Laos Underbone Test Rides: Zongshen and Honda
The Wave underbone light motorcycle model is extremely popular worldwide, particularly in Southeast Asian and African markets. This motorcycle design provides affordable, convenient, low maintenance transport with its lightness making it easy and comfortable to drive.
Honda originally came out with the Wave design in 1995 to succeed the extremely successful Cub design that sold over 60 million units between 1958 and 2008. The Cub was also an underbone motorcycle design that borrowed concepts from the European mopeds of the early 1950s.
The Wave design has been taken on by several large Chinese motorcycle manufacturers, including Zongshen and Lifan, who now compete in the same markets as Honda with varying degrees of success.
The Laos market
Over Chinese New Year, I travelled through Laos with my girlfriend, Mollie, and we were fortunate enough to be able to test out a Honda Wave 100 and a Zongshen Wave 100 as we explored the countryside.
Laos has a developing motorcycle market, with a heavy preference for light motorcycles. While we were in Vientiane, the capital, I saw a few large motorcycles; a couple of Kawasaki EZ6Ns and Africa Twins, but these were almost always driven by one of the many foreign expats. Particularly in Vientiane, the overwhelming preference was for the Honda Wave.
During our trip preparation, we came across several articles about a motorcycle route known as “The Loop”. This series of roads that loops from the Mekong river at a town called ThaKaek, west to the border of Vietnam, north and west through spectacular karst scenery (think of limestone pillars, like in Yangshuo in China or Halong Bay in Vietnam) to a huge limestone cave called Kong Lor, carved out by the Nam Hin Bun river, and back west then south to ThaKaek.
We chose to rent the Zongshen Wave 100 for this part of the trip. The Loop took us 3 days to complete, and wasn’t as rough as we expected, mostly due to roads that had been paved fairly recently. Mollie was relieved, but I felt a little disappointed. A ride needs a more than 20 kms of rough roads. The scenery was impressive, comparable to much of the karst scenery in Yangshuo and Guilin in China.
The Zongshen really held up, particularly on the rougher roads. To start the engine I need to pull in the brake, even in neutral, which was annoying and inconvenient. The handling was good and so were the front brakes, although the Mrs. Wang at the rental shop gave us a 60,000 kip/day model that needed its rear drum brakes replaced, so we can’t make a comment on them. The suspension was satisfactory, the gear changing surprisingly smooth and the engine vibration minimal, so it was fairly comfortable over long distances, and there was enough storage space in the basket and on the step-through rack for bags for the both of us. Mollie found the handrail on the Zongshen left her hands smelling a little metallic and the suspension was also a little bumpy for her on the back, but the seat space was better and more comfortable, seat high was good, and had more comfortable footpegs positioning than the Honda
Wat Pho and the Bolaven Plateau
In a town called Pakse, down south close to the border with Cambodia, we hired a Honda Wave 100 to explore an ancient Khmer Hindu temple called WatPhou and an area named the Bolaven plateau. As we were looking at the bikes I asked about a Lifan wave motorcycle that looked like it was available, but he directed me away from it. The rental store charged us 70,000 kip for each day’s rental, and gave us a model with a rusty, loose chain, which was only a minor problem.
The site of Wat Pho dates back to the 5th century, but has been repeatedly built upon. The UNESCO World Heritage Site lies about 50 kms southwest of Pakse, so we got going nice and early before the midday heat became troublesome. The Honda’s suspension was noticeably smoother, making for a comfortable morning driving down to the Mekong river to cross at the “car-ferry”. After half an hour trying to find the dock, we loaded the motorcycle onto a series of planks tied to two skiffs to get us and the motorcycle across the Mekong.
On the other side we met some rough roads, dirt and dust for about 10 kms, which was fun for me, a little less so for Mollie, but I got to test out the suspension again. We explored the temple for a couple of hours and hid under the trees from the midday sun before driving back to Pakse a different way along pleasant, nicely paved roads. It was the nicest part of our trip, and we didn’t have many complaints about our motorcycle.
The Bolaven Plateau is an elevated region that lies east of Pakse and stretches to the border with Vietnam. Several rivers cross the pleateau and form beautiful waterfalls where the elevation drops suddenly. We drove up to Tad Fan, the tallest waterfall in Laos, where the water drops 120 metres. The 100cc engine worked well to take us all the way up, but on day 2 with the Honda, I found that we were using up petrol much faster than we did with the Zongshen.
The Honda had a little wear and tear, being a couple of years old. The engine was noticeably more powerful than the Zongshen, more stable with handling and more comfortable when going over bumps, making it easier to drive long distances. It had a larger fuel tank, although we did end up spending much more on petrol for the Honda than we did for the Zongshen. The step-through rack wasn’t so good for tying bungee cords for our bags, but we managed. The wing mirrors were much better than Zongshen, which gave us a wider, safer angle of view, and the starter motor did need me to pull in the front brake lever to get starter,which was much more convenient as we set off. It was a comfortable ride, driving along at 70km h with two people and bags, and would be able to get up to 100kmh. Mollie found the Honda much smoother over the bumps, and the handrail comfortable, although the seat was a bit too small, a little uncomfortable and made of slippery material. The footpegs were also less comfortable and required more awkward foot positioning to sit properly on the back.A much more comfortable ride on the Honda wave, despite it being a couple of years old.
Overall, the Honda’s suspension made it more comfortable to ride than that of the Zongshen. It was also more powerful, but less economical on fuel. The Zongshen, though falling behind the Honda on a number of performance factors, held up very well, and for its price, gives the Honda a run for its money. However, from the look of all the Hondas on Laos roads, they have a job to do to break the brand strength of Honda and become dominant in Laos.