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Hot Wheels


The garage, down an alley off Dang Van Ngu Street in Ho Chi Minh City's Phu Nhuan District, is crowded with old BMW motorbikes. Some are mere skeletons, others lovingly restored to thier sleek 1950's glory. Out front, a Russian sidecar motorcycle, its police logo still clearly visible, leans against a wall. And in back, behind a pile of spare bike parts, stand two lawn chairs, a sink and a glass cabinet stocked with cans of Final Net; the bike shop doubles as a beauty salon.

Mr. Luc, the garage/salon's 48-year old owner, whose own shoulder-length hair clearly hasn't seen a pair of scissors in years, reaches into a sack and pulls out a chrome-plated Harley Davidson siren. "Two-hundred dollars," he says. "You know the Harleys were police bikes, and used by the Presidential Guard."

Mention old motorcycles in Vietnam and everyone wants to talk about Harleys. Three years ago, a restored 1941 Harley WLD750 sold for US$12,000, while 1968 or '69 Sportsters fetched at least $7,000. But these days, there aren't a lot to talk about.

First the bad news. You have more chance of seeing Evil Kenieval rattle by on a Russion Minsk motorcycle than you do of finding an old Harley at a great price. Today, there are probably no more than 15 "Hogs" left in Vietnam. But motorbike enthusiasts still have a lot to get revved up about. Remaining colonial-era treasures include German BMWs and Hoffmans, German and British Triumphs, and Italian Lambretta and Vespa scooters.

"Back when they were cheap, this one old Vietnamese guy bought about 40 classic bikes," says Loc Huu Nguyen, an American-Vietnamese motorcycle enthusiast who has been collecting bikes in Ho Chi Minh City since 1991. "When I first came, he had 16 BMWs and five Harleys in his living room."

Since the early '90s, a core of Vietnamese and foreign motorcycle enthusiasts have built a lucrative industry out of buying, restoring, selling and exporting Vietnam's old motorcycles and scooters. "The cost of labor is one-tenth here what it is in Europe. Combine that with a steady supply of vintage bikes and Italian and British spare parts and you understand why Vietnam is the place to do this," says Patrick Joynt, a young British man who has been collecting Lambretta and Vespa scooters in Ho Chi Minh City since 1997.

For Mr. Joynt, scooters are a family affair. His wife Dung owns the Saigon Scooter Centre, a shop specializing in the restoration, repair and export of classic Italian scooters.

"We've shipped out about 200 in the past three year's," says Mr. Joynt. "Vietnamsese shops can restore a bike in 24 hours, but we only restore about three a month. The Vietnamese standard of paint is good enough for here, but six months later you need a respay. We spend ten times more on paint, plus import parts." All of this goes towards explaining the Scooter Centre's prices: a 1964 Lambretta TV3175cc, including papers for export (but excluding shipping), sells for $1,700, while a 1963 150cc model runs around $1,200. "I could sell a lot more but I can't find more mechanics I can put my trust in."

Of course the Saigon Scooter Centre isn't the only shop in town. Another foreign-run scooter restoration business sells its bikes via the Internet; one of its best-selling models, the Lambretta SX150, retails for $2,099. And a few overseas-Vietnamese collectors deal in old scooters and motorcycles, for customers in Vietnam and abroad.

"A lot of people are now jumping on the bandwagon, thinking they can make quick money," says one established scooter dealer. "They buy the bikes for about $300 and sell them overseas but the quality is low. Now Vientam's starting to get a bad reputation."

The problem, says one old collector, is that many prospective buyers don't know the first thing about motorcycles."The oldest bike in Vietnam is a 1930s BMW," he says. "And there's a story that the guy bought it from a Hmong leader for fifty kilograms of opium. But the bike isn't worth it."

"Many people think that because it's old, it's valuable," he says. "But some bikes, you keep them 100 years and you just have a bad 100 year bike."

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