Mike Rinowski leaves career to go on unexpected ride across Vietnam, then writes a book on the experience
by Jake Andersen
Would you risk your life savings to go on a trip of a lifetime in honor of those that gave up everything to answer their country’s call?
In the eyes of Elk River resident Mike Rinowski, the answer to that question is rather simple and is exactly why he took the opportunity to travel an astounding 41,000 miles alone across Vietnam on motorcycle to honor those who served in the Vietnam War.
“It’s just doing what an American would do given the circumstances,” Rinowski said. “A lot of people get opportunities but can they take them? A lot of times people can’t because they have responsibilities to family, debt and other things. I didn’t have any of that. I didn’t have a lot of money either, but I just felt an obligation to do it. I had this unique opportunity that (not many) could take.”
The adventure-seeking, free-spirited biker out of Thief River Falls had no idea that this was what would come out of his 15-year stint in Asia. In fact, he came over to Asia to pursue a career in the golf business after spending years working on railroads.
“I wanted to be a golf course superintendent and … in the early ‘90s, it was getting very crowded with people wanting to be golf course superintendents (in America). I had no responsibilities or commitments other than myself, so on a whim, I just went over to a couple golf shows in Asia — one in Singapore and another in Shang Hai — and ended up with a job in China,” he said, noting he left for China in 1997.
Rinowski, who is now 66, spent the next 15 years moving from job to job, country to country, living a majority of his final few years abroad in Vietnam, where he was able to import a Harley Davidson Fat Boy motorcycle.
One thing led to another, and he found himself being called to a journey he’ll never forget.
“I didn’t plan this ride. I didn’t expect it. I was just trying to make a living, but serendipity worked,” he said. “And in the scope of that, my awareness grew into this obligation … and I left my career to follow it and unknowingly fulfill it.”
Unexpected journey unfolds
When Rinowski says he didn’t expect to go on this journey, he means it.
Importing a Harley Davidson to Vietnam was as unheard of as the journey itself, but thanks to Vietnam’s entrance into the World Trade Organization in 2007, a door was opened when he arrived in Hanoi — located in the Northern part of Vietnam — in 2008 for work.
“After a few months on the job, I saw some big motorcycles around the street and then met a guy that could import a Harley Davidson with no tax. And man, I had a three-year contract and I thought wow, I want to splurge and go for that,” Rinowski said.
Seizing the opportunity, Rinowski imported a Harley Davidson Fat Boy — his favorite bike in over 40 years of riding — taking it out on joy rides whenever he got the chance.
When his contract crashed eight months later, he was left searching for another job, eventually finding one in Nha Trang on the Southern part of Vietnam. Rinowski took the Ho Chi Minh Highway to Nha Trang — a newer road at the time, stretching from Hanoi on the North side and to Saigon on the South side and overlapping some of the Ho Chi Minh Trail used by the North Vietnamese in the Vietnam War — and was overwhelmed by the beauty and welcome. As a veteran himself, serving in Germany in the early 1970s, he was also reminded of those who fought and died in one of the most deadly and unpopular wars in history.
That planted a seed of what was to come, as his job in Nha Trang lasted only three months before he was left looking for another job internationally. Knowing he very well could be leaving Vietnam and wouldn’t be able to bring his bike, he decided to take a trip to the southern most point of Vietnam after already being out as far north as he could go. He followed a path out of the city of Nam Can to the ocean coastline and there, dedicated himself to riding for the fallen veterans.
“While I was down there, I had this feeling of ‘Wow, I’ve been at one end of Vietnam to the other,’ but there was also this deja vu-like sensation that crawled up over my shoulder. It was not like any place I’d ever been, but (I felt like) this adventure had chosen me and it wasn’t over,” he said. “I got back to Nha Trang and it hits me. I have to ride back across Vietnam in memory for those that died here.”
Riding for the fallen
Rinowski’s revelation to journey back across Vietnam for the fallen soldiers was delayed a couple of years, as he was offered a job in Laos soon after his trip.
He left his bike in Vietnam with his new boss, who also owned a place in Vietnam, and after spending a majority of 2010 in Laos, he returned to Vietnam to work in Saigon at the start of 2011. He finished the job later that year and finally took the opportunity to ride across Vietnam in memory of the veterans, riding about 1,500 miles back up to Lung Cu, the northernmost city of Vietnam in a desolate mountainous area.
He returned unfilled. There was something more that he needed to do.
“Something bothered me. I just felt like I missed something, like a ride in memory of them wasn’t enough. But I didn’t know what to do. I wasn’t a (combat) veteran and I knew no one that fought in the war. But there was something else out there, so I didn’t go back to work,” he said. “I had faith that if I went back on the trails in the spirit of freedom, I’d be led where I needed to go. And man, over the next 10,000 miles, I found more than I’d ever imagine.”
For most of his final year in Vietnam, Rinowski traveled up and down Vietnam without a job, basing himself out of Memento Resort near Nha Trang, but also making stops at hotels across the country for around $10 to $15 a night. He would ride through the wrath of monsoonal rains day and night, into potholes and out of potholes and he rode from five accidents. He added he “rode vicariously for them with a playful vengeance to celebrate freedom with them.”
He recalls his best rides being out on the old trails of the Ho Chi Minh used during the war. There, he would spend time reflecting on the sacrifices made by the American soldiers and how undeserving they were of the negativity surrounding them.
“Being alone out there on the Ho Chi Minh trail in the remote jungle, the solitude, that was powerful. It was an enlightenment. … I felt freedom like never before, I felt like an American like never before, and I felt the presence of those I rode for,” he said. “Having that opportunity to ride off the trails into the jungle, as far as I could, and to be in that presence, having a ride of a lifetime for those who never had that chance to make one, those were some of my most memorable moments.
“I thought about their task and turmoil with more thought than I ever had. It’s hard to imagine … but to really feel it in your soul is mind-boggling. … They answered a call for their country. They didn’t know the details, but their country called and they went. And they served and got treated really poorly when they got back. But they answered a call, as did all of our men and women in past conflicts and wars, and they did so for America, for what we have here, for the values, morals, principles that we have as Americans. … So we owe them.”
In the process of his journey, he considered the origin and evolution of not only his free-spirited nature, but that of all Americans, and the sacrifices that have been made for it since the Revolutionary War. He even witnessed a free-spirited nature developing in Vietnam because of their sacrifices.
“I have a greater sense of gratitude to all the men and women that served and sacrificed. … And I have an obligation to all who fought and died, not only for my freedom but for my very nature,” Rinowski said. “A free-spirited nature is growing in Vietnam too. … I see it China and Laos also, but in Vietnam, they are way ahead societally just because America’s involvement during the war, our trade ties since the war, and the internet. They emulate the American way.
“The joy you see in the Vietnamese people and to know that’s what our veterans have not only done for us but they are doing for other people elsewhere too. Their nature is changing because of Americans’ involvement and sacrifices.”
Rinowski wanted to carry the spirit of freedom as far as he could across Vietnam. The whole country was a battleground, and the missing in action were still out there beside the trails he rode on. His lowered and heavy Harley Davidson with street tires couldn’t get on every trail, and he was forced to retreat from many, but he did lay tracks on every kilometer of the Ho Chi Mink Trail and National Highway One, among numerous others. He calculated that he rode within 20 miles of 80 percent of the country.
He returned to America in December 2012, saying his journey truly came to an end when he visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., a few months later.
“That brought my journey full circle,” he said. “That was such an emotional ride. It was a 4 1/2 year journey that ended with a joy ride through Canada.”
A ride captured in 95,000 words
Rinowski thought his journey was over a few times and he would return to work, but early in the last year of his ride in Vietnam, he thought the experience was too much to keep for casual stories and decided to share it in a book. At 59 years old, he wasn’t ready to retire, but he needed to write before he started to forget.
As he rode in faith, he would write in faith; and if he could recover some expenses, he could share more in the names of those he rode for.
Rinowski knew he had a huge task ahead of him for a professional presentation of his story, but he also had to contribute. While immersed in writing for over 6,000 hours, he performed volunteer service at a veterans center in Brooklyn Park. He moved from Coon Rapids to Elk River in 2015 from where he published his book “Harley Tracks: Across Vietnam to The Wall.” Through its 324 pages, 95,000 words, along with 116 color photos, tells the story.
He said he’s received many great reviews, but those coming from Vietnam veterans touch his heart in a special sort of way.
“Hearing back from other people on how it’s affecting them, it’s hard to describe that feeling, especially from Vietnam vets that have read my book,” he said. “In two words, it’s humbling and fulfilling to have their recognition.”
Rinowski still lives in Elk River, where he now drives school bus, supports veterans causes, and promotes “Harley Tracks.” He also still rides his Harley Davidson Fat Boy.
His website shares gigabytes of information and photos, and a Paypal button to buy a copy of his book. If you’re interested in the book or a presentation to your organization or group, contact Rinowski at the address or phone number on his website, www.harleytracks.com.