NYCS visits SE Asia – Part 1
Earlier this month I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to visit a region of the world many Scooterists call two-wheeled heaven: South East Asia. Specifically, a whirlwind two-week tour through Vietnam and Thailand by way of Cambodia. At every step of the way the sound of two-stoke (and some four-stroke) engines buzzed in my ear.
Starting in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) in southern Vietnam, and heavily jet lagged from close to 24 hours in a tin bird, I was woken with a jolt by the madness that is scootering in this part of the world. Riding a scooter in New York City is for some of us an idiosyncratic hobby, for others, a form of convenient transportation. In Vietnam it is a way of life. Everyone and I mean everyone here rides a scooter (or motorcycle as they prefer to call them.) Big ones, small ones, fast ones, slow ones, new ones, and plenty of old ones, but in every case clearly cherished as a valuable part of the family.
It’s a family affair
Speaking of family – we’ve all heard stories of families riding four-up on a scooter. And this and more I saw at every turn of the head. The configuration of choice seems to be Junior up front standing on the foot board with hands balancing on the speedometer, Dad riding the scoot with arms around Junior, and Mom sitting behind Dad with either a baby in her arms or a second child squeezed onto the saddle between the parents. But trust me, this is just the start of possible configurations. Boyfriends driving girlfriends, women driving office-mates, old guys hauling buddies home from the bar, children driving children. Some scooter set-ups looked more like motorcycle acrobatic displays than nine-to-five commutes and no-one raises an eyebrow. That’s Vietnam.
Strangely while most of the parents I saw wore one of the wide array of candy-colored helmets on sale at every street corner, almost none of the children wore head-gear. I guess it’s the Vietnamese equivalent of children growing up through shoe sizes way too quickly to keep up. Nothing telegraphs Vietnam scootering more than the look of these half-helmets. Something tells me they wouldn’t pass a US DOT certification, but boy do they look cool, coming in every imaginable color and decal and almost always accompanied by a similarly wild print face mask to block out the two-stroke exhaust smoke loved by classic scooter hobbyists worldwide.
Who needs a truck?
Family contortions and fancy headgear aside, Vietnamese scooterists seem to take pride in just how much they can transport, and the higher the better. It was not unusual to see boxes, bags, clothing, crates of beer, or other parcels piled up on the back seat at twice the height of the rider or more teetering against impossible odds. Commonly riders strap this load in part to their back causing the tower of what-not to defy gravity and remain complete as it leans into each and every corner. Similarly bags and other items hang from every fixable point on the scooter, in foot-wells, off handle-bars, on the front fender, you name it.
At one point I saw a rider with his companion passenger sitting behind him facing backwards with his arms linked around a huge 20-something-inch tube TV set. On another occasion a local vendor was heating nuts in a wok containing hot coals and heated from below with a propane tank, all while putting down the street. Incredible.
If you’re hoping to spot some classic Vespas or Lambrettas in Vietnam you’re going to be disappointed. Scooterists here, as is clear above, ride their bikes hard; as in into-the-ground hard and these classics just simply haven’t survived the fifty year ride. Combine this with the fact that what are left of these bikes are being scooped off the streets, patched up, and sold on to unsuspecting Westerners and the result is that very few remain on the streets. I saw a small handful, mostly retired to pure decoration, advertising restaurants and what-not.
Most classic scooterists have heard horror stories of what a shiny new coat of paint can hide on an restored bike imported from this part of the world, but I have to say having seen the life these bikes have had with my own eyes, all I can say is that it’d have to be one heck of a Vietnamese barn-find for me to consider one. Judging by the amount of trade taking place in used spares in Vietnam regardless of manufacturer, most of these bikes were clearly driven three or four times past their natural lifespan during their lives in Vietnam BEFORE a quiet freshly-painted retirement in the US.
While the Vespa VBB (a restoration favorite) may have introduced scootering to Vietnam, it’s the Asian manufacturers who now rule the roost. Honda and Sym constitute 90% of the bikes I saw in my time in Vietnam with 16” wheels proving far more practical than a Vespa’s outdated 10. Having said that I was fortunate enough to visit Ho Chi Minh’s Vespa dealership and saw a surprising number of LX125s, S125s and various GT and LXV incarnations during my time in the city. These bikes however are clearly the Mercedes Benz of local transportation and those riders I did see riding the Italian Stallions looked justifiably proud of their steed which no doubt costs in the order of two-to-three times the cost of their Asian counterparts.
For part 2 of my time in SE Asia, stay tuned…