located in a cove somewhere in the waters, by converting their motorcycles into watercraft overnight. Upon setting off the next morning, May’s craft sank after becoming tangled in netting and was towed back to shore for repairs. Meanwhile, Hammond and Clarkson got lost and found themselves stuck in the mouth of a cave. Eventually, Clarkson reached their destination first, Hammond second (after his steering had failed), and May later joined them by swimming from where his “bike-ski” had disintegrated and started to sink for the second time.
The DVD release
The DVD, released in March 2009, featured commentary from producer Andy Wilman and other members of the crew. Additional footage which was deleted from the original episode include: visits by Clarkson to other car dealerships and Hammond to a John Deere tractor dealership; a test of the bikes by The Stig’sCommunist cousin (a local stunt biker in red helmet and red racing suit); a race between James May with the Super Cub and a two-cow ploughing team; and a discussion of Vietnam’s traffic fines between Clarkson and May.