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STEPPING OFF HAI BA Trung through the doors of the Vespa Boutique is like entering a shrine to all things quintessentially Vespa. Retro ads adorn the walls, Roman Holiday - the 1950's Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck movie that popularized Vespas - is on continuous play, and classic Italian music streams from the speakers.

"We love Vespa," says Nguyen Tri, shop manager and co-founder of the Saigon Vespa Club. "The look, the machine, the style... I have 10 Vespas myself."

He's certainly not alone - a bike formerly seen as US$200 runaround for the working man is now riding a wave of popularity in Saigon. No longer a collector's item, the Vespa has moved beyond the realm of enthusiasts and is now a sought after social statement. With their awkward gear changes and vintage eccentricities, riding the older models may be a labour of love, but the brand new models come fully automatic - meaning everybody can enjoy the classic style with none of the hassle.

"It's more fashionable to ride a Vespa than another scooter," says Tri. "When people come to the shop, they like to look at the old ones, but they're less popular because they're harder to drive.

For a city that runs on two wheels, the fact that the new Vespas are reliable and competitively priced compared to rival Japanese models means choosing a bike really does come down to style.

Selling for as little as US$3000, the 2007 Vespas retain elements of the classic look but are modernized by smoother lines, robust curves and are fully automatic. They also come in a kaleidoscope of colours.

"The most popular is white, but the customers love to add detailing such as flowers and butterflies," says Tri. "We used to airbrush some before they went on the shop floor, but now we're so busy we just don't have time. Customers usually get customizations done elsewhere."

Most mechanics can pull off a paint job, but those serious about their scooters beat a path to Saigon Scooter Centre and the door of Patrick Joynt.

Visiting Ho Chi Minh City "for a few days" in 1997, 10 years on Pat is one of the leading Vespa specialists in town. Operating out of a workshop tucked away in Tan Binh, his dozen-strong team scours the countryside for original bikes and rebuilds them, usually to a customer-supplied specification.

"Most people contact us through the website: 'Have you got this? Have you got that?" he explains. "Usually we have a good range of models, except those from the early 50s - they're really hard to find now."

"There's nothing left in Saigon as all. Most of the bikes are in the countryside. We used to find 15 a day, but now it can be as few as two a month."

Vespas were originally popularized in Vietnam by the French, and although thousands were imported during the 50's and 60s, most have been exported back overseas in response to the rocketing demand for classic bikes.

Like many scooter fanatics from the UK, Pat was hooked from and early age - he bought his first, a silver Vespa 200 with a Union Jack motif, at the age of 13, and most of the gleaming machines in Pat's showroom are his own. He gauges his personal collection at "around 30", but he still feels the pinch as hundreds of bikes continue to be shopped out every year.

"My favourite model is the Vespa GS (Grand Sport). I sold one - GS 160, the best one ever made - and I haven't been able to find another one to this day. Gutted."

Pat is something of a celebrity on Saigon's scooter scene - if he's not in the workshop or frequenting local night spots, he's busy rallying local enthusiasts for regular events. As well as organizing regular fun runs, he was the brains behind the recent Cu Chi Charity Run, and he has also just led the charge to the Dalat scooter festival that took place over the recent holiday period.

Billed as Vietnam's first ever Vespa festival, bike lovers from all over the country preened and polished their wheels to participate in the various parades, while one lucky Italian lady was crowned 'Queen Vespa'. It was a chance for enthusiasts to get together to revel in all things Vespa, and according to festival organizers, the weekend was one big party - Pat would have certainly been in his element.

Pat even enjoyed a brief stint as a movie star - acting as Michael Caine's stand in during the filming of The Quiet American in 2002.

"We filmed for eight weeks here, in Hoi An and Danang. It was great," says Pat.

"I tried to persuade him to buy one of the bikes. The producer did, but I couldn't get Michael to. We worked together everyday - he's a really nice guy."

Pat still maintains that most of his time is taken up restoring bikes - the team average around five a month, and the current waiting list for customized bikes is about four months.

"We can do anything and everything: accessories, backrests, electric starters (which they never had) and mod-style lamps. There's no limit. Everything can be done in-house, no matter how wacky the idea. If they can give us a picture, we can replicate it.

"Some guy wanted one with everything gold plated - nuts, bolts, trim, the lot. One of the strangest ones I did was a Vespa 50 Special, bright yellow with pink spots. Hideous! And I'm making one now with a Yamaha 250cc engine in it - it'll certainly move."

Ninety-nine per cent of the scooters he restores are destined for the export crate, but over the years Pat has also garnered a dedicated expat following. One of his latest creations - a flame licked metallic purple 1965 VBC - was commissioned by fellow bike enthusiast and Canadian Consul General Liberty Moore for his wife, Mimi.

With 0km on the clock, the bike was rebuilt from scratch. Everything is brand new, and in the afternoon sunshine, the scooter is nothing short of dazzling.

"As soon as we got here, I decided I wanted a Vespa," says Mimi. "I was looking on the internet, and I like what the name means - a wasp. I really like the classics, you know? And I love this model - it's round, cute and small. Now I just have to learn to drive it."

It seems that once bitten by the scooter bug, a soft spot for the charismatic Vespa quickly blooms into full-blown Italian love affair. Plenty of Pat's satisfied and utterly seduced customers were more than happy to gush over their favourite models.

"The big joke is, it's not a hobby, it's a disease!" said one. "I got my first Vespa six month coming here, and now I have four."

Minh, a Canadian Viet Kieu now living in Ho Chi Minh City attributes this affection to the image, style and experience of driving a Vespa.

"I like the new ones, but I also like being able to shift gears. I'd never driven a bike with a clutch - it was a double whammy, learning to drive in on the streets of Saigon, but nw I love it. It's great fun to just ride around."

As the sun sinks and the streets empty, being able to coast freely through the city seems an irresistible lure for canoodling couples, and Minh agrees that there is something quintessentially romantic about riding about on a Vespa.

"The local seem to be taking more of an interest - not because the bikes have always been here, but because of the image, because they've seen it in movies. My partner loves them, too. We cruise around the streets a lot, usually on the weekend and in the evening when there's not so much traffic on the road. Our own little Vietnamese Roman Holiday."

Saigon Scooter Club
The club meets every Friday from 8pm to 10pm at V3 cafe, 80 Nguyen Thi Minh Khai, D3 Tel: 822 0539. They also meet informally every Sunday morning around the Notre Dame Cathedral from 10am.

Vespa Boutique
135 Hai Ba Trung, D1
Tel: 823 9988

Saigon Scooter Centre
25/7 Cuu Long, Ward 2,
Tan Binh
Tel: 848 7816




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