Updated at 06:30,06-12-2017

Soviet-made Minsk motorcycles make a comeback in Hanoi

CNN

Soviet-made Minsk motorcycles make a comeback in Hanoi
Linh Pham/Getty Images AsiaPac/Getty Images
Minsk makes a comeback: A new generation of Vietnamese has started hitting the roads on Soviet-era Minsk motorcycles. These smoke-belching dirt bikes were introduced by the former USSR in the 1960s.

Hanoi might be famous for its scooters, but the city's youth is shifting gears.

During an off-roading tournament in November, young motorcycle enthusiasts ripped through the mud in the countryside outside Hanoi.

They weren't driving jeeps or four-wheelers, but rather retro-looking Minsk bikes that date back to the Soviet Union.

"In 2010 these bikes started to make a comeback among young people, and all of a sudden there were a lot more events and races," Steve Christensen, a tour guide at Cuong's Motorbike Adventure, tells CNN.

"Some young people are turning their backs on overt displays of consumerism in Vietnam and instead embracing this vintage motorbike style and their DIY spirit -- embodied in the Minsk."


Hanoi's 'iron buffaloes'

Soviet-made Minsk motorcycles make a comeback in Hanoi

Vietnamese women with the Ural 650 solo.
Cuong's Motorbike Adventure

An original member of the Minsk Club, Christensen has criss-crossed Vietnam on the back of various vintage motorbikes.

"People describe them as 'iron buffaloes' -- sometimes difficult to start, but once it's running, it will go anywhere," says Christensen. "While driving, they vibrate like crazy -- bits fall off along the way."

First manufactured in the Belarus city of Minsk (then part of the USSR) in 1951, the bikes were first introduced to Vietnam in the 1960s and then officially imported from the 1970s to the 1980s.

It was the most popular bike in Vietnam for the next 20-25 years, owned by doctors and farmers alike.

"Many of the Minsks were brought to Vietnam in the late 80s by Vietnamese people working in the former Soviet Union," says Tommy Nguyen, co-founder of Hanoi Backstreet Tours.

"They would buy bikes really cheap there and sell them in Vietnam for a profit. There were not many bikes available then and they could get them in the country for little to no tax compared to a Japanese bike at the time."

Simson bikes were also a popular import from the former East Germany.

"However, Minsk was more favorable as it is much stronger and bigger," adds Nguyen.

Steve Christensen, Cuong's Motorbike Adventure: “People describe them as 'iron buffaloes' -- sometimes difficult to start, but once it's running, it will go anywhere.”


In the 1990s, after the collapse of the USSR, Vietnam established new international trade deals and began importing American, Chinese and Japanese scooters.
Meanwhile, the Minsk bikes -- also known as M1A or M1NSK -- found refuge in the countryside, where they were used like mules.

Able to cart around everything from cattle to furniture, the sturdy bikes enabled farmers and villagers to ply the steep mountainsides.

"They were more popular in the north, partially because of the connection with Eastern Bloc countries, and the mountains roads were nearly impassable," says Christensen.

"Using a scooter like a Honda Dream was not an option for farming communities. The Minsk were strong and could carry heavy loads."


The first wave

Toward the turn of the century, groups of expats began to re-discover the sturdy old bikes.

In 1998, the first Minsk Club was established and the group took regular country rides together.

"The cult of the Minsk developed with our love of the country and exploring the mountains of the north," says Christensen.

"At the time it was the best bike available for driving around the bad country roads (because of high taxes on other imports)."

"It was also a way of connecting with locals and hill tribe people, because we shared the same machines. They can be fixed in just about any village, though they do require fixing all the time."


Minsk madness

Soviet-made Minsk motorcycles make a comeback in Hanoi

Ural Sidecar motorbikes in Ha Giang, Vietnam.
Cuong's Motorbike Adventure

Minsk bikes are still unreliable, loud and terrible for the environment -- known to billow exhaust fumes into the air.

They're not particularly fast, either -- ranging from about 30 to 60 miles an hour -- and require constant mechanical upkeep.

Despite their shortcomings, a new generation of Vietnamese love them.

Why? They're generally affordable (running around $300-400 for a second-hand bike) and relatively easy to kit out with custom parts.

Steve Christensen, Cuong's Motorbike Adventure: “(Vietnamese youth) are turning away from the status symbol of a flashy city scooter.”


"Over the past few years, more and more young Vietnamese have taken up the Minsk out of a sense of adventure," says Christensen.

"They are turning away from the status symbol of a flashy city scooter and, instead, exploring their country and roughing it in the old Soviet-era style," says Christensen.

The avid rider says the trend is proliferating across the northern Vietnam countryside, where youth organize Minsk clubs and events in smaller towns.

"These kids really love their bikes and the sense of freedom that it brings," he adds.

Nguyen of Hanoi Backstreet Tours, tells CNN the bikes' resurgence also reflect the rejection of modern consumerist values.

"Minsk are strong and manly. They're rude in the maze of back streets of Hanoi," he says.

"It is a trip down to our memory lane, when Vietnamese people to think about the era of collectivism."

Soviet-made Minsk motorcycles make a comeback in Hanoi
Soviet-made Minsk motorcycles make a comeback in Hanoi
Soviet-made Minsk motorcycles make a comeback in Hanoi
Soviet-made Minsk motorcycles make a comeback in Hanoi
Soviet-made Minsk motorcycles make a comeback in Hanoi
Soviet-made Minsk motorcycles make a comeback in Hanoi
Soviet-made Minsk motorcycles make a comeback in Hanoi
Soviet-made Minsk motorcycles make a comeback in Hanoi
Soviet-made Minsk motorcycles make a comeback in Hanoi
Soviet-made Minsk motorcycles make a comeback in Hanoi
Soviet-made Minsk motorcycles make a comeback in Hanoi
Soviet-made Minsk motorcycles make a comeback in Hanoi
Soviet-made Minsk motorcycles make a comeback in Hanoi
Soviet-made Minsk motorcycles make a comeback in Hanoi
Soviet-made Minsk motorcycles make a comeback in Hanoi
Soviet-made Minsk motorcycles make a comeback in Hanoi
Soviet-made Minsk motorcycles make a comeback in Hanoi
Soviet-made Minsk motorcycles make a comeback in Hanoi
Soviet-made Minsk motorcycles make a comeback in Hanoi

Photos: Linh Pham/Getty Images AsiaPac/Getty Images