It may well be over a decade old, but the Top Gear Vietnam Special is still drawing huge attention on the Internet. Why? To answer this question, we need first to travel back in time to December 2008.
For anyone who doesn’t already know, Top Gear is a motoring show produced by the BBC. Formerly presented by Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond. At its height, over six million viewers tuned in each week to watch the trio thrash and crash everything from a Lada to a Lamborghini.
The juvenile enthusiasm of the presenters as they treated some of the world’s most exotic cars with total irreverence became a huge hit with viewers.
Celebrity guests, including Tom Cruise, Cameron Diaz, and Mark Wahlberg proved it was as equally as popular with Hollywood’s finest. All of whom joined the queue to drive a used compact saloon around an abandoned runway.
As popular as the format was, it was the show’s road trips covering everywhere from Bolivia to Burma, which proved to be even more popular. Here, the Top Gear Specials saw the intrepid three attempt to buy dilapidated cars and race each other cross country.
The Top Gear Vietnam Special is considered the most popular in the history of the show.
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Top Gear Vietnam Special Original Plan
Following the usual format, Clarkson, May, and Hammond arrive in Vietnam’s Ho-Chi Minh City with a shoebox full of cash, ready to bag their bangers. They then head north, where the first to arrive in Hanoi wins.
All of their road trips are marked by a series of shenanigans and incidents that happen along the way. These include being pelted with rocks in America, getting stuck in a ravine in the Amazon and being hospitalized in Syria.
The Top Gear Vietnam Special was all set for more of the same, but no one realised it would be such a huge hit with viewers. However, it almost came to an abrupt halt when the guys set out to buy their cars. ‘It was a real shock,’ recalls May I had almost 20 million Dong, but it still wasn’t enough.’
Not one member of the production team had realised (or maybe they had!) that imported cars get hit with massive taxes. This charge is due to them being considered a luxury item in Vietnam. Therefore, the Top Gear budget couldn’t even buy them a scrap car.
This fact was confirmed when May found a Fiat dealer and discovered that the base model Fiat 500 cost a staggering 560m Dong. ‘We schlepped about for quite a while before it dawned on us that the programme we had in mind wasn’t going to be possible,’ says May. ‘A car show without any cars is not a good start.’
Top Gear Vietnam Special Swapping Four Wheels for Two
As luck would have it, someone came up with the bright idea of getting the presenters on to two wheels. The rest, as they say, is history. It wasn’t quite that easy, though.
James May and Richard Hammond, both long-time bike nuts and boasting a garage full of motorcycles, were mad for the new concept. Clarkson, on the other hand, a certified bike hater, was not a happy man.
’He did go white when it dawned on him how things would have to be,’ recalls May. ‘I think he looked at the melee on the Vietnam roads, all these people, shoulder to shoulder and shuddered. Still, it made for entertaining TV.’
Switching from four to two wheels also threw a spanner in the works as far as logistics went. It soon became apparent that a local fixer with knowledge of the Vietnam bike scene was needed urgently.
Enter Digby Greenhalgh, an ex-pat Ozzie living in Hanoi. Digby runs Explore Indochina, a guide operation that uses a fleet of old ex-Soviet motorcycles. No prizes for guessing where Hammond got his 125cc Minsk!
You can also thank Digby for the on-road footage (pictures in this article) showing the hapless threesome weave and wobble through the chaotic Vietnamese traffic. His team achieved this by riding Ural 650’s while the cameramen filmed, facing backward.
‘Because I knew the country so well I also helped plan out the routes too’ says Digby, ‘I was pretty much a general all round bitch’ he laughs.
The AK47 of Bikes
Meanwhile, back on the road, Hammond declares his Minsk, ‘the AK47 of bikes.’ while May refers to his dilapidated 50cc Honda Super Cub as ‘the greatest motorcycle in history.’
‘A 1000-mile ride in the rainy season and I can’t ride a bike, is an extremely stupid idea,’ moaned a nonplussed Clarkson whose ride was a lime green 1967 Piaggio Vespa.
It is interesting to discover that when the show aired, Jeremy Clarkson’s protestations about being a non-biker were trashed by two British newspapers. Both showed photos of the presenter riding a new Vespa near his home two months before the trip, but hey, that’s showbiz.
With May and Hammond roaring, or rather spluttering off into the distance, Clarkson is left well behind.
Wearing a metal bucket for a helmet and needing a female Australian tourist to kickstart his Vespa, he eventually wobbles into the traffic.
Ho Chi Minh to Da Lat
The first leg of the Top Gear Special Vietnam journey sees the hapless trio head northeast from Ho Chi Minh City to the beautiful mountain city of Da Lat, capital of Lam Dong Province. This former French colony sits on top of the Langbian Plateau surrounded by picturesque forest-covered hills.
The stunning scenery provides a beautiful backdrop as the guys struggle up the 1500m climb, with the ride going a lot better for some than others.
May, by now, has swapped his wok helmet in favor of a colander, and he and a smug-looking Hammond stick together for most of the journey.
As the road starts to climb the ancient Honda Cub wheezes for breath until it finally conks out. Hammond, cracks open the mighty Minsk, using all of its smoke generating 10hp to blast up the scenic, curving roads. He arrives first.
May finally arrives much later pushing his bike. Clarkson, on the other hand, is nowhere to be seen. Finally arriving after dark, Clarkson reveals that the Vespa has no front brake and a severe rear wheel wobble.
Top Gear Vietnam Special: Faster than an F1 Pit Crew
Digby has a gaggle of local mechanics and with a speed that would shame an F1 pit crew, they replace the Vespa’s engine and fix the brake.
‘The Vespa’s back wheel really did almost come off on the first day’ recalls Digby. ‘We had a spare engine, but it was for a 12-volt bike, not a 6-volt one like Clarkson was riding. This is what caused all the problems with the Vespa because the wires were simply frying.’
Celebrating the completion of the first leg with snake soup and vodka, May and Clarkson decide that Hammond is enjoying the ride way too much. They throw his crash helmet under a wagon, crushing it flat. The pair replaces it with a bright pink one.
Enter, the Stig’s Communist Cousin
If you’re familiar with the Top Gear format, you’ll know that every show features a mysterious racing driver in a white suit and helmet. The character is known as The Stig.
Before setting off the next morning, the trio gets told to report to an abandoned airfield on the outskirts of Da Lat. It is here, we meet ‘The Stig’s Communist Cousin.’
Resplendent in a red race suit and crash helmet, Vietnamese Stig (a young Australian stunt rider) wows the guys with stoppies, wheelies, and jumps. According to the show’s producer, the stunt bike, a Honda CRF250R, was specially shipped in from Japan. However, Vietnamese Stig was there to ride the presenter’s bikes around the track against the clock.
Hammond’s Minsk clucks around the course in just 47-seconds. Meanwhile, May’s Honda Cub, narrowly missing a cow on the track, brings in a lame and predictable slow speed of 1.17.
As snail-like as the two bikes are, both outgun Clarkson’s Vespa, which collapses three meters from the start.
Top Gear Vietnam Special Behind the Scenes
Unfortunately, Stig fans were left wanting as the entire scene fell foul to editorial cuts. ‘That scene was tough to make,’ recalls Clarkson. ‘It was hot and sticky, we had a crew of 25 trying to make it happen, and the government officials who turned up to watch wanted to see the rushes every time we cut.’
Clarkson goes on to explain, ‘The reason it didn’t get included though was due to all the unforeseen things that happened on the trip, and we just had way too much footage.’
The same fate befell James May’s race against the third-fastest racing cows in Vietnam. Off to a good start, May was a nose ahead before the cows kicked-in and thoroughly outclassed the feeble 50cc Cub.
With certain victory in the bag, the cows suddenly screeched to a halt, allowing May to limp home and take the flag. The animal’s owner blames Clarkson, saying the cows got scared when they saw his face waiting at the finish line.
Da Lat to Nha Trang
Continuing east, the second leg heads for Nha Trang, a town where jungle-clad mountains descend majestically into an emerald green sea. Six kilometers of the idyllic white sand beach has led to it being called the Riviera of the South China Sea. This being the Top Gear Vietnam Special, the journey to get there is once again, eventful.
Clarkson suffers more breakdowns while May runs out of fuel, and Hammond breaks a clutch cable. Worse is to come as they ride into a thunderstorm.
Bored with the constant stops, the producer declares that the next person to breakdown has to use the back-up vehicle. The vehicle turns out to be a Honda Mini-bike, with an American flag paint job and an onboard hi-fi.
Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born in the USA’ blasts out on a loop from the speakers. When lights fail on Clarkson’s Vespa, he tapes a torch to the front mudguard rather than risk riding the Honda and infuriating the locals.
Nha Trang to Hoi An
Enjoying sunny weather and in better spirits, Clarkson buys Richard Hammond a gift to commemorate their road trip. The gift is a scale model of a three-mast, Spanish Galleon. The wooden boat is over a meter long and almost as high. They strap to the back of the minuscule Minsk before setting off.
Despite making the ex-Soviet two-stroke as aerodynamic as a garden shed, Hammond manages to wobble and weave along the Vietnam coast road north to Hoi An.
Hoi An to Hue via the Hai Van Pass
The ancient trading port is super laid back with a historic old town and great café culture. It’s also renowned for its cheap tailors, and Clarkson christens the place Savile Row, persuading all three to get measured for new bespoke outfits.
Resplendent in brightly coloured suits and with James May’s gift (a 40lb marble statue) lashed to the Cub, the three set off for Hue from Hoi An.
The route takes them once more north along the coast, but with a detour through the Hai Van Pass. It is while riding through the mountains that the journey takes an unexpected turn, and this time, it’s not thanks to Clarkson’s dodgy steering.
The 13-mile stretch of road known locally as Route 1A climbs 500mts as it snakes around jungle-covered mountains. With James May’s ailing Cub barely making enough power to get out of third gear, Hammond and Clarkson streak off ahead. It is here that the inexplicable happens.
Self-confessed bike-hater and Olympic standard grouch Clarkson actually starts to enjoy the ride.
The extensively repaired Vespa is for once running well, the sun is shining, and the pair has the road to themselves. Carving up hairpin bend after bend and reaching speeds of over 18mph, they take in the jaw-dropping view.
Rarely seen Top Gear Vietnam Special Footage
Rarely seen footage, captures Jeremy Clarkson whooping, shouting enthusiastically and smiling. He stops halfway up the pass to tell Hammond, ‘this is the best coast road in the world.’ Serious praise indeed, from a man who has thrashed exotic sports cars across some of the world’s most scenic roads.
When James May eventually catches up, they honor the moment by giving Clarkson his road trip gift. He then attaches a large and ungainly oil painting to the side of his scooter.
Eventually rolling into Hue, Hammond retires to the hotel to repair his Galleon.
May and Clarkson under cover of darkness and with help from hotel staff, spray Hammond’s Minsk fluorescent pink.
Hue to Hanoi
They set off northwest still flanking the coast. By now Hammond is in a major strop after finding his Minsk painted bright pink. Worst is yet to come though, as the trio discovers they have to take a two-part A1 motorcycle test.
The written and practical test is in the Vietnamese language. Bikers, May, and Hammond fail the theory but smash the practical course.
Meanwhile, having passed the theory, Clarkson borrows the easier-to-ride Honda Cub for the course. He fails miserably, dropping the bike and breaking the arms off May’s statue, still lashed to the back of the bike.
Returning to his former bike-hating self, Clarkson declares that between them, they’ve collectively passed both parts of the test. They continue on with the journey.
After a visit to the war-ravaged Imperial Citadel of Hue, it’s decided that they’re still over 370 miles away from their next destination. The Top Gear trio decides to cheat by putting the bikes on the train for the 13-hour journey to Halong.
Except, of course, this being the Top Gear Vietnam Special, they’ve boarded the wrong train, ending up in Hanoi.
Hanoi to Halong Bay
Off the train and back on the bikes, the riders tackle the last leg of the journey to Halong Bay over 93 miles away. While May’s Honda once again bites the dust and Hammond stops to help, Clarkson spurred on by the finish line pushes on alone.
With the Vespa flat out and cockily swerving in and out of the traffic, Clarkson philosophises on his two-wheeled experience of the journey. Speaking to his bar-mounted camera he says ‘although I now understand the whole motorcycle thing, if my children ever get one, I’ll burn it!’
At which point, and having angered the biking gods, he loses control and gets a proper welcome to the world of two-wheels as he chews the tarmac.
‘Things did go wrong along the way, but the guys were professional enough to roll with it’ says Digby. ‘Having said that, Clarkson’s crash was very real and if a truck had been behind him he might have been in big trouble.’
Not Quite the End
Wearing his gravel rash and dented ribs as badges of honor, Clarkson, May, and Hammond meet up at the finish in Halong Bay only to find out that the journey is not quite over.
The final destination is switched to a floating bar located in the Bay. The bar is part of a floating village and set amongst the stunning Halong Bay and its 2,000 limestone islets.
Sounds simple enough, except the bikes have to be turned into watercraft capable of making the journey across the Bay.
Digby Greenhalgh’s crew, having the responsibility for keeping the three decrepit bikes going throughout the journey are called upon to perform one last miracle. What’s more, they have to do it overnight.
By morning the pink Minsk sees itself attached to a swan-shaped pedalo. The Vespa is paddle powered and supported by two canoes. Meanwhile, May’s Honda is butchered and mounted on an abandoned fishing raft.
Digby’s crew had worked tirelessly through the night including testing the bikes to make sure they float, and by morning the three wet-bikes took off in search of the bar. Nestled somewhere amongst the limestone outcrops, six speedboats and a helicopter filmed the scene.
‘James’s bike did kind of sink, even though we’d filled the floats with foam’ explains Digby. ‘It was fine when we tested it. At the last minute though the producer wanted the front wheel put back on and that meant we had to put a huge rock on the back because it mucked up the balance.’
The Race is on
The race got underway; they didn’t get far. May sunk almost immediately, and it wasn’t long before trouble hit the other two. Clarkson’s Vespa-powered paddle-bike developed an electrical fault, which resulted in him being electrocuted every time he touched the frame.
Hammond’s swan Minsk broke the rudder, leaving him turning in graceful circles. In the end, it was Clarkson who got to the bar first, causing Hammond to dejectedly admit ‘so the non-biker gets there first.’
‘It would have gone better’ says Digby, ‘but just as they set off from the beach a big windy squall kicked up and blew them all over the place. Clarkson was blown into some rocks and when I jumped in the water to help I lost my phone and passport.’
‘That was a major pain in the arse’ admits Digby, ‘but that day, following them in the speedboats and with the helicopter overhead, was really special.’
Finally, Greenhalgh went on to tell me what happened to the real stars of the show, the bikes. ‘I kept Richard’s Minsk and James’s Honda Cub, which incidentally belonged to my two favorite presenters of the three’ he says pointedly. ‘The Vespa and Honda mini-bike went to Saigon, before being shipped back to the UK for a Top Gear exhibition.’
C’mon Digby Spill the Beans
Pushing for one last question, I asked him to spill the beans on what really happened behind the scenes. ‘Tonnes of stuff happened over the course of the filming’ says Digby laughing. ‘But it’s like they say, what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.’
Meant at its outset to be tongue in cheek, why, even now is the Top Gear Vietnam Special so popular?
Burdened with an unfortunate war-torn past and self-imposed isolation, Vietnam was for many years, shut off. Only the seasoned traveller or adventurous backpacker made an effort to wade through lengthy visa applications and explore.
As late as the mid 90’s, tourism in Vietnam was still in its infancy. It wasn’t until 2007 that foundations for a tourist infrastructure were put in place. The Top Gear Vietnam Special aired in 2008. Amongst all the buffoonery and far-fetched scenarios, it showcased an off the beaten track, side to Vietnam seldom seen before.
Footage of the presenters making their way through the Hai Van Pass and navigating the Ha Long Bay showed Vietnam’s unspoiled countryside perfectly. Also, the Vietnamese people came across as friendly and hospitable.
The final element of this perfect storm came from the fact that they made the journey by motorcycle. This key element allowed the type of up close and personal view of the country that can’t be achieved via any other mode of travel.
As well-traveled adventure riders always say, travel by motorcycle, and you’re in the adventure, not witnessing it.
Follow in the Top Gear Vietnam Special’s Tyre Tracks
Today, you can trace the tyre tracks of the Top Gear Vietnam Special trio on their calamitous tour and get to see and experience more besides. Whether you want to focus on the North, South, Central Highlands, or a grand countrywide adventure, you’ll find the perfect motorcycle tour of Vietnam.
In age and reliability terms, the bikes you’ll do it on are at the opposite end of the spectrum from those ridden by the Top Gear Vietnam Special team. The other thing you’ll benefit from is the standard of motorcycle safety gear.
Embark upon a motorcycle tour of Vietnam with Onyabike Adventures, and you’ll also be relieved to discover quality crash helmets, and waterproof jackets replace kitchen hardware and gaudy silk suits.