Vespas Via Vietnam
Fans of vintage Italian scooters find
an unlikely source: Ho Chi Minh City
By JAMES HOOKWAY
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
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
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
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
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
Write to James Hookway at firstname.lastname@example.org