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Spring Rollers

Vietnam must be the last place to find a renaissance of
interest in classic Italian scooters,
but there's more between heaven and earth...




IT'S 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 says.

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 achievement.

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 understand.

- 2 Wheels - December 2002

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