Vietnam: Land of the Iron Buffalo

Two long-time friends roam the Vietnamese countryside atop the Iron Buffalo, a vintage Russian military motorcycle.  
Vietnam
Roadtripper Daniel Nickson (pictured) compares his vintage bike to the beast it was fondly named after. Photo courtesy: Cuong Motorbike Tour

“Not broken, no problem!” Danny didn’t seem convinced by Phu’s prognosis, staring down at his bruised leg like he had grown a second foot; granted, the tour guide had merely poked Danny’s shin bone before offering his opinion.

I wondered if Phu would say the same thing about the Honda dual-sport, splashed with a wet coat of ochre clay. Danny, in all his infinite wisdom, had not opted for the 10-dollar insurance for our three-day journey through Western Vietnam. He had said, “Don’t worry about it,” flashing me a wry smile that appeared to say, “Only chumps get insurance.”

After the Honda kicked up its rear wheel in a nasty pool of mud, I had, thankfully, pulled the bike off Danny before Phu raced down the single track trail to check on his increasingly difficult riding companions. Danny had been grinding the poor girl’s gears all morning, so it was only a matter of time before the wee 150cc engine got her revenge.

He winced as Phu gave his leg a genial smack—as if to prove that the leg was in decent enough shape. I knelt down and Danny opened up his eyes real wide. I’m no good at telepathy, but I was pretty sure Danny was asking me one or all of these questions, “Did I just re-tear my ACL? Will I survive this motorcycle trip? And how the hell did you manage to convince me to do this?” I looked back, and tried to communicate my answers in order, “Probably… I have no idea… and it was quite easy.”

The only words I actually said were, “You good to ride, bud?” His response, “Let’s find out.” Our first day on the road certainly seemed like it might be our last, but if Danny’s leg held up we might survive long enough to sip on the bottle of Bombay Sapphire peeking out of Phu’s bike bag. I lifted him up, and Phu hollered, “Okay, be careful boys!” as he trudged up the hill to his 250cc Honda-dual sport. I threw my leg over my weighty Ural 650, the wide engine pushing my knees out, and I couldn’t help but think that telling Danny and I to be careful on motorcycles was tantamount to leaving a bottle of bourbon in front of a couple unsupervised teens.

 

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Phu (pictured right) guided his riders in every sense of the word, whether it be to little-known paths (top left), seasonal pomelos (right), or regional specialities (bottom left). Photos courtesy: Cuong Motorbike Tour (man and bikers), Julian Manning (food)

 

Dangerous Danny

Wondering whether Danny (Daniel Nickson) is going to injure himself or not is a classic part of travelling with him. I’ve seen him bucked off a pony in the Kashmiri mountains, thrown off a raft into Himalayan white water rapids, and get chased down a lane in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu—after a firecracker lit by him almost took off the head of a retired-army officer riding his motorcycle. The ridiculousness of this world seems to gravitate towards him. Whether he’s quit his job and joined a nudist colony in Nicaragua or decided to wear a wife beater for a week while bar hopping in West Virginia, he always has a good story to tell when I see him. So of course he was my first call, early this year, when I found out I could rent a rare, Russian motorcycling relic from the Vietnam War. The Ural 650 (based on the German BMW M71 circa WWII), respectfully known as the Iron Buffalo in Vietnam for its indefatigable ability to thump its way up almost any country incline, was traditionally a side-car military vehicle supplied to the Viet Cong by the Russian Army.

 

Cuong Is King

Cuong Motorbike Tours was a Hanoi-based outfitter that could provide me with a classic Iron Buffalo in good condition, but no sooner had Danny and I given each other a bear hug and cracked open a couple of cold Saigon beers, we were arguing over the cost of the bike trip. In Hanoi, it can be difficult to find 1960s-era Urals with enough life in them for a road trip, so I had chosen the most lauded motorcycle tour operation in the country.

Cuong has been a legend of Vietnam’s motorcycle scene for decades, and is possibly the finest mechanic in the country. He had a pivotal role in forming Hanoi’s Minsk Club in 1998, a rabble of talented riders who cut through dirt track on their torquey two-strokes spitting hellfire and oozing diamond-cut cool; these Russian bikes are also referred to as Iron Buffalo, but the weighty frame and ambling power of the Ural fit the nomenclature the best. Years ago, when Vietnam’s police force and army decided to sell their fleet of classic Ural 650s, Cuong amassed an impressive collection of these beasts that he adapted as solo bikes with long haul seats, disc brakes, and new electric systems. Cuong’s expertise led him to work with BBC’s Top Gear team, Charley Boorman, and Gordon Ramsay.

To be honest their price for the Ural was reasonable at 500 USD (Rs37,000), the tour included food, gear, lodging, petrol, and a guide, along with the classic bike. However, given Danny had a tighter wallet than an over-the-hill pensioner, I was bracing for a tussle. The deal was that tourists could buy a beaten up 100cc Honda Wiin on pretty much any corner of Hanoi’s Old Town—where the tourists flock—for 300 dollars or less, which intrigued Danny. Finally, we decided that only I would rent an Iron Buffalo, and Danny would take the cheapest bike they had on offer, the whiniest engine for the whiniest rider, I liked to think.

 

Vietnam 2

The Ural 650’s ability to traverse Vietnam’s rural terrain (bottom right) earned its reputation as a workhorse; The riders (bottom left) often got carried away by Vietnam’s rugged beauty; Pontoon bridges (top left) and paddy fields (top right) often framed the stunning landscape of Vietnam out west near the Laos border. Photos courtesy: Cuong Motorbike Tour

 

United And It Feels So Good

After we agreed to a deal with Cuong, he sent Phu to come pick us up on a ‘liberated’ American army jeep so we could check out the Ural. When we set our eyes on the bike I could see unbridled joy stir in Danny’s face, and I knew I had him locked in. My enthusiasm, however, did not help me tame my stubborn buffalo-to-be. The kick-start on the Ural is far back on the right hand side so that if the driver stalled or was shot, the bike could easily be started by the person in the side car, explained Phu. Since the bike had no electric start and I had no luck kick-starting it, I decided to ride Phu’s Honda 250 dual-sport till we could get out of the city, and then switch to the Ural once we hit the scenic route. That night we were excited, indulging ourselves in frothy 20 cent pints of Bia Hoi. We woke up to the patter of rain at 5 a.m. with bad stomachs.

The traffic in Vietnam is somehow denser than traffic in India, but more free flowing. Danny and I were over-working the clutch, wobbling on wet turns, and generally disrupting the otherwise calm stream of two-wheelers surrounding us. When we finally made it out into the countryside, Phu pulled over and handed me the keys to the Iron Buffalo. I felt like a rodeo rider entering the bull pen. In one shot I kicked the beast to life, and how it roared, not at me, but with me, its aggressive chug thundering across the nearby paddy fields. I popped it into first and burnt rubber down the country lane, punching it to 2nd, 3rd, and finally 4th (the Ural only has 4 gears) roaring through the farmland, possessed and euphoric. Before I knew it Danny was right alongside me, pushing his Honda to the limit, a wicked glint in his eyes. For a brief moment we felt like kids again, imagining we were Mongolian warriors gliding on our horses across the Gobi. That is before Phu shot past us, one hand on the throttle, the other lackadaisically holding out his smartphone to take a video of us, a reminder that he was the true alpha in this pack.

 

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Local craftsmanship, such as the ingenious bamboo water wheels, left the travellers slack-jawed. Photo courtesy: Cuong Motorbike Tour

Of Mice And Men

Phu began to lead us through forest trails, veering off country highways into dense patches of flora parted only by a six inch-wide slash of trail. We stood up on our foot pedals and manoeuvred through the terrain like we thought we were part of a rally race, even though our speedometers never went over 60 kilometres per hour through the jungle. Right about then the second crash of the day took place. We managed to get Daniel back on the bike after a quick photo op of his collapsed body in the clay. With shaky hands and twitchy nerves, we pushed on, getting our second wind as we started to climb up mountains right before lunch, practicing counter-steering so we could take on the twisties that awaited without losing speed. Though I knew the direction we were going, I had no inkling of our actual route. Phu expertly crafted our south-western journey out of a warren of paths and trails with minimum highway driving.

At noon we pulled up to an empty, open-air restaurant. Platters of stir-fried buffalo (yes, we did eat our proverbial mascot), bamboo and country chicken, vats of rice, and heaps of greens started pouring out of the kitchen. Phu, who was visibly smaller than us, packed it all away, glaring at our empty bowls when we managed to finish a portion and didn’t immediately fill up again, encouraging us to “eat like men.”

We pummelled Phu with questions, quizzing him about this area’s regional specialities to give us time to finish the food. He looked up from his bowl in deep thought, and then said, “Here, in season, after the rain, the rat is the best.” He saw our shock, and continued, “Over here, not like a city rat, the whole time it’s eating rice and getting fat. Very fat and tasty.”

 

Where Happiness Flows Like Water

The rest of the day we freewheeled through the mountains in the sunshine, riding through deep stone gorges offering distant vistas of hillocks jutting out of verdant rice fields like a giant’s fat thumbs. Right before a steep descent into a valley, Phu pulled over. “Good place to take photos,” he gestured. “We sleep down there,” he finished, pointing down to a dale of lush, low-lying forest. Phu got more than he bargained for as we shamelessly posed on the bikes. As punishment for being so vain our supposedly ‘easy’ last leg to the lodging involved the slickest clay I have ever ridden on. I thought I was going to lay the bike down every other second of the last stretch to the stilted Vietnamese bamboo house, framed by livestock, lovely children, and a view to live for.

We had survived our first day, and as promised, we got our two fingers of Bombay Sapphire. Phu noticed how quickly our cocktails disappeared. He smiled and rattled off something in Vietnamese to the owner of the lodge. A woman soon arrived with an off-white pitcher of a dubious looking elixir. “What’s this, Phu?” asked Danny. “In English, happy water,” replied Phu, smirking. This led to a night of local rice wine and a feast of ten substantial dishes, the star of the show being a fat, freshwater fish. Daniel and I spoke late into the night, often chanting the Vietnamese drinking anthem “Một, hai, ba, yo!”, the sound of our voices carrying across the otherwise silent valley.

 

Freshwater Freedom

We woke up to fresh crêpes, and even fresher hangovers. That day we would ride across a floating bridge almost two football fields in length. Danny looked at me, his eyes trying to pop their way out of his helmet. “You go first,” I said. The pontoon bridge dipped and shook as Danny idled across it, the clank of bamboo slats pounding like Gatling gun fire. I held my breath and followed. All I remembered was letting the air out of my chest when I got to the other side. Phu appeared to take my relief as exhilaration, and asked, “Why don’t you go back over again, so we can take a nice photo of you?” I glared at Danny, knowing that all our photo breaks were catching up to us. However, Phu was right, that shot would look so cool I had no choice but to cross the bridge again. This time around I rode fast, the bridge squirming like a giant serpent as I raced across its spine, hooting and hollering.

I had told Phu I wanted to take pictures of buffalo, so he dutifully stopped in front of almost each one we passed, which is saying a lot. Right after I told him we didn’t have to stop at every buffalo, I saw a herder dressed in a pristine, chartreuse green army uniform. By the time I finally got the guys to turn around, I was so eager to race back I stalled out on a thin lane no wider than the length of my bike, and ate the dust of the guys I had just chased. They returned to find me engulfed in a huddle of 15 people, all from the same house. I had actually warmed up to the kick-start quite well, but all it took were five giggling children to take my confidence well below zero. After the very buff and shirtless patriarch also got in his laughs, he decided to show me how it was done, the Ural growling to life after a mighty kick. I noticed Danny had whipped out his phone and was capturing my public humiliation in real time.

 

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Stilted Vietnamese bamboo houses framed the last stretch of the travellers’ journey. Photo by: Julian Manning

 

The Wheels Of Life

The rest of the day was perfection. We stopped to climb intricate bamboo water wheels that irrigated the rice fields, letting the cool water splash over our dusty faces. That evening we rode through another valley, across a network of tiny concrete paths that wove

through the farmland like latticework. We pulled up to another traditional guesthouse and spent the night chatting away with a lovely French couple also staying there.

The next morning a young woman from the lodge came up to us and tied braceltes around our wrists, wishing us a safe journey. An hour later I flew over the handlebars while taking a dirt rut too fast, landing five-feet from my bike, crouched on my legs like an agile cat —I promised myself never to remove the bracelet, then and there. When we finally made it to Cuong’s garage in Hanoi, I looked at Daniel and thanked the heavens above and the hellfire below for creating him.

We’d seen each other go through the best and worst of life: like our bike trip, the way forward has often been ambitious, but not without its painful spills. No matter the circumstances, he always fuelled me with confidence when my tank was bone dry. In his own right, my friend is an Iron Buffalo, simply because no one makes them like him anymore.

 

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  • Julian Manning can usually be found eating a crisp ghee roast with extra podi. The rare times his hands aren’t busy with food, they are wrapped around a mystery novel or the handlebars of a motorcycle. He is Assistant Editor at National Geographic Traveller India.

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