SATURDAY MORNING in
Saigon, Vietnam, and once again the steamy air is filled
with the buzzing and beeping of a million tiny
motorcycles. Hordes of riders stream down the wide
boulevards and crowd into the teaming roundabouts.
Saigon, known officially as Ho Chi Minh City, is a city
on two wheels with an estimated 3,000,000 machines for a
population of around 7,000,000. Sounds like motorbike
heaven, but it's not, the motorcycle here is a
workhorse, not a toy.
The weapon of choice for most people is a 110cc Honda
scooter - dull but dependable thing equipped with four
gears and a loud, overworked horn but lacking a clutch
and any sense of style. They're used to carry anything
from five people to 40 live ducks (draped by their legs
around the bars and across the seat) to a 2000mm-high
pane of glass (held upright by a very brave pillion).
Few people have the time or inclination to ride
motorbikes for fun.
There are those who do have the inclination, however,
such as the small group gathered outside the Ben Thanh
market this fine day: a group of riders standing proudly
by 10 beautifully restored Vespa and Lambretta scooters.
There're part of Saigon's scooter set - a group of
riders dedicated to these Italian machines which,
despite their cult status in the Webster world, are
largely unloved in Vietnam.
Today they're gathered for a cruise to the beach side
resort of Vung Tau, 120km east of the city. In the group
is one Englishman, one Viet kieu (a Vietnamese returned
from overseas) and a bunch of snappily dressed young
locals. Also tagging along, mounted on a gleaming 1963
Vespa VBB, but dressed in a sadly un-snappy manner, is
your correspondent - on a mission to infiltrate and
expose this group of Italian sympathisers bent on
bringing style to the streets of Vietnam.
It's unlikely that, when Stepperwolf singer John Kay
urged a generation to get their motors running and head
for the nearest highway, he was thinking about a 150cc
two-stroker from Italy. But as I kick over my borrowed
beastie and add a cloud of smoke to the city smog those
famous chords from Born to be Wild are running through
my head - I am saddling up with the city's wheeled
rebels after all.
Riding an Italian scooter in Saigon is, to be polite,
not a widely respected pastime. Not yet, anyway: The
bikes had been imported into Vietnam in their thousands
since the 1950s and many are still seen on the road. But
for most they're a poor man's ride, ridden only because
you can't afford something better.
Loc Nguyen, a 40-year-old Viet kieu businessman who uses
an immaculate orange 1967 Vespa Rally as his everyday
transport, explained that this common attitude stemmed
from the country's years of economic isolation.
"For 15 years no imports were allowed so if
anything new comes in they love it - whether it's
refrigerators, TVs or bikes".
Loc (pronounced "Lop") developed a different
perspective through spending his youth in the United
States - his parents took him out of Vietnam six days
before the fall of Saigon in 1975. When he returned to
the country in 1991 he spied a 1950s Lambretta LD in the
street, bought it for US$100 and restored it. He was
hooked - these days he has 15 scooters in the garage but
not everyone shared his enthusiasm.
"Back then, when my bike was finished, my
girlfriend wouldn't sit on it - it's a poor people's
bike and she was embarrassed to be seen on it," Loc
And so it is as we roll out of Saigon. In Sydney or
Melbourne our little convoy would be drop-dead cool.
Here we're turning heads but I think it's curiosity,
rather than admiration, that I see in people's faces.
Riding in Saigon can bring on the sort of stress levels
you'd find in air traffic controllers. There are no
rules, just a general agreement to try to keep out of
each other's way. As we head out of town in a 20km/h
smart of motorbikes, bicycles and ancient trucks and
buses, I wonder how these guys could risk their shining
pride and joy in such crash-prone madness. But there's
no aggro on the road, not even from the guys in front of
me - the ones three-up on a Honda with a truck on one
side and 15 bikes on the other as they head onto a
one-lane bridge. No, everyone here just deadpans like
they've got the road to themselves and, most of the
time, it works.
An hour out of town the pave eases and the little Vespa
proves to be a relaxing cruiser from which to watch the
countryside roll by. The suburbs give way to scenic rice
fields, coconut trees and evaporation pans for salt
production. The trucks and motorbikes are still around
but there's also the occasional cart drawn by a plodding
water buffalo. Shady roadside cafes offering cold drinks
and every-so-comfortable hammocks give us, and the
hard-working scooters, a rest every hour or so.
Our route next takes us through the barren, unlovely
lands of Ba Ria - in this area was the location of a
major Australian task force during the Vietnam War and
is now a burgeoning industrial area - before finally we
cruise in Vung Tau.
Vung Tau isn't the loveliest seaside town Vietnam has to
offer but it does have fantastic seafood and a wide,
winding beach side boulevard. So after feasting on crab
and fish and recharging with cold beer, our little
squadron sets off for a slow, noisy, glorious afternoon
promenade beside the South China Sea.
It's a large turn-out today: a dozen scooters are in
town already and more are on the way from Saigon. We've
also been joined by a Fuji Rabbit - a 1960s Japanese
scooter - and a couple of Saigon lads on customised
Honda CD125s - '70s era full-size bikes done up in
shining black and matte khaki to look like old BMW
singles. They're another increasingly popular, and
increasingly expensive, machine with the sharp set
around the city.
It's the Italians that have centre stage, though - a
luscious collection of machines sporting lustrous chrome
and shining two-tone paint jobs and advertising an
almost manical attention to detail. We have Loc's Rally,
which runs a 200cc kit, up from the standard 180cc, and
is equipped with a CD player ("It needs a smooth
road," he confesses), a 1957 Lambretta LD (three
speed box, 150cc engine), six more VBB 150's, a
French-built 1957 Vespa Acma and a late 1960s 50cc Vespa
Mini. The Mini made the journey to Vung Tau with two on
board and still kept up with the pack - not a bad
The wildest machine present is a heavily modified 1968
Lambretta SX200, sporting a 225cc race-kitted engine,
disc brakes, custom body work and an exhaust note that
belongs on a competition dirt bike. This 170km/h rocket
is the property of Patrick Joynt, the English proprietor
of the Saigon Scooter Centre. When he's not creating
monsters for his own fun and games Pat restores scooters
for sale and rent. He has customers in Saigon's expat
community but has also found a growing market overseas,
shipping bikes out to the United Kingdon, the United
States and Australia in the past three years.
Pat's been in Saigon for five years, one of only two
foreigners operation in the restored scooter market, and
he's seen a lot of change in that time.
"There are starting to be stories appearing in
magazines saying these things are really cool," Pat
said. "I saw a Vespa used in a fashion shoot in a
magazine a short time back - in the last 18 months the
scene has become trendy."
Even in this early stage of scootering popularity
quality scooters suitable for restoration are becoming
harder to find. Where Pat was finding four to five good
units a week in Saigon five years ago, he's lucky now to
find the same number in a month. Instead sourcing
scooters from outside the city. There are an increasing
number of restored machines coming onto the market but
Pat warns buyers have to be sure what they're getting.
"There are about a dozen load-run scooter shops
offering 'full restorations' for a few dollars. US$50
for a two-day turnaround paint job, engine rebuilds from
US$25. They are doing a roaring trade with unsuspecting
foreigners who see a shiny paint job and a classic
scooter for US$1000," he said.|
The vast majority of bikes in Vietnam today are
Japanese, Chinese and Korean postie bike-type machines
with four-stroke engines ranging from 50cc to 110cc.
Simple economics dictates that these will remain the
most common machines for some time to come simply
because they're the cheapest. For those with a few more
dong (the Vietnamese currency) to throw around big,
brand scooters such as Honda's Spacy, Suzuki's Avenis
and Yamaha's Majesty are the lusted-after kings of the
road. Vespas and Lambretta will always appeal only to a
narrow niche, and those in that niche in Saigon are
starting to get themselves organized.
In July, Pat and some friends launched the city's first
formal classic scooter and bike club, to be called,
oddly enough, the Saigon Classic Scooter and Bike Club.
the group will have scooter at its core but is open to
all the classic old bikes still stalking around the city
- and there are plenty of them. Eventually the club
hopes to be organising charity scooter runs and regular
rallies - events sure to leave plenty around the city
shaking their heads in bewilderment.
So the Italian classics do seem headed for the same
style-leading status in Vietnam that they are accorded
elsewhere in the world. For now, however, there's still
a way to go.
Sunday morning finds the scooter crowd assembled once
again on the Vung Tau waterfront. The fatigue and
fragile heads left by the night before's revels at a
local nightclub drop away as we take in the views on a
slow cruise around Small Mountain, down on the southern
tip of the peninsula.
The local cowboys jet past on hopped-up Yamahas and seem
a tad bemused by how much these guys are enjoying
themselves. But not to worry - one day they'll
2 Wheels - December 2002