Home   |   Check Order  |  Links   |  View Basket

Product Search
About Us
Worldwide Stockists
New Delhi
Convert this amount into this type of currency

Vespas Via Vietnam

Fans of vintage Italian scooters find
an unlikely source: Ho Chi Minh City
October 27, 2007; Page W5

HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam -- Patrick Joynt twists the throttle on a 1967 Vespa and disappears into the bedlam of Ho Chi Minh City's lunchtime traffic. Rescued from the backstreets of this sprawling city, the scooter has been carefully restored in white and sports a tartan trim. In a couple of weeks, it will be shipped out to its new owner in Denmark.

Mr. Joynt is the president of Saigon Scooter Centre, an exporter of customized and vintage Vespas. His customers span the globe, from scooter-mad Europe to the U.S. Here in Vietnam's largest city, Mr. Joynt also rents his bikes to travelers and is a familiar sight in the local scooter culture that dominates daily life.

It may seem like an unlikely supply chain -- Italian-made bikes shipped to the U.S. via Southeast Asia. But Vietnam happens to be one the world's last good sources of vintage Vespas. Some Vespas were literally parachuted into the country by the French colonial military fighting nationalist insurgents in the 1950s. The French valued the scooters' reliability as means to send messages to the front when other communications failed. Since then, many more have been shipped into the country to provide an affordable means of getting around.

Local mechanics have grown adept at maintaining the scooters in the country's hot, humid climate. Like Cubans who kept their 1950s American-made cars running throughout the ongoing economic embargo there, Vietnamese Vespa enthusiasts kept their scooters running through decades of war and economic isolation, building their own spare parts to keep the engines turning over.

Today, there are about 20 million scooters and small-engine motorcycles here -- roughly one for every four people. They're used to transport everything along the country's busy roads -- from nursing babies, to pigs and potted plants.

Patrick Joynt in his workshop

Most of these bikes and scooters are made by Honda Motor Co. or other Japanese manufacturers. Piaggio Group, the storied Italian manufacturer of Vespas, plans to produce modern versions of its classic models at a new plant near Hanoi in 2009 as part of the company's long-delayed revival plan.

Among the hordes of new Hondas and Yamahas buzzing around the city there exist some relics of an earlier age: Vespas from the 1950s and 1960s. Simply crossing the road in Ho Chi Minh City can result in an alarmingly close encounter with a vintage Vespa or its modern descendents. The streets reverberate with the honking of horns, as if to provide a soundtrack to a transformation that has seen this once isolated Communist state become one of Asia's fastest growing economies.

Though Hanoi has been a favorite destination of Western travelers discovering Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh is the country's engine -- a place to experience the rhythms of Vietnamese life. Around 30% of the country's economic output and 40% of its exports are generated in Ho Chi Minh City; often it seems that it is the scooters that keep the city running.

Scooters are a great way to see the place -- though renting one yourself might be hairy. At each street corner there are drivers waiting to offer visitors and locals rides on the backs of their bikes for a dollar or two, whether it's to the imposing People's Committee building, the bustling handicraft markets or to the old Presidential Palace -- renamed the Reunification Palace after North Vietnamese tanks rumbled into what was then Saigon in 1975.

[Ho Chi Minh City]

Back in Mr. Joynt's tin-roofed workshop in the Tan Binh District, his team of mechanics is stripping down a new batch of decaying Vespas to assess what needs to be done to get them back into roadworthy condition. If necessary, new footplates are welded onto the chassis to beef up the structure of the scooter. Then they start working on the engines.

A native of Wigan in northern England, Mr. Joynt began dabbling in the British scooter scene in the 1980s. In 1997, he visited Vietnam on a whim. With a local partner, he began scouring the length of Vietnam, building contacts with mechanics and buying as many Vespas as he could to ship out to the U.K. and Europe. When the supply of the pristine models ran out -- "It's getting really difficult to find them now," Mr. Joynt says -- he hired a team of Vietnamese mechanics to restore the run-down specimens.

Now, he's using original chassis as a platform on which to build his own custom versions for foreign buyers. His scooters cost between $2,500 to $5,000 and can be cheaper than similar reconditioned models in the U.S., although it can cost up to $500 to ship from Vietnam.

Mr. Joynt's own collection of scooters now numbers 30, and includes a World War II-era collapsible scooter that British paratroopers used to leap into combat with.

His only regret? "Selling a Vespa Grand Sport a few years ago," he says. He sold the scooter with a 160cc engine for $900. Today it is estimated to be valued at $7,000. The only other one Mr. Joynt knows of in Southeast Asia -- he believes it belongs to the king of Thailand.

Write to James Hookway at


SSC Terms and Conditions
Copyright 2019 SaiGon Scooter Centre