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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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."
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
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."
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."
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.
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
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.
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.
even enjoyed a brief stint as a movie star - acting as Michael
Caine's stand in during the filming of The Quiet American
filmed for eight weeks here, in Hoi An and Danang. It was
great," says Pat.
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."
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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."
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
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.
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."
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.
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
135 Hai Ba Trung, D1
Tel: 823 9988
25/7 Cuu Long, Ward 2,
Tel: 848 7816