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How To Buy A Motorbike In Vietnam

Vietnam Motorbike Ts
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In 2008, Top Gear dropped the Vietnam special. Three guys on three bikes making their way across one fascinating country.  I was awestruck, and I vowed that I would some day make the journey myself. When I finally got the chance, it was nothing like I’d expected.

I’ll tell that story in due time. For now, I’m here to teach you a thing or two you need to know if you’re going to make the trip yourself. You’re going to try and ride your way across the country from the bottom to the top, or maybe you’ll oddball it and go from top to the bottom. You’re going to try and stay out of trouble, while having plenty of fun along the way.

Vidframe Min Top
Vidframe Min Bottom

As they used to say on Top Gear: How hard could it be? Without the backing of a multimillion-dollar TV production and a full support crew, can the average Joe waltz into Vietnam, buy a bike, and have a real adventure? The answer is complicated—but the first step is clear. Sorta.

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A motorcycle adventure is THE best excuse to wear aviators for three weeks straight. Bonus points if someone Photoshops in the EXPLICIT CONTENT logo.

Step 1: Choose Your Fighter

The first thing you need to do is decide what kind of bike you want to take on your adventure. A wide variety of bikes are available in Vietnam, though the fleet is very different to what you’d find in the United States or Europe. There’s a much greater focus on motor scooters and low-displacement bikes.

Due to the vagaries of Vietnam’s road network, there is not much call for big power. You’ll get up the country just fine with a 115 cc engine under you. If you’re feeling flush, you could go for a 125 cc or even a 150 cc, but they’re less common at the cheap end of the spectrum. As a foreigner, it can get legally complicated if you’re riding anything bigger than 150 cc, due to licensing rules we’ll get into later. Consider that the top end of your range. Anything bigger than 250cc is exceedingly rare on Vietnamese roads anyway—so don’t feel like you’re missing out.

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If you do choose to go for something powerful and fancy, just remember this: you’re broadcasting to the world that you’re a juicy target to be robbed or extorted. Vietnam is a safe country, and far from a den of inequity and peril. Regardless, when you’re a tourist, you stick out like a sore thumb. You’re at a disadvantage to experienced scam artists and criminals, and some of the police too—a few of them really love a good bribe. Don’t make their job easier by putting a giant sign on your forehead that says “I’m a wealthy rube with lots of money.”

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One of the hottest bikes I saw on my travels was a 150cc Yamaha.

Generally, the first choice you’ll make is transmission. Bikes are available with auto, semi-auto, and manual transmissions. Auto bikes are the easiest to ride. You start them up, and you don’t have to worry about changing gear. They’re the best if you’re new to riding, as they give you one less thing to worry about. However, they can be heavier and slower for a given engine size.  These are built as scooter body styles, by and large . You might mock the form factor, but they’re great around town, particularly if you need to stash some bags between your legs. 

The Yamaha Nuovo and Suzuki Hayate are popular cheap auto bikes, though they’re known for reliability issues and can be thirsty, too. Years of poor post-sales support have left them running poorly, and their price reflects that. The Honda Airblade is a better-regarded auto by comparison, and you’ll see many gleaming examples in the cities of Vietnam. However, you’ll pay a premium for its good name. The Honda Vision is a solid performer, too, in a smaller size. Expect to stump up at least $500 USD for a good example, either way.

[product Video] Honda Air Blade 150cc 125cc Uy Lực Bứt Phá. 0 31 Screenshot
The Honda Air Blade is one of the more popular automatic motorcycles in Vietnam, and new models are still in production today. Used examples are pretty easy to come by if you’re looking for an automatic.
Semi-autos don’t have a manually-actuated clutch, but still let you change gear. They’re a great choice if you want a lighter bike with more control, but you’re not comfortable with a clutch lever just yet. Those with some riding experience may choose these over an auto. They don’t add a lot of extra overhead to the riding task, but feel a bit more like a “real” motorcycle. Most are still built in a scooter-like bodystyle, though.

The Honda Wave and Honda Blade are perhaps the most common semi-autos in the country. You can pick up a well-used example for $350-400 USD without too much trouble. They’re the motorized pack mules of Vietnam. They never give up and will carry you endless miles without complaint. Get yourself a genuine one and get it serviced by real Honda dealers if something’s amiss, and you won’t have much trouble. Plus, every back-alley mechanic has parts (albeit, often Chinese-made) for these bikes, too. The Yamaha Jupiter is a slightly cheaper alternative. It doesn’t quite have the same good name as the Honda bikes, nor the quality service network, but they do alright.

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Giới Thiệu Jupiter Fi Phiên Bản 2016! 0 2 Screenshot
The Yamaha Jupiter is a solid choice for a semi-auto bike.

Finally, there are manual bikes with a traditional clutch lever on the left-side handlebar. These are basically regular motorbikes in most cases. If you’re wanting a dirt bike for proper off-road escapades, or just desire a full-fat motorcycling experience, go with the manual. Just make sure you’ve got clutch control and shifting well-sorted in your muscle memory. You don’t want to be stalling or bunnyhopping in traffic, else you’ll risk drowning in the middle of Hanoi’s peak-hour maelstrom.

For these, the Honda XR 150 is hard to beat at this level. You will look a little strange piloting your dirt bike in city traffic, but pay that no mind. If you want something more for the street, the Honda Winner, Yamaha Exciter, and Suzuki Raider are all great options. These bikes are all a bit more grown up and serious than the scooters used for day-to-day commuting in Vietnam. However, you’ll generally pay a lot more compared to the workaday bikes that you can get for peanuts by comparison. You’ll be well into the $1,500-2,000 range for a pretty, cared-for example.

Raiderfull Desk
The Suzuki Raider is pretty badass.

Obviously, there are loads of other options in a place like Vietnam. There are plenty of “Honda Wins” floating around backpacker haunts that have that romantic old-school look, but they’re all dodgy Chinese clones that will give you no end of trouble. There are also cheap automatics from SYM and a bevy of other models seemingly built by Japanese manufacturers that may inspire your confidence. Many of these bikes are cheaply made or have very poor parts support. Sticking to the big-name popular models that everyone is riding may not be as exciting, but it’s the closest thing to a guarantee that when something goes wrong, you’ll be able to get it fixed.

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Electric bikes are becoming a thing in Vietnam, but they’re not ideal for longer journeys just yet.

Step 2: Rent or Buy?

Your second consideration is whether you want to buy a bike or simply rent one. There are a variety of companies that rent bikes to tourists for what is now a very popular journey. Most outlets will allow you to pick your start and finish cities in a flexible fashion to suit your chosen itinerary. Of course, the tradeoff is being liable for someone else’s property the whole time, even with the shield of insurance. If that suits you, great! If not, read on.

While it adds to the challenge, buying a bike gives you the flexibility to do whatever you want with it, wherever you want, whenever you feel like doing it. If you want to extend your stay, or customize your bike, you’re free to do as you please. To stick with the Top Gear script, and for vague philosophical reasons like “freedom” and “independence”, I chose this path.

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If you buy a bike, you can customize it to your heart’s content. You can even use poster paint if you’re so madly inclined!

Step 3: Purchase Time

These days, the easiest way to purchase a motorcycle in Vietnam is to jump on Facebook and look through groups serving this exact purpose, with names like Vietnam Motorbike Market and Hanoi Motorbike Sales. Picking one based around your given start location is the easiest way to go.

Generally, these groups have at least a few people who regularly do business with tourists and will be the easiest to work with. They’ll generally speak some English, and will often have bikes already kitted out for traveling. Typical equipment includes a phone holder and a simple metal luggage rack on the back. Having these ready to go can save you a day of running around getting racks and a phone holder fitted to your ride.

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I chose to go with a well-used Honda Wave. This bike was decidedly low-tech, with drum brakes front and rear and a carburetor rather than fuel injection.
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That bike took me to some sweet locales.

It really is ideal to ride a few different bikes before you buy. If you’re meeting up with individual travelers or locals offloading their single bike, this can be time-consuming and impractical. It’s another reason to head to someone regularly selling bikes to tourists, as they’ll often have a few models to try out. Doing an A/B test between a few bikes will instantly let you discover which one feels good and which one feels worn out. 

During my trip, I met one guy who had three bikes on the go. I tried the first, and it felt fine to my inexperienced hands. I’m no motorcyclist, after all. But as soon as I jumped on the second, the problems were obvious. This second bike was much smoother to ride, and it felt far less loose through the handlebars. I had an inkling he was saving the best for last, though, and he was. I suspect he was trying to get rid of the more average bikes which were harder to sell.  Overal, he was good to deal with and I didn’t have any major complaints about the transaction.

Vietsell
In the big cities, buying a bike is as easy as jumping on a Facebook group and finding someone with a few bikes to sell. You’ll find it easiest in Hanoi and Saigon.

Just be wary, though — while some of these sellers do good business, others will be out looking for their next mark to sell a dodgy bike. Use your people skills and any local knowledge you can get to avoid this. If you’re staying at a backpacker or a hotel, they might be able to hook you up with somebody they know in the area. Vietnam has an excellent hospitality culture, and most places you stay will have someone willing to point you in the right direction. 

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When you test ride the bike, it’s worth making yourself a checklist of things to go over. You’ll want to feel if the engine runs well, and that it idles without stalling out. It should pull away strongly, particularly in the case of a semi-auto or manual. Otherwise, it’s indicative of a worn clutch or transmission problems. Beyond that, test all the lights and indicators, make sure the bike shifts well, and keep an eye out for loose body panels that may be vibrating or falling off. 

You’ll probably find that most bikes you see don’t have a working speedometer. This is very common, but if it bothers you, make sure to check. A lot of people don’t care, as speed limits in Vietnam are rather like the Pope: you know he exists, but he has very little impact on your day-to-day life (more on this in a future piece). A working fuel gauge is useful, but keep in mind that a lot of the time, these gauges are woefully inaccurate and non-linear. Popping your fuel cap is a more reliable way to check most of the time.

Once you’ve decided on a bike, it’s time to do a deal. You’ll be paying cash, so stuff your wallet full of Dong for the transaction (that’s the local currency, you perve). In addition to the keys, it’s also absolutely key that you get something called a “Blue Card” with the bike. This is an official government document that’s usually laminated, and sized slightly larger than a playing card. It basically states the registered owner of the bike. You don’t generally need to transfer it into your name, but it’s important to have. If the police find out you don’t have the Blue Card for your bike, they’ll confiscate it without any hesitation. Don’t lose the Blue Card, either. Your bike will be virtually worthless on the resale market without it. 

Scrrr
The blue card is key. If you don’t have one, police will take your bike without a second thought.

Step 4: Now What?

Once you’ve got the Blue Card and the keys, and handed over the cash, you’re golden. The bike is yours! But it’s worth having a think about what to do next before you head out.

Consider kitting your bike out with racks for your backpack, and any other luggage you may want to take with you. Often, bikes can be fitted with a front rack that’s a great spot for a water bottle to keep you hydrated, as well as plastic carrybags with daily groceries. Your back rack is best suited for your larger bags and luggage. Ideally, you’ll want racks that let you carry stuff without making it too hard to get to your fuel tank. It’s a huge pain having to unrack all your luggage every time you need to fill up. These bikes don’t have long legs, so it’s a regular occurrence.

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A luggage rack ain’t hip, but it’s 300% better than having your pack on your back all day.

Before you complete the transaction, consider what you’ll do with the bike as soon as it’s yours. Do you have parking where you’re staying, or will that be a problem? You’ll also want a helmet. Vietnamese sellers often sell “fake” helmets, which are just a thin layer of plastic and offer no protection. You’ll want something with some proper foam padding inside.

Even still, the nicest helmets in Vietnam are pretty garbage compared to international standards. Consider bringing your own from home if you can afford it. This is especially important if you have a large head. The average Vietnamese person is smaller than typical denizens of most Western countries, and so most shops don’t stock helmets large enough for larger domes. At all. If you’ve got a bigger bonce, do not underestimate what a problem this can be for you. 99% of stores will not have anything that fits you at all.

I faced this very problem on my own journey. Every store we went to handed us an XL, which didn’t even come close to slotting over my massive cranium. Every helmet shop in town was pointing us to the same store, which proved to be our saving grace. In Saigon, there’s one guy who sells “HELMETS FOR THE BIG HEAD.” He’s famous all over the city. Outside of the Southern capital, you may be out of luck. If you’ve got a properly big head, sort your helmet out before you rock up.

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Chucking a simple, clear marking on your helmet can make you far more visible to your homies in traffic. Using retroreflective tape means it even works at night.

Also factor in your confidence level for riding in traffic—or riding the bike at all! Some sellers will be glad to give you a basic lesson on the bike, which can be very helpful for beginners. I went in with minimal experience, barring the few times I scooted around on a friend’s farm bike as a teenager. I did okay with a semi-auto and picked it in a couple of days, but the more experience you have, the better. Riding in Vietnam is mentally exhausting as I’ll explain in future pieces.

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As for traffic, plan to leave your starting city when traffic is lowest. Peak times vary, so you’ll have to get the low-down on the ground. Whatever you do though, don’t start your journey at night. Visibility is at its worst, and more trucks are out after dark. They pose the greatest risk to riders of anything on Vietnam’s streets. Oh, and get yourself some good rain gear, too. You’re gonna need it.

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These things look ridiculous. I wouldn’t leave town without one.

This guide should serve to get you through the first hour of bike ownership. Tune in for my next installment—your cheat sheet for surviving and thriving on the roads of Vietnam.

Image credits: Lewin Day

 

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Rod Millington
Rod Millington
28 days ago

Myself and a British guy I met in Hanoi did this in 2012 and the instructions haven’t changed much. Though we picked up out bikes from people who had finished their HCMC to Hanoi journey and then we took them the opposite way. I had a Honda Super Dream, which was a genuine Honda that had its oil pump seize up about 20mins outside of Ha Giang in the north. Twenty four hours later and AUD90 I had it back up and running again, new pump, piston and cylinder body.

The guy I was traveling with had a “Honda” Win that lasted almost until Ca Mau in the south before it catastrophically failed. 48 hours and AUD100 later it was ready to go again, it was cheaper to fix because the parts were either reconditioned or Chinese made.

After going as far north as you can go (Lung Cu) then down to the end of Highway 1 in the South (which just abruptly ended in scrubland down in Nam Can (though the road has since been extended), we then sold them to other tourists back in HCMC for nearly exactly what we paid for them originally.

The only thing I would change if I was to do it over would be to get a better rain poncho earlier on in the trip as the North was brutal during winter. Otherwise, our method of using the Ho Chi Minh Highway was superb as you avoided almost all of the places that are heavily touristed and corrupted by that. Riding through Cat Ba island felt like riding through Isla Nublar, and the journey down QL15/16 meant we avoided most of the large traffic.

I have many more stories about the journey, though they are sadly fading somewhat with time. There were a lot of very long days, the longest distance travelled in a day was 450km and it took 12 hours, the shortest was 50km and it took 8 hours. It took quite a few years before I came to the realisation that despite being a decidedly average person, I now exist in a place where I have seen more of Vietnam than the vast majority of people who are living or have lived. It makes me feel special in a world that can make you feel the opposite sometimes.

Scone Muncher
Scone Muncher
28 days ago

Looking forward to the next instalment as a former CBR125 owner…the bikes in Vietnam are right up my alley but I would definitely bring my own helmet, etc… considering I’m in the 99.9th percentile for height by Vietnamese standards.

Yung
Yung
29 days ago

Come to Indonesia and you can pick a Supra

Unclewolverine
Unclewolverine
29 days ago

Dream vacation for me! It’s literally our family tradition to watch the Vietnam special on New years day morning every year, usually followed by the boat special. The country is just so beautiful! But you are saying my 1200cc BMW may be best left stateside?

Unclewolverine
Unclewolverine
28 days ago
Reply to  Lewin Day

It too big and unwieldy in America sometimes! Also, first gear is way too high for any type of slow traffic so a small common bike would be the better idea anyway. Can’t wait for the rest of the series!

Rod Millington
Rod Millington
28 days ago
Reply to  Unclewolverine

When I did this 13 years ago, it was illegal for anyone to own a motorbike larger than 150cc unless you were a member of a highly restricted motorcycle club.

A couple of other things of note, speaking from experience:

  • If you require any kind of maintenance on the bike your trip ends. Buy a 100-125cc Honda and you can get cheap parts and find someone who can fix it even in a village of 50 people
  • If you get a flat tyre (and you will), any mechanic can fix it for you, plus, if it happens 5km away from the next village on a mountain road, you can walk the bike back to get fixed immediately
  • You will have serious issues navigating everywhere due to the size
  • There is barely anywhere that it is safer to go more than 80km/h
  • You miss out on the true experience of the journey that requires the small bike
Fix It Again Tony
Fix It Again Tony
29 days ago

License and insurance not required to ride?

Last edited 29 days ago by Fix It Again Tony
Rod Millington
Rod Millington
28 days ago

Technically? Yes. In reality? No.

Canopysaurus
Canopysaurus
29 days ago

Look forward to future installments. Much of what you write reminds me of the three years I lived in the Philippines. Lots of similarities. My motorcycle (Honda VT 500) was my primary transportation. Riding through a monsoon, or rice bilad (they put rice on the hot concrete roads to dry it out), and dodging the murderous Philippine Rabbit buses was an education. One particularly dark night, heading home from the bars, I ran broadside into a carabao (water buffalo) that I mistook for just a darker place in the road. Fortunately, I was moving quite slow at impact and both the animal and I were unscathed. Did ding a mirror, but I considered that a small price given the other possibilities. Still, good times.

Totally not a robot
Totally not a robot
29 days ago
Reply to  Canopysaurus

I rented a motorbike from the innkeeper for a day when I visited the Philippines a few years ago (no license or insurance required for a few hours!). I made the mistake of not taking a reference photo of my rental before I parked it at the beach in the morning. Imagine my dread when I walked back to the parking lot and found hundreds of different motorbikes parked there! It definitely took a few minutes of searching before I found the correct one.

Plesiomorphus primitivus
Plesiomorphus primitivus
29 days ago

Awesome trip idea, but . . . I’m not sure those are aviators.

Greg
Greg
29 days ago

Every time I think I know what you are about, you pop up in some totally different place, or car, or adventure etc….

Talk about someone enjoying the journey and living life. Keep it up Lewin and have some fun for us lames who are stuck in one place!

Shop-Teacher
Shop-Teacher
29 days ago

This is a dream trip for me. Although as somebody who is only a slightly more adventurous eater than Hammond, that part worries me.

I could stand to lose a few (dozen) pounds though. I’d definitely need to bring my XXXL helmet with me.

Thi
Thi
29 days ago
Reply to  Shop-Teacher

You would be surprised at how easy it is to get western food in Vietnam on the days your not feeling adventurous.

At the minimum you will find pizza or spaghetti very easy.

With that said, the local food is amazing and should try as much of it as possible.

Greg
Greg
29 days ago
Reply to  Thi

spicy? I just can’t do much spice, but can handle other flavors

Thi
Thi
29 days ago
Reply to  Greg

It can be, but only certain dishes.

They generally do not make the food spicy by default, but every household and restaurant has chili sauce and chili oil to add the spice to your own level.

Greg
Greg
29 days ago
Reply to  Thi

perfect, thanks for the inside info! I’ve never gotten to that side of the world and really would like to someday, sounds like “the time is now” though!

SNL-LOL Jr
SNL-LOL Jr
29 days ago
Reply to  Thi

Oh man if I ever go to Vietnam I’d be having pho 24/7/365.

MaximillianMeen
MaximillianMeen
29 days ago
Reply to  Shop-Teacher

Pho Tai Nam and Hu Tu Sate are two excellent Vietnamese noodle dishes for Western palates. Pho Tai Nam is a beef and broth soup full of rice noodles and strips of beef. Hu Tu Sate is a peanutty sauce over chicken and rice noodles. Granted, I’ve only had these in the US at Vietnamese restaurants, but at least one of these restaurants was owned/operated by Vietnamese immigrants.

Shop-Teacher
Shop-Teacher
28 days ago
Reply to  Lewin Day

I try to eat where locals eat, but I haven’t ventured that far out of my comfort zone when traveling.

To be perfectly honest, and this is something I’m not at all proud of, I’m almost 43 years old and I have never left US soil. I actually have the dubious distinction that I was once denied a passport, despite having no criminal record. That was in 2007, I need to apply again.

Thi
Thi
29 days ago

Vietnam is a wonderful place to visit, but be aware of the massive change happening in the country with the growth of their economy.

For readers, I’d suspect if you want to do the motorbike experience and have any semblance of the Top Gear special you would need to do it within the next 5 to 10 years.

The traffic on the roads have dramatically changed in my time visiting the country (8 visits between 2008 and 2024). When I first went to Vietnam in 2008, about 90% of the traffic was motorbikes, 9% Heavy Duty Trucks/Buses and 1% cars. Now it is more like 50% Motorbikes, 40% Cars, and 10% Heavy Duty/Bus, and the car number is growing quick.

Another thing to note is a lot of the infrastructure in the cities especially were not designed for the amount of cars they have now, and traffic jams in cities are horrible, though this is more of a problem in cities in the north (like Hanoi) vs central and south Vietnam. Da Nang and Hue in central Vietnam have modernized their roads well enough where the influx of cars has a lot less impact.

With that said, some areas of the country have made the motorbike tourism their entire deal, such as the Hai Giang region, where people frequently do 2-3-4 day tours on motorbike on the Hai Giang loop.

Gubbin
Gubbin
29 days ago
Reply to  Thi

That’s some very good advice. And I’m just thinking about how many inexperienced drivers in a newly-forming road culture that means.

Thi
Thi
29 days ago
Reply to  Gubbin

You are not wrong. People tend drive their cars like motorbikes. Lanes are more like suggestions and intersections are very chaotic where everyone kind of just enters the intersection at once and drives around each other.

In my last few trips I have noticed the intersections are improving though as traffic lights are becoming more common.

Cheap Bastard
Cheap Bastard
29 days ago

You DID remember to bring your boom box with the endless loop of “Born In The USA” on it right?

Last edited 29 days ago by Cheap Bastard
StillNotATony
StillNotATony
29 days ago
Reply to  Cheap Bastard

He’s Australian. The boom box needs to be playing “Land Down Under”.

Cheap Bastard
Cheap Bastard
29 days ago
Reply to  StillNotATony

Hmm. Maybe tune/tweak the exhaust note into a didgeridoo then…

StillNotATony
StillNotATony
29 days ago

Mercedes, please join Lewin on this adventure, but bring the Triumph!

Cheap Bastard
Cheap Bastard
29 days ago
Reply to  StillNotATony

Nah!

Mercedes needs to be on a US flag draped Valkyrie with a boom box blasting Wagner’s “Flight of the Valkyries” as loud as possible.

StillNotATony
StillNotATony
29 days ago
Reply to  Cheap Bastard

If she’s gonna do that, she’s gotta be on a Harley!

Cheap Bastard
Cheap Bastard
29 days ago
Reply to  StillNotATony

But then how’s anyone supposed to hear the boom box?

SNL-LOL Jr
SNL-LOL Jr
29 days ago
Reply to  Cheap Bastard

Since VN is getting tight with the US as a counterbalance against China, it may not be as offensive to them as we think.

But then VN is getting chummy with China again after a few years of frosty relationship.

Politics is weird.

Mercedes Streeter
Mercedes Streeter
29 days ago
Reply to  StillNotATony

I’m in!

10001010
10001010
29 days ago

One of my favorite TG specials but I would have gone with James’ pick of a Honda Super Cub (MCM called it a Postie bike?) Are those still common over there or have they all been used up?

Rad Barchetta
Rad Barchetta
29 days ago

Don’t thank me. Thank Tipper Gore.
https://i.ibb.co/qxXydj7/vlcsnap-00020-e1714396923717.jpg

Chronometric
Chronometric
29 days ago
Reply to  Rad Barchetta

The only good thing that Tipper Gore ever did was make Al’s life miserable for many years.

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