By Lorenzo and Pilón

We’d always had in our minds traveling to Vietnam. Its culture, people, landscapes and the ease of finding a bike to ride around the country, made this trip really appealing. But what really triggered us were  pictures our friends Lucía and Pixi (responsible for “Perder el Rumbo” and both bike lovers) had sent us the year before, when they traveled around south-east Asia. Their pictures showed several motorbikes that had been absolutely transformed to make them suitable for forest and agricultural work in the jungle – the Jungle Men. That made our interest in the trip to grow, and for a year we planned our vacation to find those machines, their riders, and the mechanics who devised them.

Mountain bikes! The heavy lifters in the mountains of Vietnam for the Jungle Men, who modify their 150cc Hondas for extreme duties. [©LaIslaDelTesoro and Buena_H_Onda]
At the beginning we only considered ourselves curious observers, but the idea of documenting the trip in some way came up. We didn’t like the thought of taking cameras and film and shooting just like everyone else.  We didn’t feel like editing our work, and besides, today a lot of people document their trips very well. Then we came up with the idea of building a ‘street box’ camera we could transport on a motorbike, so we could come close to the people, take the picture, give them a positive print and keep the original negative with us.

A woman from the Katu people, in the northern mountains of Vietnam, one of many ethnic minorities still living in their original territory. [©LaIslaDelTesoro and Buena_H_Onda]
We called our good friend Karlos H. Nogales, a photographer who works with a street box camera in Santiago de Compostela, our city, and we asked him what he thought about the idea, and if it would be possible to bring this kind of camera on the bike with us.

Traveling north…by train! To avoid the madness of Saigon, our travelers skipped town on a rail. [©LaIslaDelTesoro and Buena_H_Onda]
In this technological era of drones, tiny digital cameras and tons of trips around the world, we wanted to travel with a camera using 19th century technology.  The type of camera that made photography popular, and took the photographer out of the studio to make affordable portraits on the streets. [Street cameras like this are still in use in some countries, like Afghanistan – ed.]. Karlos thought it was a good idea and offered to build the camera for us, making it robust so we could travel with it as hand luggage, without the hassle of checking it in.

The process: the camera box is also a darkroom, where the negatives are developed, and positive images contact-printed on the spot. Early 20th Century Polaroids! [©LaIslaDelTesoro and Buena_H_Onda]
We flew from Madrid to Ho Chi Min City (Saigon), and after getting a feel for the city for three days we rented a couple of bikes: a Suzuki 110cc and a Honda 150cc, which we equipped with racks to transport the camera and the necessary chemicals. We knew the location where our friends had seen the working bikes we were interested in, but in order to avoid Saigon traffic around the industrial areas (and because we thought it was romantic), we left the city on an old train with freight cars, with our bikes and bags on it, and headed to Phan Thiêt.

The Mechanic: one of the builders who modifies ordinary utility motorcycles into extraordinary workhorses. Note the triple rear shocks, long swingarm, heavily reinforced frame, utility fuel tank, and doubled-up forks! An extraordinary custom machine, for a purpose. [©LaIslaDelTesoro and Buena_H_Onda]
Once there, we loaded everything onto the bikes and headed north on a small country road.  We were soon in the mountains, with wooden houses and a lot of coffee plantations, and that’s where we first encountered the Jungle Men and their modified motorbikes. We immediatley stopped to unload the camera: it was only the second time we’d used it, and it took time to mount the camera on our tripod, and prepare the chemistry and all the associated paraphernalia for developing and printing the images.

Everything they needed on two lightweight motorcycles, including all their camping gear and photography equipment. [©LaIslaDelTesoro and Buena_H_Onda]
And then, it was nap time.  A healthy habit the Vietnamese share with our country (Spain), but little by little the villagers emerged from their homes as they saw us taking photos of their machines. Without effort or fanfare, there we were, with those gentle people, who looked surprised but quiet. We showed them our love for their bikes, and their pride in the machines made our job easier.  We shot 5″x7″ negatives, and once we finished shooting and developing these, we printed positives as gifts for our subjects.  I love to think that in a few houses in a remote Vietnamese village, those pictures hang on the wall…

The process: photographing a village elder, with plenty of interested bystanders… [©LaIslaDelTesoro and Buena_H_Onda]
The motorbikes used by the Jungle Men are 110cc semi-automatic Hondas and some old Chinese copies of the same. Even if they have a ramshackle look, their owners spend a great amount of money in improving their motor efficiency. They relinquish everything not needed in order to remove weight, install longer swingarms to scale steep slopes.  Then they’re equipped with 4, 6 or even 8 rear shock absorbers, and a double front fork to be able to load the bikes with coffee, sacks of corn, or hunks of wood they pull out the jungle.

…and the elderly woman herself. Hopefully she treasures the print left as a gift! [©LaIslaDelTesoro and Buena_H_Onda]
The Jungle Men also modify their frames to reinforce them, and carry a set of chains for the rear wheel to keep traction in the muddy areas that come with the rainy season, and they also modify the gear boxes for strength. These are true mechanical devices, taking loads like a bulldozer into unbelievable places. Watching them riding in crews is quite a sight. Actually they most resemble 1930s American hillclimb racers.

A young Jungle Man with his machine, outside his rough-and-ready clapboard home. [©LaIslaDelTesoro and Buena_H_Onda]
These workhorse machines are illegal in Vietnam, and both riders and mechanics have to be on the alert for traffic police, who can confiscate their machines and give them big fines, especially for those who take precious wood from the jungle. We really wanted to stay longer with the Jungle Men. They are modest people, proud of their work and machines, hospitable and even in some occasions offered to accommodate us, so we slept in their humble houses.

A handy place to dry prints… [©LaIslaDelTesoro and Buena_H_Onda]
During our trip we didn’t focus only on the Jungle Men, who are in very specific areas in Vietnam. We wanted to go across the whole country, and visited National Parks, temples, ruins and villages where ethnic minorities live, as the Co tu people, Red Dao, and Hmong.  Our total journey was about 4500km (2700mi), going from south to north on the legendary Ho Chi Minh Road, and into the northern mountains on Chinese border, one of the most mountainous and steep areas in the country. This is the area where most of these ethnic minorities live.

A home-made map of the Jungle Man route through the length of Vietnam. [©LaIslaDelTesoro and Buena_H_Onda]
The trip was a touchdown. We loved the country, the people, the landscapes and the food, but when we had only a week left before returning to our routine (we spent 45 days there), we knew it was an unfinished job. We made contacts, we knew the Jungle Men and their villages, and have a pulse on the country, so we are organizing another trip, as soon as we can, to finish our project.

The Dragon’s Tail, a globally famous stretch of motorcycle road, for obvious reasons. Just as fun on an overloaded Honda 150 as on an expensive ADV bike! [©LaIslaDelTesoro and Buena_H_Onda]
Next time we will again take our street box camera, to finish the job, and will go deeper into the the jungle, bringing enough material to make a photobook.  We will show the daily life of the Jungle Men, their families and the mechanics who build their wonderful machines. With that purpose we will launch a crowdfunding campaign with suggested rewards, and will be open to financing suggestions from those who want to be a part of the project. Do not hesitate in contacting us via The Vintagent with any questions.

Shooting fields at the foot of the mountains. [©LaIslaDelTesoro and Buena_H_Onda]
The fertile plains at the foot of the jungle mountains in Vietnam. [©LaIslaDelTesoro and Buena_H_Onda]
Lorenzo and Pilón made a 4500km trip in 45 days, taking hand-made photographs en route. [©LaIslaDelTesoro and Buena_H_Onda]
A Jungle Man with a modified Honda. [©LaIslaDelTesoro and Buena_H_Onda]
A Jungle Bike. [©LaIslaDelTesoro and Buena_H_Onda]
Jungle Bikes make useful drying racks for prints! [©LaIslaDelTesoro and Buena_H_Onda]
Portrait of Lorenzo with his rented Honda. [©LaIslaDelTesoro and Buena_H_Onda]
Portrait of Pilón and her rented Suzuki. [©LaIslaDelTesoro and Buena_H_Onda]