The trusty Vietnamese Buffalo
I am a strong believer in the beloved, trustworthy and ‘do it all’ Honda XR150. I am also the proud owner of one. I’ve taken her up and down Vietnam, through muddy puddles on dual sport tires, and even to Cambodia and back again. My bike has an odometer reading of 200,000+kms and is on her 3rd cylinder and piston in 5 years. And she ain’t stopping. Most of all, she’s my baby. My first ‘real motorbike’ in Vietnam after years of rusty, fake Honda Wins, my first off-road bike to keep up with the boys, my first traveller’s companion, and the teacher of my first, hard lessons on bike maintenance (thanks for the video calls, Dad).
At 8 years old, I learnt to ride auto on a Yamaha PeeWee 80, then progressed to a manual Fantic 125cc at the age of 11. The Fantic was my first official trials bike. Trials bikes are incredibly light, with no seats to push your weight into, but carry a decent amount of torque to hop rocks and logs. I wish I kept more of my knowledge and skill from trials, but found heavier enduro bikes a different ball game (I blame my twig arms). Speed was also a new skill to acquire, and with age, the risk of injury actually scares you.
Back in my hooligan days, the XR150 did everything I wanted. Monday to Friday she boisterously commutes to work. Then on the weekends, I was hitting trails with friends on their big 350cc enduro bikes and still keeping up. But this was in Dong Nai, just outside of Saigon. A place flatter than the Netherlands. Trails I knew well, almost like the back of my hand. You can ride the same trail every weekend on the same bike for months, and do it so well. Does this mean progress? Probably not.
The Yellow Wake Up Call
My first go on a proper enduro bike was Tigit’s beloved and temperamental Suzuki DRZ400 back in 2020. At that time, it was easily the tallest bike I’ve ever ridden, with the highest horsepower I had ever harnessed. What a different beast that was. Accidental wheelies were very much a fun problem to have. Suddenly, it became less about ‘pushing through’ and more about keeping my feet on the pegs, as I couldn’t touch the ground. The DRZ needed no leg-paddling power whatsoever. Purely clutch and throttle.
I had to unlearn the golden rule of the XR which was speed and push power. Most obstacles on the XR can be overcome with twisting the throttle and wheel spinning your way to safety in first gear. The bike is short and easy enough to lift out of muddy puddles or ditches, with much laughter and dirty teamwork.
But who cares? We all made it through in the end.
Incorrect. Using this messy method of messy riding creates further messy riding. Having to forcefully muscle your way through obstacles builds zero skill, just bad habits that fossilise themselves. I did appreciate the strength training, but it took time to learn how a bike can work for you. And not the other way around. Furthermore, the XR has a lower ground clearance, and cannot clear logs and rocks without worry of cracking the engine casing, not to mention the front end dips easily, and can throw you off like a horse.
Recently, Jon and his family took their yearly trip to the UK. And you know what they say, when the boss is away….
Jon was trusting enough to leave his KTM up for grabs, and even more trusting to allow me to take it to Da Lat over the weekend. I can’t imagine his nerves over the 3 days. That’s not saying the KTM XCF 350 is easy to break, it’s built for the hardest trails you can throw at it. There’s a reason KTM’s slogan is ‘ready to race’ and they do mean straight from the showroom floor.
But, a bad rider can cook the engine and burn the clutch. Enduro bikes punish bad riding. XRs are more forgiving. Not to mention the cost of repairs in comparison. An XR budget is vastly different to a KTM budget. More on that later.
When I finally got the opportunity to properly push an enduro bike and test its limits, I felt like everything I’d ever learnt was wrong. And perhaps rightfully so.
Jon rides with a group I’m certain are some of Saigon’s most skilled and insane riders. Insane has no negative connotations in dirt-riding, it simply means ‘god, I wish I could do that’ and ‘how the hell do you do that?!’. I was thus infantilized back to my beginner days, sitting at the bottom of the hill, trying to watch and learn.
So what did I watch and what did I learn?
Most beginner riders find the KTM daunting, due to the height and torque. Enduro bikes cannot go unnoticed, those bikes mean business. Yes, they’re far more touchy, and quick to respond, and take a more finite, delicate touch to harness the power. You suddenly have all this power right at your fingertips, but you need to tame it. Technique becomes more precise, and it forces you to improve your clutch control.
If you don’t manage to tame the power, you’ll never reach enlightenment and gain the confidence the bike is offering. One perfect example is speed.
Motorbike skills are reflex worthy, you need to experience the unexpected in training, to be able to deal with it in reality. Riding fast might be intimidating, and you feel a crash at every corner. But fast riding boosts reflexes, and allows you to ride fast on unknown trails. I’m always in awe of riders who lead on trails they haven’t done before, at speeds most would be sick from. This is all experience, knowing you can swerve or wheelie out to safety is such a blanket of armour, you wouldn’t believe. Proper enduro bikes also have proper ‘oh sh*t’ brakes. The faster you go, the faster you need to stop. I am nervous about flying the XR too fast, as those drum brakes aren’t designed to save your skin.
The XR has more room for error in throttle control, the KTM’s power can be millimetres of difference in the throttle.
The KTM has more room for error when slamming on the brakes, the XR simply does not.
The KTM builds confidence, and confidence builds skills
The old XR fear caught me too hard on the first day. I was on a hill climb and came up to a log across the trail. I hit the brakes and stopped in front of it. My XR would have bucked me off as the front tire rammed into the log.
Much to my annoyance, it took a full day of thinking I was riding my old XR until I switched mentalities. The second day, it started to sink in. And it opened up a whole world of confidence. If the bike can do A, B and C, then what about D? Or even…. E? Am I good enough to try F? With the XR I felt I was limited to what the bike could do. With the KTM the bike is limited to what I can do. Suddenly, I was wondering how far I could push myself, not the bike.
I’ve mentioned how intimidating most new riders find the height of enduro bikes. I often hear ‘but I can barely touch the ground’. That’s the whole point, so don’t miss it. I’m all for safety, but safety nets can be a mental block in riding. It’s almost like taking the training wheels off a bicycle when riding a tall enduro bike. I’m pushed to improve my balance, stand up and weight the pegs for better control. Standing up on a tall enduro bike means you’re riding the bike. Sitting into the seat feels like the bike is riding you. I managed to conquer obstacles simply by changing my riding position from seated to standing.
Which does bring me to my next point, enduro bikes require constant energy and can strip a newbie of their stamina. You’re constantly taming a beast that doesn’t relent. The XR provides a more comfortable ‘cruising speed’ between trails, that doesn’t tug your arms off. Nonetheless, there is one important factor which makes the XR exhausting in comparison.
Whilst I do enjoy showcasing my Hulk like strength, picking up the XR has 20 more kilograms to add to the scale of physical exhaustion. Roughly, the KTM is 110kg with its aluminium frame. The XR weighs in at around 130kg. For just one or two lifts, the difference won’t kill you. Over a 3 day ride, you’ll be feeling the effects of the weight difference for days. One of the biggest hurdles I’ve faced when attempting an obstacle, is failing, then wrecking myself trying to pick the bike up over and over again. You give up trying, and not for the obstacle, but to avoid picking up the bike.
I’ll never forget my first attempt at an off-road race in 2020 on the heavy DRZ400 of 148kg. I managed to pick it up 3 times at the bottom of the same hill. After the 3rd time, all I could do was lean against the bike to keep it upright. The bike was probably holding me up as much as I was holding it.
The lightweight KTM urged me to try and fail over and over again, and not have to worry about my own battery running out. (although I will sheepishly admit how much help I had in my struggles, thanks guys!). The KTM also allowed me to fail over and over again without worry of damage. The footpegs and mirrors fold in, barkbusters to protect the levers, and handlebars that don’t twist after the first drop.
I have not been quite so lucky on my XR and I’ve lost count how many times I’ve readjusted twisted handlebars and snapped levers clean off.
You can whack knobbies on the XR, upgrade the suspension, front forks, even bore out the cylinder as I have. You can cover it with lipstick, but it still performs like the pig it is (not that there’s anything wrong with that). You cannot completely flip a bike’s performance with some aftermarket parts. Furthermore, the more mods; the more maintenance. You’ve turned the bike into a blackhole of bills, and all for a small improvement in performance.
So, should everyone buy an Enduro bike?
Just like puppies at Christmas, enduro bikes aren’t an impulse buy, but a commitment. The high performance enduro bikes measure their maintenance schedules by hours, not kilometres. The price of parts can multiply, then you throw in shipping fees and long waiting periods for parts only available overseas. Fancy spending 2 million vnd on 2 neck bearings? Then buy a KTM in Vietnam. I don’t have to budget much for the XR, and it’s not a complicated machine to fix. It’s a shame to be restricted to your budget, but it’s the reality of riding.
And the truth is, it takes quite a lot to outgrow an XR and most people never do, or care to.
The XR is perfect for escaping Saigon on a Sunday
If you’re happy and comfortable on the Dong Nai trails, maybe with a few challenging Cat Tien hill climbs, then the XR is for you. It’s served me well over the years and will always be my go-to option for taking beginners out. It’s the ideal bike for finding your feet in the dirt and deciding how far you want to push it. But don’t be fooled, mastering the XR does not equal a great rider. There are people out there doing trails in Vietnam you haven’t even imagined. Luckily, the dirt bike community is more than welcoming and happy to humble you from XR to enduro.