Top Gear: Series 12, Episode 8 – Vietnam Special

4
  • Epic Road Trip – The boys travel 1000 miles across Vietnam.
  • With a budget of only US$1000, they are forced purchase motorcycles.

Episode Guide

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The boys begin by explaining their next big adventure. They were to meet 6,000 miles away, in Saigan, the capital city of Vietnam. Upon arriving, Jeremy, Richard and James were each given 15 million Dong (₫15,000,000) to buy a set of wheels. After voicing their excitement at receiving a shoebox full of cash each, James made his way to the Fiat dealership and was shocked when he was told that his ₫15,000,000 was in fact the equivalent of only $1,000 US, and that a standard, bottom of the line Fiat 500 costs a whopping ₫560,000,000. James was again disappointed when even the local back street car dealers turned his money down. Jeremy had also discovered that his money was in fact, very little, and had resorted to begging people on the street to sell their car to him without much luck. Richard caught on quickly and had simply given up, retiring early to go to lunch instead.

Over lunch they discussed their dilemma. Clarkson made a valid point when he blamed the high prices on the fact that cars have not been in Vietnam for many years and had not been given enough time to depreciate in value. Richard also chimed in and pointed out that there were no “bangers” for sale either. May and Hammond, being the motorcycling enthusiasts they are, took notice of the amount of motorbikes around them and raised the idea of buying cheap scooters instead. Needless to say, Clarkson wasn’t very impressed, but was convinced none the less. Hours later, the guys arranged to meet at the American War Museum to show off their newly acquired motorbikes. Richard was the first to introduce his Russian made Minsk 125cc trial bike, describing it as “the AK47 of bikes”. James had got himself a Honda 50cc Super Cub, describing his purchase as the “greatest motorcycle in history”. Jeremy, with a distinct lack of enthusiasm, introduced his Piaggio Vespa step through scooter.

The main challenge was then given to the boys. “You’ll now attempt to achieve in 8 days what the Americans failed to achieve in 10 years. Get from the South of Vietnam, to the North. You will ride from here in Saigon, to Hạ Long City near the Chinese border, which is 1,000 miles away”. James and Richard were ecstatic and were eager to get going, Jeremy shared his disgust and said that he couldn’t even ride a motorbike. While expressing his disgust, we’re shown what the traffic conditions are like and a chilling statistic is given. Vietnam experiences 4 times more road deaths each year, than Britain.

They were quick to find their next obstacle, Hammond, being vertically challenged, managed to find a helmet that fitted with no problems. Jeremy and James didn’t have as much luck and had to get helmets custom built. Unfortunately, due to the lack of time, they had to employ a back street metal work to fabricate some helmets for them overnight, with amusing results. James ended up with a wok for a helmet, and Jeremy was given a bucket with chin straps. Ever so safety conscious or perhaps just nervous about his lack of experience on a motorcycle, Jeremy had attached several mirrors to the front of his scooter so he didn’t have to turn his head as often. Ready to go, the boys lined up and counted down ready to set off and start the journey. When the countdown reached zero, James and Richard quickly took off, leaving Clarkson behind trying to work out how to even start his scooter. Richard and James steamed ahead, thought it wasn’t long before James had his first problem for the challenge, his helmet was too awkward and he had to get rid of the wok, leaving just a colander to protect his head.

Clarkson eventually got going, thanks to some passers by, and also managed to trade his bucket helmet in for a proper helmet. He eventually caught up with the other guys during a brief stop and quickly set about finding the cause of his scooter feeling so out of sorts. They discovered that the rear wheel, whilst being held on very tightly, was still extremely wobbly. The driveshaft was so badly worn, the entire engine had to be replaced, the front brakes were also tightened, so that they worked at all, and to top it all off, James and Richard had left him behind again. Once more, Richard and James steamed ahead, and despite getting his scooter back on the road, Jeremy was soon on the side of the road with more mechanical troubles.

Darkness had fallen, and Richard was poking fun at James for the lack of speed his bike had. Getting closer to Đà Lạt, the hills were getting steeper and James was struggling until his bike eventually stopped altogether. Behind James, Jeremy was back on his bike, but disgruntled by the way his additional mirrors were reflecting his headlight back into his own face. Richard was the first to arrive in Đà Lạt, with James arriving shortly after, despite having to resort to pushing his bike. Many beers later, Jeremy finally arrived and was eager to eat, ordering snake soup with a side of snake salad. Hammond wasn’t very much a fan of snakes, nor was he a fan of the still beating snake hearts that Clarkson and May were shoving in his face. Later on, after many shots of vodka, Jeremy and James snuck out to the bikes and flattened Hammond’s helmet, and then in the morning, offered a bright pink helmet to replace it.

The next leg of their journey would see them travel to Nha Trang, 130 miles North East of Đà Lạt. Jeremy’s already unbearable attitude towards the decision to take motorcycles was doubled when the weather turned nasty and the rain came down. Jeremy’s headlight was the first casualty of the wet weather, followed closely by Hammond who was having difficulty keeping his engine running at all. James wasn’t to be counted out of the bad luck either, running out of fuel whilst Richard and Jeremy managed to get their motorcycles back on the road. James was eventually saved by a nice gentleman on an old Russian motorcycle, who pulled over to donate some of his fuel. James was rather impressed by the generosity of the man and even offered him money, referring to it as “soggy Dong”.

Jeremy and Richard didn’t get too much further up the road however and had pulled in to a fuelling station to mend Hammond’s broken clutch cable. A little while later and James arrived to hear some bad news from Jeremy. The producers had gotten so fed up with the boys replacing parts so often, that if their bikes broke down again and required more than just tools to fix, they would be provided with suitable backup transport, which was in the shape of a small motorcycle painted in the American stars and stripes and equipped with a speaker playing ‘Born in the USA’. Knowing that being seen on a bike like that in Vietnam was surely a death sentence, the boys set off once more with a bucket load of extra determination.

In a rather strange turn of events, Clarkson was actually beginning to enjoy himself, or more so, Vietnam itself. James on the other hand, was struggling. Third gear on his bike was a rather tall one and his bike no longer had the power to keep up the speed necessary to stay in the gear long enough before coughing and spluttering. Despite the issues, the boys were together again for the first time since they left Saigon and when thunder storms set in, the boys were treated to a dazzling light show as the lightning struck off in the distance. Jeremy’s headlight finally gave up for good and once again they pulled over, fearful of the American bike, to strap a torch to the front mudguard. Despite the intense traffic and the weather, they eventually made it into Nha Trang, safe and sound. Clarkson cheered himself up by buying Hammond a present, which in typical Clarkson fashion was thoughtful, yet completely and utterly impractical. He’d bought Richard a model sail ship, which just so happened to be as big as his motorbike.

After another nights rest and with the model Galleon strapped to the back of his bike, Hammond set off again with James and Jeremy. After many uncomfortable miles in humid weather, their next stop would be to get some new clothes in the town of Hội An. Upon entering a local clothing store, Jeremy pointed out that whilst Hammond would be able to find clothes his size, both he and James would have issues, requiring them to have clothes made especially for them. Lucky for them, the price for a tailor made suit was the equivalent of only £70. Upon discovering the price, and that it would only take a day to complete a tailor made suit, the boys began looking around for what material they could use and put their orders in. Richard, as fashionable as he is, didn’t stop there however, and went and ordered himself custom made shoes to go with his new suit.

While they waited for their suits to be finished, James and Richard suggested taking their bikes to the beach, which resulted in a few minor thrills and spills on Jeremy’s behalf. Clarkson eventually gave up and went and had a relaxing drink. May and Hammond continued on the beach and competed to see who could get closest to the water, a decision both would regret as their bikes got wet and refused to run. With Clarkson having a foot massage and James still trying to get his bike out of the water, Hammond stopped to talk with one of the locals, who worked around the language barrier by writing in the sand. He described to Hammond, that he was on this very beach in 1968 when American B52 bombers flew overhead, delivering a devastating payload which resulted in the loss of many lives, an unfortunate, but common sight during the Vietnam war.

Night fell and Hammond was still having trouble getting his bike to run. After taunting him a little, Clarkson and May decided to head in to town for something to eat, getting distracted along the way by hundreds of candles floating on a river in the centre of Hội An. In the morning, the boys got dressed in their new and very colourful suits and headed for the ancient capital of Huế. Richard did manage to get his bike going and much to Jeremy’s dismay, caught up once again. James continued to struggle with speed and eventually fell behind once more. Clarkson thought of it as the perfect opportunity to buy James a present. With the help of Richard, Jeremy once again bought another present that was thoughtful, but an absolute nightmare when it came to carrying it on the back of a motorcycle. When May arrived, Jeremy and Richard proved that despite the awkward size and weight of the statue, they had actually put a lot of thought into buying the right one.

After strapping the statue to the back of May’s bike, they were back on the road again. May was being even more cautious than usual to keep his statue in tact, whilst Hammond had obviously forgotten about the size of the ship he was carrying and broke all of the masts off when he clipped some rubbish bins on the side of the road. Further down the road, he also managed to take out a traffic sign when passing through a toll booth. Moments later, Jeremy’s bike came to a stop, claiming it “came over all Italian again”. Wedging a plastic bag filled with weeds in with the electrical wires kept them from shaking about and the Vespa was alive again.

Full of confidence once again, the boys tackled a road the winded its way up a tall mountain and in the process, found an absolute cracker of a road that Jeremy labelled as a “deserted ribbon of perfection, one of the best coast roads, in the world”. Backed by Jimi Hendrix’s, Voodoo Child, the boys tore up the coast road, or at least Jeremy and Richard were. James, as usual, was struggling with speed and was being haunted by the American bike. Despite May’s lack of speed though, it was actually Jeremy’s bike that came to a stop, with the weed bag no longer doing the job. Despite his bike breaking down again, Clarkson couldn’t have cared less as he ogled the fantastic view while they waited for James to catch up. It was at this moment, parked on the side of the mountain road, that Richard and James decided to give Jeremy a present in return, a painting of a traditional Vietnamese scene that was about 3ft square in size.

So, with Clarkson and his painting, Richard and his Galleon, and James with his ballet statue, they pushed on down the mountain towards Huế. By this time, Jeremy was really beginning to enjoy himself, event to the point of doing his own racing style commentary. James on the other hand, had made an observation, not a complaint, that when he backed down a gear, the breasts on his ballet statue would dig into his back. As the sun set in the distance, they stopped once more just to take in the beauty of Vietnam with Jeremy summing up the view. “It’s a fabulous country, it really is.”

That night, while Hammond was mending the masts on his sail ship, Jeremy and James took to his bike with bright pink spray paint. To avoid taking all the blame, they gave the spray paint to passers by and offered them the chance to do some of the painting. One of the many people even turned her sights on more than just Hammond’s bike and continued to spray paint an unknown persons bicycle parked on the sidewalk.

In the morning, on the way to their next challenge, Hammond was furious with his new paint job, and began purposely side swiping anything he could to damage the Galleon on the back. Their next challenge was to take a Vietnamese driving test, which involved both theory and practical aspects. With only Jeremy knowing how to speak Vietnamese, the oral/theory side of the driving test was failed by both James and Richard. Outside the classroom, a number of different white lines were painted on the ground. These white lines made up a number of courses that would test the rider’s ability to manoeuvre and maintain control of their bikes at slow speeds. One of the tests is to ride your bike around a figure of eight without touching the lines either on the inside or outside. Others include doing a full lock U-turn in a small box without touching any lines, and another is riding between two, very close, lines at a very slow speed. Hammond went first and with years of experience on motorbikes, passed with flying colours… or a pink bike at least. James was next and also passed drawing on his years of experience too. Clarkson however, due to his lack of experience, failed miserably, over and over again. He even tried using May’s motorbike, and still failed, and when parking the motorbike without using the stand, the ballet statue strapped on the back was broken. After agreeing that collectively, they had passed the test, Jeremy apologised to James and bought him a bouquet of flowers to stick on the front of his motorcycle before heading out of Huế.

On the way out of Huế, they made a brief stop at some unrestored gates of one of the few Vietnam Citadel sites built in the early 1800’s. Now littered with bullet holes, the gates show that nothing is untouched by war. Still 400 miles away from the finish line, Jeremy discovered that the traffic was getting worse, the weather was getting hotter and even James’ bike was ready to give up. While stopped for lunch, Jeremy did his calculations and worked out that they simply could not reach the finish line in the time frame they were given. His solution was simple, and typical of Clarkson, cheat. So they boarded an over night train headed for Hạ Long City. James, in his infinite wisdom, had purchased tickets for 3rd class and Jeremy wasn’t overly impressed with having to spend 13 hours on hard wooden chairs. To pass the time, they agreed to repair each others gifts. Hammond placed a new piece of canvas over the hole in Jeremy’s painting, May attempted to untangle the ropes on Hammond’s sail ship, and Jeremy used his Doctorate in Engineering to put May’s statue back together. In the morning, Clarkson proudly presented the statue back to James, after having used half a tub of glue and a roll of sticky tape to hold it together. Hammond had painted a Land Rover in the middle of Clarkson’s Vietnamese painting, and James had turned Hammond’s Galleon into a Chinese row boat by using some chopsticks and other decorative pieces.

Upon arrival at what the boys thought was Hạ Long City, they quickly noticed that they had instead jumped on the wrong train and ended up miles away in Hà Nội. Once the arguing stopped, they got back on their bikes and continued East to Hạ Long City, stopping for breakfast, dodging traffic and even passing the wreckage of a shot down B-52 Bomber. After getting lost trying to find the main road out of Hà Nội, they found their way on to what seemed to be a main road and were filled with confidence again. Clarkson took the time to share his thoughts on motorbikes in general. “I’ve always said to my children that if they buy a bike I will burn it, and if they replace it with another one, I shall burn that too. Now however, if they buy a bike I will completely understand… and then I’ll burn it”.

50 miles from Hạ Long City, Hammond’s Minsk broke down again. James volunteered to help out while Jeremy kept on going. Whilst trying to fix the Minsk, Hammond hit the kick start while in gear and the bike fell over with Hammond landing had first in between May’s legs. James commented, “You simultaneously head butted me in the gentleman’s region and snapped the bow off the Galleon”. Shortly after the head butt to the crotch, inevitably, Clarkson fell off his motorbike while going rather quickly. Despite having a bit of gravel rash, 2 broken ribs and a sore foot, Jeremy seemed to be more worried about his suit. Completely oblivious to Jeremy’s accident, James and Richard were still buying each other ridiculous presents. After getting back on his bike, Jeremy caught up to James and Richard, who had passed him unknowingly, and began to shout abuse at them for choosing bikes in the first place. Jeremy again took the time to comment on the trip, “What a journey, 700 miles on my bike, 250 miles on a train, and about 50 miles on my face”.

They eventually arrived in Hạ Long City and instantly began celebrating the completion of their journey. The celebration was short lived though, as one last challenge was handed to them. The challenge explained to them that they had not yet reached the final checkpoint, and that in order to reach it, they would need to convert their motorbikes to be able to travel across water. Their destination was Ba Hàng Bar, a floating bar, unreachable by land, located in between the 1,969 islands that make up Hạ Long Bay.

With little enthusiasm this time, they set off to find a workshop to make their bikes float. A montage is shown of the boys planning, preparing and building their “Bike-ski’s”. In the morning, the boys met at the beach where they would launch and did a final check before heading out on to the bay. James had almost dismantled his bike completely and rigged bits and pieces of his bike to a traditional Vietnamese fishing boat, attaching a long propeller shaft to the engine to power the craft. Richard kept the majority of his Minsk in one piece, adding a propeller for propulsion, rigging the handlebars to steer a rudder at the rear, and putting a great big swan head on the front of a raft. Jeremy perhaps had the most strangest idea, stringing together 4 canoe’s by means of a welded frame and strapping his bike to the top with the engine powering two paddle steamer type wheels at the back. After James started Jeremy’s engine for him, due to his injuries, the three of them set off. Richard’s creation seemed fine at first, Jeremy’s Bike-ski oddly enough, worked as well, but James struggled to get his to steer much at all and eventually crashed in to Jeremy, then crashed into some netting, and eventually started to sink. James had his Bike-ski towed back to the beach and began fitting some of Hammond’s spare pontoons to his craft while Hammond and Clarkson pushed on ahead. Jeremy’s first stroke of bad luck on the water came when he stalled his Vespa and needed Richard to help him kick start the bike again, the whole process wasn’t entirely smooth with them both nearly crashing into one of the islands.

In their search for the bar, Jeremy and Richard had gotten bored and decided to look in some of the caves. It wasn’t until they reached a point where they could go no further that they realised neither of their bikes had reverse gear. While they were struggling to get out of the cave, James had struck trouble yet again, with one of his pontoons coming loose. Jeremy and Richard eventually got free of the cave but didn’t get far when Jeremy’s electrical system shorted on the bike and began running a current through anything metal, including the frame which bolted the bike to the canoe’s, and the bike frame itself. James continued on with only one pontoon and even Richard had a spot of trouble when his rudder broke, sending his Bike-ski around in circles.

Jeremy continued on with his little Vespa and managed to arrive at Ba Hàng Bar first. Much later, despite steering troubles, Hammond somehow managed to get his Minsk within metres of the Bar, only Jeremy refused to help him get any closer. He eventually resorted to using his hands to paddle the water and help steer the bike towards the Bar, finally being able to grab the side of the floating pontoons. May, would be the last to arrive, struggling to get his bike away from one of the islands in time resulted in him getting stuck without a reverse gear. With Richard by his side to enjoy a drink, Jeremy shared some knowledge that he had learned of the people who live aboard the floating buildings. “The people who live here are born here, they live here, they fish here, and they die here. They never go on dry land”.

James eventually made it off the side of the island and edged his way closer to the bar before losing the only pontoon he had left keeping his bike afloat, and to top it all off, the engine stalled on him too. While trying desperately to get his bike going again, he fell overboard and decided to just swim to the floating bar with the aid of the pontoon that fell off earlier. As he reached the side of the bar, Jeremy and Richard began laughing when James presented the item he salvaged from his Bike-ski before abandoning it, the ballet statue that was given to him as a present a few days ago.

Jeremy summed up the entire trip while clips of the past few days were shown. “I have to say though, that despite the success, I’m still not sold on biking. There are good moments, but it’s mostly bad. And I’m sorry, but our machines were completely over-shadowed 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!”

In typical Top Gear style, they added a particular something to the front of all the names in the credits. In this case, it was the name Francis Ford, a reference to Francis Ford Coppola, director of the famed Vietnam War film, Apocalypse Now.

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Rating: 9.5/10 (303 votes cast)
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4 COMMENTS

  1. The bit where they ‘accidentally’ went to Ha Noi (sp?) was a set up.

    They were meant to be going to Ha Long yet in P2 at about 6:40 Clarkson said: “Would you like to hop to Ha Noi?” I only just realised this.

    None the less, this is still an epic episode <3 <3 <3

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