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Left Foot Brake, Right Foot Gas: Hanoi's Go-Kart Track Is Fast and Glorious

Moments before the engine started, I became aware of the fact that just a few centimeters of metal and plastic separated my butt and the asphalt.

The distance between butt and track is pretty short.

I was sitting in a go-kart, waiting for the race to begin. Since last year, a few members of the Saigoneer team had been talking about trying go-kart racing for an article. One pandemic season later, we finally had the chance to visit a couple of kart tracks in Hanoi for some stories and adventures.

Left foot brake, right foot gas

Weee!

With me was our photographer, whose passion for speed and motorsports I had personally witnessed one night when he drove me home from a bar. Our first destination was Go Kart Vietnam, whose staff told us to arrive 15 minutes early for some lessons before driving. In reality, it took less than 10 seconds: “Left foot brake, right foot gas, don’t use them at the same time.” I went over this lesson in my head; unlike my colleague, this was my first time driving a go-kart.

The track's visual instructions.

I asked a staff member why there was no seatbelt. He told me the karts used to have them, but most guests didn’t care to put them on and just let the belts drag on the track, so the team took them out. Besides, it was perfectly safe, I had nothing to worry about; or so he assured me.

Go-kart racing is a family hobby for every age group.

On the track, we were with four other guests. Once we were all strapped in, so to speak, the race started. I gently pressed down with my right foot; the pedal was very responsive and the kart moved forward immediately. I had the pole position so I was in first place for a few seconds until our colleague zoomed by and left us all in the dust.

With a low center of gravity, the karts are relatively safe for racers.

The engines on our karts were 390cc, three times the size of my 125cc motorbike. Still, I took the first few laps just like how I normally drive on the road: slow and steady. Then, as I got used to the kart, the safety-first "grandpa" within me disappeared and the speed demon, whom I didn’t know was there, came out. I floored it. The engine roared and the kart sped forward. Like a Hollywood cliché, I let out an exhilarated yell.

Mario Kart, but with actual physics

A big turn was approaching rapidly. I stepped on the brake and gripped the steering wheel. The kart started drifting with that satisfying sound of rubber dragging on asphalt. in my mind I must have looked so cool; little did I know that I was committing a grave mistake. Our photographer made the same turn and passed me again; I lost count of how many times he had done that already. My helmet didn’t have a visor, and most of the dirt caught in my eyes must have come from his kart.

Watch out for sharp turns.

Only when the race was over did I learn why I was eating so much dust. For one, I hit the brakes for all of the eight or so turns on the track, while our photographer only braked for one. I imagined his right foot rarely left its pedal during the whole race. Then I learned that the points where you hit those pedals were important, too.

At the finish line.

Tuấn, Go Kart Vietnam’s manager, explained to me that for every turn on the track there were three important points: the brake point, where you tap the brake; the turning point, where you turn the steering wheel; and the throttle point, where you hit the gas. The better you execute these points, the faster you’ll go.

Being a spectator from the side is no less exciting.

Tuấn continued: “You have to hit the brake at the right time to not lose the engine torque. And if you hit the throttle point a little too late, then another will overtake you if they did it well.” I didn’t understand the mechanics of it, but I knew what it felt like. After each drift, there was always that frustrating moment when I stepped on the gas but the kart didn’t respond. It took a long time to recover the speed, and that was why our photographer could lap everybody so well.

From secrecy to an open secret

The track is next to a river.

Knowing about these points and actually doing them well takes a lot of time. Tuấn would know, as he has been with this sport since the beginning: “Go-kart racing came to Vietnam around 2016. Anh Thịnh [Go Kart Vietnam’s founder] and I were among the first people to bring this sport here. Back then it wasn’t popular like this; people played this sport in secret clubs.”

A good time for everyone.

Tuấn and Thịnh were not their real names either, it was just what other people in their group called them. Tuấn said secrecy has been a part of the culture since the beginning because what they were doing wasn’t exactly legal. They used to meet at the foot of Nhật Tân Bridge to play with the karts that they had bought themselves. “We had about four or five karts back then, and each club had about 10 to 15 members. We just met up and took turns racing with each other,” he recalls.

Maintenance is also key to a safe operation.

To keep the karts running, Tuấn’s group also had to learn the necessary maintenance skills: “We had to do everything ourselves. Thịnh was the first one to build a go-kart track in Hanoi. He also designed and set up this track.” After a couple of years spent operating in the shadows, Tuấn and Thịnh opened a go-kart track for the public. Their business hadn’t had trouble with authorities, but others were not as lucky.

Waving the checkered flag at the finish line.

Last year, when the idea of writing about go-karting first came up, I spoke to Lê Anh Cương, co-founder of Go Kart Hanoi — one of the city’s first kart tracks. When they first started, Cương’s business was doing fine; thriving in fact. But then they got too popular for their own good.

“One time,” Cương said, “a newspaper reported about us and revealed our address. The local authorities saw the news and came to ask for our permit. But the thing is, this sport is not regulated yet, so there is no permit for us to apply.” Luckily, Cương was able to settle with the officials, and they had to take some precautions afterward. They removed the address from the fanpage, meaning whoever wanted to try the sport had to send them a private message, and they asked all news sources not to share their location again.

The adorable electric karts indoors.

Now, as the heat wore off, Cương’s business was able to expand again. They collaborated with shopping malls and opened Vietnam’s first indoor kart track, VS Racing. We visited it the day after Go Kart Vietnam. The electric karts here had less power, but still made for a fun experience. VS Racing seemed to pay more attention to safety as well. The karts still had their seatbelts, and before driving, all guests had to take a test to prove that they knew all the essential precautions.

While the interior track offers a lot of fun, it can't compare with the high-adrenaline rush of the outdoor karts.

VS Racing is a good place for newbies to dip their toes into the sport, but after the experience at Go Kart Vietnam, I couldn’t help but feel underwhelmed. There is just something about trying a new sport with truly passionate people, and the folks at Go Kart Vietnam are nothing but passionate. Tuấn said he worked here because he loved the sport, and he would love to share it with more people, if only the public’s perception could be changed.

“The most difficult thing is the prejudice around this sport. People tend to think negatively about racing as being dangerous or reckless. So I hope we can change that perception so that this sport can come to more people and not just the youth who loves speed.”

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