“Why would you ride a Minsk? Why not a real adventure motorcycle?” my friend asked, a new Yamaha Tenere owner.
“The answer is the same when someone asks why a dog licks its nether region – it wants to and it can,” I answered.
I first saw a Frankenstein Minsk in Hanoi four years earlier when on a motorcycle expedition using 650cc Urals, the motorcycles having been abandoned in Vietnam after the Russians pulled out. The Urals were old and clunky, while the 125cc Minsks, with their guts ripped out and replaced with Vietnamese manufactured Honda Future 125cc parts, looked far more nimble. My adventure seeking interest was piqued and four years later, January 2015, I was back in Hanoi to navigate pavement, dirt roads and dirt tracks south for 1500 miles to Ho Chi Minh City.
According to some sources Vietnam has more than 90 million people and 37 million registered motorcycles, 99.99% of which are under 125cc displacement. While loosening import restrictions have allowed newer and bigger motorcycles to slowly and expensively slip into the country, one writer opined that “only posers” need motorcycles over 125cc.
The Frankenstein Minsk was outside the poser category, and like the dog wanting to because it can, I thought I knew a way I could find and use one.
I contacted well-known Minsk guru, tour guide and author of The Minsk Repair Manual, Digby Greenhalgh. He uses Frankenstein Minsks for some of the adventure tours offered by the legally licensed, well-established and respected Vietnam-based Thrung Son Road Tourism Company LTD, through their Explore Indochina motorcycle operations. I figured if anyone could help me with the “I can,” it would be Greenhalgh.
My request was to rent, buy or borrow one of the Frankenstein Minsks. I’d then use if for a few weeks after setting it up with my travel gear and painting it screaming green. Throughout earlier visits to Vietnam I had seen Chinese and Korean motorcycles badged with Honda stickers. I’d also noticed very few Kawasaki motorcycles in the country, so I thought that not being on a poser motorcycle could be further enhanced by making the Frankenstein Minsk look wildly different by badging it as a Kawasaki.
While Greenhalgh was pondering my request, another offer was received to sell me one of the original Minsk models for $100, a used one. For an earlier Vietnam solo adventure I had used an original Minsk, but over time they had become longer in the teeth, and owners were cannibalizing used ones for parts. According to one Hanoi mechanic a $100 Minsk would need another $300 to make it more reliable, but far less so than a younger, non-Russian motorcycle.
The Russian-era Minsks for sale in Vietnam could have been around for 30-40 years, often seeing hard use as beasts of burden in villages or rental bikes hammered by tourists. They were fondly called buffaloes or “Beast from Belarus” by locals and scorned as break-down prone, noisy and, because they were two-stroke engines, smoky. Made in Belarus, a good Minsk in new condition could reach a purported 50-55 mph, downhill with a tail wind, and cover 120-130 miles on the 11-liter tank using 92 octane gas and a cup of 30 weight motor oil poured in the gas tank.
(Above) A unique piece of engineering under the Minsk plate – a converter to make a manual clutch out of the Honda 125cc centrifugal clutch. (Middle) Long, threaded bolt stock was used to lower the front fender from fabricated mounts to be closer to the front wheel, and two new horns were added to make up for the feeble original Minsk horn. (Below) The front 12 volt turn signals worked, as did the rear, wired though a loud beeper inside the headlight. The speedometer cable was missing from the front wheel drive, meaning neither the odometer nor speedometer worked.
The Frankenstein Minsk idea was a creative Vietnamese way to take the original Minsk’s sturdy body and give it a solid operating system. The changes included the Honda engine, transmission, disc front brake, some cutting and welding, and converting the feeble Minsk 6-volt electrics over to 12 volts with a battery. The end result was not pretty, but from the standpoint of an adventure motorhead, it was functionally beautiful, offering a left hand operated clutch, four gears, electric and kick starter, and four-stroke 125cc engine that could reach 180 miles on the 11 liters and did not need oil mixed with the gas when filling the gas tank.
Eventually an ingenious deal was put together by Greenhalgh. A friendly owner was found. I could rent a legal and insured Frankenstein Minsk for a few weeks, pilot it unescorted from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, and there have it collected at my hotel or guest house for it to be shipped by train or truck back to Hanoi. To paint it wildly green would be from a spray can and I would have to pay for it to be repainted back to the original color upon return. The overall price would be less than the purchase and upgrade cost of the other option – the original but tired and well-used Minsk.
While the Frankenstein Minsk was no 100 plus horsepower mega adventure motorcycle, with a computer telling me when to turn left or right, it performed as well, if not better, than my friend’s real adventure motorcycle. Traffic and road conditions in Vietnam found an average speed of 25-40 mph lifesaving – speed not being a friend in the clogged and congested urban areas of the country, where often a narrow side lane was for motorcycles and bicycles only. Throughout the countryside the road conditions often went from smooth pavement to broken and potholed sections, where slow speeds were needed to pick a way through the danger zones. Off the pavement and though some of the villages the tracks were narrow or slippery red mud, where the Minsk was able to slip and slide with some light dabbing and body English to keep it upright and pointed forward.
A Canadian acquaintance paid $1600 to have a government licensed guide meet him and his 1200 BMW Adventure at the border to Vietnam, the guide schmoozing the paperwork to get them into the country. Once across the border, the BMW rider followed the guide, who was using a 125cc step through motorcycle. The Beemer owner spent most of his time in first or second gear. On the Frankenstein Minsk I was often in fourth gear, flowing with or passing most other motorcycle traffic. While it needed second and third gear for most hills, a few times first gear was used to crawl over the tops of passes or through rough sections.
There were a few wrinkles to taking control and piloting the Frankenstein Minsk. One was the speedometer and odometer not working – there was no cable from the front wheel drive unit to the speedo/odo headlight mounted unit. A second was no one driving with their headlight on during the day, which was OK because mine burned out or became disconnected after mistakenly undershooting my destination one day and having to drive with it On for 30-40 kilometers in the dark. Third, my weight and that of my riding gear, tools and spare parts likely pushed the needle on a scale towards the 275-pound mark, a serious test for the 125cc single-cylinder heart when climbing some of the 10% inclines up mountains.
When I stopped for gas, food and lodging, or to take a photograph, the screaming green Kawasaki badged Frankenstein Minsk drew curious and often admiring eyes. With an estimated one out of every three people in Vietnam owning, or at least associated with motorcycles, they could recognize the 125cc Honda engine design. However, the Minsk bodywork would throw off their deductions, compounded by the wild paint color and Kawasaki tank stickers. Many smiled and gave a thumbs-up as a sign of OK, sometimes from passing cars and mini-vans or when we were stuck in traffic.
While I did not feel like a poser, the ergonomics on my 6’3” body atop the Minsk, which was designed for smaller people, had my hamstrings and inner thigh muscles complaining loudly 10-20 minutes after starting each morning. Handing the bike over for shipping back to Hanoi, after four long days in the saddle, I think I better appreciated the motives of the dog in my flippant answer to my friend.