Top Gear: Vietnam Special

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Top Gear: Vietnam Special
Country of origin United Kingdom
No. of episodes 1
Running time TV cut
75 minutes
Additional Separate DVD Deleted Scenes
10 minutes
Original channel BBC Two
Picture format 720x576, anamorphic 16:9, Standard Definition
Original release 28 December 2008
Related shows Top Gear
External links

Top Gear: Vietnam Special is a special 75-minute episode of the motoring series Top Gear, which was broadcast on 28 December 2008 at 8:00 pm on BBC Two.[1] An edited 46 minute edition of the show was broadcast on the UK TV channel Dave in the 8.00pm - 9.00pm slot on Monday 19 January 2009. The edition was tightly edited to ensure the 75-minute special could fit into the one hour slot with commercial breaks on Dave. However recent repeats of the special on Dave are now in a 90-minute format showing the whole version due to complaints from viewers who thought the 46 minute edited version was unsatisfactory. An additional 10 minutes of deleted scenes from the special were included as extras on the Region 2 DVD release in March 2009 as part of the Top Gear: The Great Adventures 2 set.

The challenge, to travel 1,000 miles (1,600 km) from Hồ Chí Minh City (Saigon), in the south of Vietnam to Hạ Long city, near Hanoi (Hà Nội) in the north in eight days, was undertaken by regular presenters Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May.[2] The destination for this challenge was a floating dock in Ha Long Bay.[3] The primary vehicles of this special were motorbikes.[2]

Unlike normal episodes of Top Gear, in which the challenges were related to the abilities of the vehicles reviewed, such as the Toyota Hilux in the Top Gear Polar Special, producer Andy Wilman admitted that "the narrative of the film is a bit more skewed towards the three guys."[1]


The journey began at the heart of Saigon, where the three presenters were each given shoe boxes full of 15 million Vietnamese đồng to buy vehicles. Though at first the presenters were ecstatic about the seemingly vast amount of money they were given by the producers this time, they soon discovered that it was not nearly enough to buy a car. James May discovered that a standard Fiat 500 cost 560,000,000₫ (£17,239.60), and their 15,000,000₫ was "around US$1,000"($702.91 as of 2015) according to the Fiat salesman. As a last resort, all three, much to Clarkson's initial horror, decided to buy motorbikes. Hammond bought a Belarusian-built 125 cc two-stroke Minsk, May a four-stroke Honda Super Cub and the unenthusiastic Clarkson purchased a two-stroke green 1967 Piaggio Vespa.[2] (According to the DVD commentary, Clarkson's Vespa was equipped with several rear-view mirrors in order to conceal a handlebar-mounted camera.)

Though Clarkson had previously ridden two-wheeled transport without assistance during visits to Cuba and Vietnam for his series Jeremy Clarkson's Motorworld, broadcast on 12 January 1995, he required the help of locals and a New Zealand tourist to start the scooter. Meanwhile, Hammond was the only one whose head was small enough to fit inside a locally-bought helmet, which led to May resorting to use a hand-made one (a combination of a wok and colander) for head protection, while Clarkson used a metal bucket at first, replacing it with a proper helmet after several hours of "learning" to ride the Vespa.

The first leg of the journey was from Saigon to the mountain town of Đà Lạt. Clarkson lagged behind for most of the journey, as he was initially unable to start the Vespa for an hour, and the scooter then had to be repaired twice. Hammond and May rode together for most of their journey until they reached the mountains, where May's Cub lacked power; he was eventually forced to wheel the bike up to the bar. Once all three presenters arrived, they spent the night drinking Vietnamese beer, eating local cuisine made from snake meat, and taking shots of vodka mixed with snake's blood and bile, all of which Hammond refused. The next morning, Hammond was shown his flattened motorcycle helmet, which had been crushed by May and Clarkson as a result of the previous evening's drinking and replaced with a new pink one. May joked about this by saying, "Don't take this the wrong way. Different colours assume different significance in different cultures. To us, that is a feminine colour but to them it's the colour of warriors." Shortly after, they set off for the city of Nha Trang. Along the way, the trio encountered torrential rain and other calamities, such as May running out of fuel and Hammond's clutch cable snapping, whilst Clarkson complained constantly about his ordeal.

Because of the constant breakdowns for the pair of two-stroke machines, the presenters had decided to pay for both repairs and new parts to fix their bikes, which the producers did not like and forced them to put a stop to this. To punish the presenters if they broke down, they would have to complete the voyage in an unappealing vehicle (a function served by the Volkswagen Beetle in the Botswana Special in series 10): a 1973 Honda Chaly mini-bike, painted and flanked in a Stars and Stripes livery (similar to the bike seen in the film Easy Rider) and fitted with an iPod audio system continuously playing Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A." (Both the iTunes and Netflix versions of the episode have "The Star-Spangled Banner" playing, however references to Springsteen and the song remain in these versions.); the presenters contended that riding the bike would be inappropriate as memories of the Vietnam War were still rife among the local populace, which Clarkson commented by saying that - "this bike is as inappropriate as it is humanly possible to conceive." The presenters chose to flee the scene when a crowd came the moment the music played (along with thunder), as their bikes "suddenly worked perfectly." As a result of this new information from the producers, the presenters were now forced to do whatever repairs they could to their bikes with only tools, and not replace any more parts.

In Nha Trang, Clarkson presented Hammond with a scale model of a Spanish galleon, which Hammond now had to transport on the back of his Minsk. The next leg of the trip passed through Tuy Hòa, Qui Nhơn, Quảng Ngãi, and Tam Kỳ, and ended in Hội An (described by Clarkson as "Vietnam's Savile Row"). During this stay they purchased bespoke new clothes (which they had to wait until the next day to be completed), before journeying to the beach, where Clarkson enjoyed a short break from his various problems in a hotel, while Hammond and May spent the rest of the day riding their bikes on the beach. Whilst on the beach, Hammond met a local deaf-mute veteran who explained via sand drawings how he had fought on the beach during the Vietnam conflict. That night, Hammond spent his time repairing his bike after it had been partially submerged in sea water while Clarkson teased him by reciting the lyrics of "Born in the U.S.A."

In the morning, they continued their journey to Huế through the Hải Vân Mountain Pass, which Clarkson praised as "...a deserted ribbon of perfection — one of the best coast roads in the world"; he did complain though, that "somebody has written PENIS on my helmet" to which Hammond replied "I did that." Beforehand, Hammond and Clarkson stopped at a marble sculptor to procure a gift for May: a small but heavy statue of a ballet dancer, later christened "Darcey". Mid-way through the pass, Hammond and May presented Clarkson with a bulky painting. During the two days of travel, Hammond damaged his model galleon twice: firstly by clipping one side of the ship against some roadside wheelie-bins (causing his mast to collapse) and later by clipping and knocking over a sign placed at a toll-booth. In Huế, Clarkson and May convinced several staff at a local restaurant to vandalise Hammond's Minsk by spray-painting it bright pink, while Hammond repaired his damaged model ship in the hotel's business centre, although damaging it again almost immediately; standing up with the model, the mast got caught in a ceiling fan, breaking it once again.

The next day, they entered North Vietnam through Đông Hà, where they spent the morning completing the challenge of securing driver's licences. They began this by sitting through a theory lesson in a classroom, in which all three presenters were asked to stand up and answer a question; however they had no idea what the question was or how to answer, since it was all in Vietnamese. May was first and made hand gestures when spoken to, while Hammond was next, and made an arbitrary comment about turning vehicles giving way (in English); both found they had been wrong. When Clarkson was last to answer, he gave a statement in Vietnamese that was deemed correct; he explained after answering, to the other presenters, that the teacher asked him "what is the minimum required age to obtain a motorcycle license", which he correctly answered with "18", and that "If they hadn't learned Vietnamese when they knew they were coming to Vietnam, that was their problem". They then proceeded to a practical riding test, attempting to navigate a course marked out by paint on the ground. While Hammond and May passed, Clarkson repeatedly failed, unable to stay within the painted guidelines (even when using May's bike). They concluded the challenge by reasoning that, as Clarkson had passed the theory and the other two had passed the practical, Top Gear had collectively passed the test. At the end of the challenge Clarkson damaged May's 'gift' by forgetting to lower the stand on May's bike and dropping it (a running gag throughout the show, although you can see that "Darcey" is not on the bike when Clarkson is sitting on it, or while he's getting off, the camera cuts to the 'gift' smashing on the floor).

After visiting the bullet-torn Citadel of Huế (one of the major battlefields during the Tet Offensive of 1968), Clarkson reasoned that the trio could not make it to their final destination in the allotted time. They therefore decided to cheat by boarding an overnight train to Hạ Long, a 13-hour journey which bypassed Vinh, Thanh Hóa and Nam Định. To kill time in the train, each presenter tried to fix the damage accumulated on each other's gift, buying materials to help them do so on the train: Hammond tried to refurbish Clarkson's ripped painting by adding a Land Rover; Clarkson tried to super-glue May's shattered sculpture back together; and May transformed Hammond's galleon into a Chinese junk. Upon disembarking, the trio discovered that they had boarded the wrong train and had arrived in Hanoi (Hà Nội), 79.49 mi (127.93 km) to the west of their intended destination. The trio were thus forced to complete another day of riding, during which they got lost in a rural village. During the final push to Hạ Long, Clarkson fell off his Vespa, breaking 2 ribs and badly scraping his right arm and elbow. He finally concluded about two-wheel motoring by stating, "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."

By dusk, the exhausted trio had arrived at the wharf in Hạ Long, only to be given one final challenge: to navigate the maze of 1,969 limestone islets in Hạ Long Bay and get to Ba Hàng Bar, located in a cove somewhere in the waters, by converting their motorcycles into water-craft overnight. Upon setting off the next morning, May's craft sank after becoming tangled in netting and was towed back to shore for repairs. Meanwhile, Hammond and Clarkson got lost and found themselves stuck in the mouth of a cave. Eventually, Clarkson reached their destination first, Hammond second (after his steering had failed), and May later joined them by swimming from where his "bike-ski" had disintegrated and started to sink for the second time. In the film's conclusion, Clarkson summed up their adventure and ended with, "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!"

Ending credits[edit]

Continuing Top Gear Specials' tradition, the ending credits featured the first names of the crew all being replaced by "Francis Ford", in reference to film-maker Francis Ford Coppola and his Vietnam War epic Apocalypse Now.

DVD release[edit]

The DVD, released in March 2009, featured commentary from producer Andy Wilman and other members of the crew. Additional footage which was deleted from the original episode include: visits by Clarkson to other car dealerships and Hammond to a John Deere tractor dealership; a test of the bikes by The Stig's Communist cousin (a local stunt biker in red helmet and red racing suit); a race between James May with the Super Cub and a two-cow ploughing team; and a discussion of Vietnam's traffic fines between Clarkson and May.


  1. ^ a b "Our 'Nam Special". Retrieved 26 December 2008. 
  2. ^ a b c "'Nam we were there man". BBC. Retrieved 26 December 2008. 
  3. ^ "Radio Times official listing". Retrieved 26 December 2008. 

External links[edit]