Vietnamese Youths Battle Off-Road On Soviet-Era Minsk Motorbikes

In Vietnam, Dirt Bike Racing Is the New Cool

Young Vietnamese express independence and embrace new identities through the booming subculture of off-road racing.

 
On a fall Sunday in Hanoi, hundreds of young men and women gathered in a weed-filled field beneath a highway overpass for the Vietnamese capital's first-ever off-road motorcycle tournament. Smartphones in hand, the spectators cheered and recorded the spectacle as riders, most in their 20s, blasted around a soggy track, rooster tails of dirt flying behind. A DJ punctuated the din with electronic music.

Vietnamese Youths Battle Off-Road On Soviet-Era Minsk Motorbikes Linh Pham/Getty Images

The event, Gảy Số Tự Do ("Shift Gear to Freedom" in English), attracted dirt bike enthusiasts from all over the country, with many of the riders traveling hundreds of miles to participate in the race.

Vietnamese Youths Battle Off-Road On Soviet-Era Minsk Motorbikes Linh Pham/Getty Images

Bikers, repeatedly stuck in the mud, were freed when willing spectators helped push them out. The vast majority of riders seemed untroubled about not winning: in the end, the day's champion earned only a "Top One" sticker for his bike. Instead, the point was to have a good time with like-minded friends. "The sense of brotherhood is strong here," said 26-year-old Vietnamese photographer Linh Pham, who documented the event.

Vietnamese Youths Battle Off-Road On Soviet-Era Minsk Motorbikes Linh Pham/Getty Images

But there is another, practical reason the tournament wasn't too fiercely competitive: the riders’ vehicle of choice is a Minsk, a Soviet-era motorcycle named after the Belarusian capital where it was built. The retro-looking bike is so outdated it frequently falls apart in mid-race.

Vietnamese Youths Battle Off-Road On Soviet-Era Minsk Motorbikes Linh Pham/Getty Images

First released in 1951, the bike, with its two-stroke 125cc engine, quickly caught on in Soviet countries. The brand was especially popular in Vietnam after Vietnamese students studying in the USSR brought them home in huge numbers in the 1970s. Throughout its heyday of the '80s and '90s, a Minsk was considered a luxury, costing three times the yearly salary of an average Vietnamese, which was around $80. But as competition from other manufacturers grew, the loud, smoke-belching bike was largely phased out in Vietnamese cities plagued by pollution and traffic jams.

Vietnamese Youths Battle Off-Road On Soviet-Era Minsk Motorbikes Linh Pham/Getty Images

Designed for rough terrain, the Minsk is seen primarily in far-flung villages where paved roads are rare. But the bike still has a certain charm for young urban Vietnamese and expats who appreciate its low price (under $400) and easy-to-customize features. Although new Minsk bikes are still being built today, enthusiasts prefer and often look for the old models as “they carry the ‘real Minsk spirit,’” Pham said.

Vietnamese Youths Battle Off-Road On Soviet-Era Minsk Motorbikes Linh Pham/Getty Images

“This type of motorcycle has been a style icon for many generations of Vietnamese youngsters,” said Pham, who was a Minsk devotee himself in college. But he wasn't photographing the tournament simply because the Minsk played such a central role in the proceedings. Instead, Pham has a passion for telling fresh stories about Vietnam.

Vietnamese Youths Battle Off-Road On Soviet-Era Minsk Motorbikes Linh Pham/Getty Images

“After a while of working with international outlets, my best-selling photos are still the ones that related to the American audience in some way, or photos that serve the preconceptions [about Vietnam] of outside viewers,” Pham said.

Vietnamese Youths Battle Off-Road On Soviet-Era Minsk Motorbikes Linh Pham/Getty Images

For Pham, much of the world's image of Vietnam is defined by clichéd postcard scenes depicting lush green rice paddies and women in traditional silk dresses. “While such parts of Vietnam still exist," he said, "the constant representations using such outdated symbols can [reinforce] stereotypes about the country."

Vietnamese Youths Battle Off-Road On Soviet-Era Minsk Motorbikes Linh Pham/Getty Images

On the soggy dirt track in Hanoi, Pham captured Vietnamese millennials hungry to express their own identities through a burgeoning youth culture with which he's intimately familiar, but that remains little known in the rest of world. "They look fascinatingly new to outsiders," Pham said, "but subcultures like these have always thrived here, and they shape the diversity [of Vietnam].”