Top Gear in Vietnam

The lush limestone mountains extend into the coastline. A gentle breeze carries inland from the sea. Suddenly, the puttering sound of the Top Gear motorcycles overtakes the quiet of Vietnam. Looking down the unkempt roadway a grass-green Vespa, a neon-pink Minsk, and a white Super Cub cruise up the coastline. No, allow us to rephrase that. A defective Vespa, ancient Minsk and fraught Super Cub are inching up the coastline operated by three bellowings, cartoonesque mates from the United Kingdom. An unexpected sight, to say the least. Local Vietnamese look on with both confusion and amusement. It’s apparent the trio has done little in the way of preparation for their long journey from south to north.

Does any of this sound familiar? Of course! That’s because Hidden is about to discuss the 2008 episode of Top Gear in Vietnam. Are you ready? Start your engines! 3…2…1… let’s go!

Top Gear Vietnam 101

For those of you who don’t know, Top Gear is a fast-paced and stunt-filled motor show broadcast in the U.K. Since its premiere in October of 2002, Top Gear has quickly become one of BBC’s most commercially successful programs, expanding its reach to international viewers in several countries around the world. In the early seasons, the show focused on interviews and viewer involvement in reviewing various vehicles. Thanks to its humorous and charismatic co-hosts, however, the show quickly evolved and now includes international adventures, original skits, and advanced storylines.

The Top Gear: Vietnam Special is a 75-minute episode originally broadcast in December of 2008 as the finale for the series’ twelfth season. The special follows the original three hosts, Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond, and James May, as they embark on a 1,000-mile journey from present-day Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) to Ha Long Bay. Rules for the challenge were as follows:

What: Journey from South to North Vietnam

Time Frame Allotted: 8 days

Starting Point: Present-day Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

Ending Point: Ha Long Bay

Stipend: 15,000,000 Vietnamese Dong (~1,000 USD at the time of filming)

Mission One: Purchase a vehicle

Motorcycles used in Top Gear Vietnam
Two of the Top Gear motorcycles have since been brought back to the UK and auctioned for charity. Photo: Top Gear BBC

The Top Gear Vietnam Route

The route was no arbitrary producer-thought-up choice. Top Gear wanted to accomplish, “what the American’s never could during the war.” The 8-day itinerary would include stops (either brief or overnight) in Da Lat, Nha Trang, Tuy Hoa, Quy Nhon, Quang Ngai, Tam Ky, Hoi An, Hue, Dong Ha, Hanoi, and Ha Long. The hosts had initially intended to explore more of the northern cities between Dong Ha and Hanoi, too, but fell short on time and ended up taking a night train instead. 

If you want to attempt this route either south to north or vice versa, Hidden recommends you include some of the north-central cities too.  Such as Phong Nha – the location of Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park and the most extensive natural cave system in the world, Hang Son Doong, and Ninh Binh – a city which borders the Red River Delta. Additionally, eight days is quite a short timeframe for traversing such a great distance. You wouldn’t want to feel rushed or end your trip only to realise that you missed out on several once-in-a-lifetime opportunities! Therefore Hidden recommends a minimum of two weeks to soak in the unique culture, landscape, cuisine, and customs of North and South Vietnam.

Map route used in Top Gear Vietnam
The Top Gear route from South to North Vietnam included stops at many of the famous cities like Hoi An. Photo: Top Gear BBC

A Ride Through History

The Top Gear episode echoes an outsider’s view on the relationship between the United States and Vietnam. Particularly in the central city of Hue, the hosts reflected on the aftermath effects of the American War and other international influence. A notable line by Jeremy came during a self-guided tour of the infamous citadel – the former imperial capital and the location of one of the longest and bloodiest battles in the War. Jeremy said, “for most people, Vietnam is a war and not a country.”

While this might have been true a decade ago, today, Vietnam today is flourishing. Most travellers, especially young backpackers, are keen on learning as much as possible about the history of the country they are visiting.  Even if it isn’t by social standards ‘pretty.’ It remains true that there is much to learn from the past, and Vietnam’s tourism is a good indication that internationals are more interested in visiting and educating themselves now than ever before.

As for the U.S. and Vietnam, fortunately, the connection has evolved quite a bit in the last few decades. In fact, since 1995, U.S. and Vietnam relations have evolved into a flourishing partnership that spans political, economic, security, and people-to-people ties.  Demonstrated by a significant increase in tourism from the U.S., and other Western countries. In Hidden’s experience, young Vietnamese citizens are eager to learn and maximize on their futures through travel, global friendship, and education. Older Vietnamese citizens, while sometimes less conversational due to the language barrier, show nothing but warmth and compassion. Vietnam is a country that lives and breathes an internationally welcoming spirit, from the large-scale tourism-focused industry to the smaller-scale fabric of its people.

A citadel in Hue
One of the many ornate structures at the citadel in Hue. Photo: Maggie Kennedy

The Storyline of Top Gear in Vietnam

So, let us return to the first issue of transportation. Jeremy, James, and Richard began their quest with 15,000,000 Vietnamese Dong in each of their pockets.  A number which, to most Westerners, sounds like an enormous sum. Quickly, however, the boy’s realised that conversion rates were quite high, and they wouldn’t be able to afford much more than a standard scooter or motorcycle.

Being that Vietnam is vague on road rules and quite dangerous for foreigners with no prior experience to navigate, they would need the proper safety attire, including, of course, a helmet. Unfortunately, due to their larger heads, Jeremy and James had to get unconventional helmets made in a backstreet metal shop. Richard, being much smaller, was lucky to find a standard helmet at the local market. From here, viewers discover another problem – Jeremy has never before ridden a motorcycle! Therefore, he needed some basic instruction from a kind-hearted expat he found walking along the street. While this initial ‘challenge’ was swiftly resolved, it was only a precursor for the games to come.

Throughout the Top Gear Vietnam episode, the boys’ bikes continuously break down and need repair. Additionally, the strict timeline means they must travel long hours along winding, mountainous roads at night, and during rainstorms. As a whole, the journey was more about the boys than it was about the actual place. Fortunately, there are bits and pieces which stand out above the rest and showcase how truly special Vietnam is as a country.

Top Gear in Hoi An and the Hai Van Pass

One standout moment is when the boys arrive in Hoi An – Hidden’s beloved home-base. After a rough few days braving poor weather and tumultuous roadways, they decide to have custom suits made at one of the many tailor shops in Old Town. This is a must-do when visiting as prices are incredibly affordable, and it is an enjoyable and unique experience.

Another notable moment is in Da Lat, where Jeremy and James try liquor infused with snakes. This is a local specialty made from either rice wine or grain alcohol. The most commonly used snake is the Habu. Belonging to the pit viper family, the Habu is venomous and can cause nausea, vomiting, hypotension, and death. Fortunately, the alcohol in the drink is said to help the venom dissolve, so it becomes non-poisonous to the drinker over time.

Other cultural standouts include the landscape itself. At one point, the boys ride down the infamous Hai Van Pass – a mountain pass that connects the north to the south of Vietnam. The route itself is a popular tourist destination as it boasts incredible views of Da Nang City a coastal city and the metropolitan hub of Central Vietnam, and Lang Co Bay – an accessible fishing port.

Ha Long Bay

Another notable landscape is at the end of the episode when the hosts arrive at one of the most remarkable locations in all of Vietnam, Ha Long Bay – a UNESCO World Heritage Site known for its emerald waters and ‘Lochness Monsteresque’, limestone mountains. Over the past decade, Ha Long Bay has quickly become one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world. The boys didn’t get to partake in one of the luxurious cruises; instead, they had to convert their already inoperable motorcycles to watercraft and set sail.

Hidden Hint: Keep in mind that Ha Long Bay is suffering the adverse effects of mass tourism. If choosing to visit, consider your carbon footprint, leave no trace, and select your tour operator wisely.

Top-Notch Locals

Throughout the Top Gear Vietnam episode, one thing, in particular, stands out.  No matter the circumstance, the hosts are never alone. There is never a moment of desperation or solace. This is because there are so many kind-hearted locals around who are willing to help those in need. Whether it be an individual who needs assistance in learning how to ride a motorcycle, or a broken Vespa in need of a new engine, or a biker who has run out of gas – the Vietnamese are here to help. Hidden strongly believes that even today, this generous mentality could not be more accurate. Vietnamese people are some of the sincerest and most generous individuals.

Hidden Hint: Street markets are a must-do in any Vietnamese city. Vendors will often allow you to sample their local produce, and will even try to converse with you. Whether through words, or a universally shared smile.

A vendor in Hoi An
A vendor at the Central Market in Hoi An. Photo: Maggie Kennedy

Hidden’s Thoughts

Despite the episode’s narrative focusing on the triumphs, or more accurately challenges, of the hosts, the final words of the episode do an excellent job of summarising what it’s like to experience the real Vietnam. “Our machines were completely overshadowed by this incredible, beautiful, brilliant country. It’s hard to sum it up, really. Perhaps, that’s why people, when they get back from this place, always say the same thing. Vietnam… you don’t know man! You weren’t there!”

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