Most in Vietnam, rich and poor alike, have a motorcycle. There aren’t many that can match Mr. Vinh’s collection, however, which is currently around 200 vintage bikes.
Vietnam is the land of motorcycles – they have quite literally infused the rebuilding of this once war-devastated country. Everyone owns a motorcycle. Poor families have one usually, and even those who can afford a Rolls-Royce own a two-wheeler too. Bikes, simply, are one of the things that link all Vietnamese together.
From this passion and daily need there has arisen some huge bike collectors. Some choose to buy as many big bikes or racers that they can get, whereas others choose to focus on preserving vintage bikes. One of the latter is Tran Quang Vinh, owner of Classic Moto Café and the president of Hanoi’s Harley-Davidson Club. He currently owns around 200 vintage bikes, focusing on Vespas, Mobylettes, Simpsons, Lambrettas and CD Benlys.
Vinh comes from humble beginnings. He was born in France and his family moved back to Vietnam in 1964. Needless to say, at that time Vietnam was in turmoil, and Vinh quickly learned that industriousness and creativity were useful traits in helping the family. His mom and dad had brought all their household items with them back to Vietnam. But it was difficult back then, and they had to sell most of what they owned. When Vinh started making money, he went to buy his parents stuff back, and when something was broken, he learned how to repair it. It soon became a hobby of his. Often people did not have the know-how to fix things, so he bought items back at very cheap prices and was able to repair/restore them – this included bikes.
From an early age Vinh showed an aptitude for all things mechanical. But never having a chance to go to school, he thus taught himself everything he knows. After the Vietnam War ended, Vinh, who had started a business fixing sewing machines (a hugely important commodity to any family who owned one), would drive between Saigon and Hanoi selling his services. Surprisingly, he was so talented that he quickly made a fortune, and it was at this time, as Northern servicemen began to drift back to Hanoi from Saigon, that Vinh started buying scooters.
Vinh understood the mechanics of the bikes and started to modify them to be either more reliable, or as it is with most youth’s wishes, make the bikes faster. He changed 50cc mounts into 65 and 70cc rides, using the most rudimentary of tools. They were immediate hits – everyone wanted one.
“Modern bikes, they sound fast and are fast, but an older bike allows you to go slower, it makes you feel different inside,” says Mr. Vinh. “To drive an older bike is to experience relaxation and beauty.”
“There was one time when I was driving back to my parents’ house outside Hanoi and I had someone stop me halfway there and ask to buy my bike,” recounts Vinh of his first bike builds. “I stood to make a good profit, so I did and took a bus back home. I grabbed another modified bike and again, about halfway to my parents’ house someone offered to buy the bike from me. I sold this one as well and went home to get a third bike. Again, I left home and someone stopped me and asked to buy this bike too. Needless to say, I was very late arriving at my parents house, but I made a lot of money that day.”
Vinh’s love for vintage bikes continues to this day, and goes deeper than the mere appreciation for classic design. Vinh remarks: “Modern bikes, they sound fast and are fast, but an older bike allows you to go slower, it makes you feel different inside. To drive an older bike is to experience relaxation and beauty. The driver and bike, they look good together, and thus is an experience of peaceful coexistence.”
Vinh’s collection ranges from Solexs and Mobylettes, to Simpsons, Urals, Vespas and Lambrettas. He collects anything that he considers has a good design or is rare, so it becomes very much an objective exercise for him. He states that there is no single bike or model that is his favorite, for each one has its own memory or moment. He simply likes all of them. When pushed to name his first love, Vinh jokingly says “my wife,” until he opens up about his Mobylette AV 89, which he still owns and has restored to perfection.
“The only people who had these were the Vietnamese who came back from New Caledonia,” says Vinh. “The design is incredible – only 50cc, but it can reach up to 70 kph (43 mph). The fastest bike we had here at the time was 70cc – but this bike overtook them on the highway. It’s fast, rare and looks stunning.”
Vinh’s love of bikes is all encompassing, so much so, he took great personal risk in 2004 to get into Vietnam the first modern Harley-Davidson, a Street Glide CVO. Vietnam did not allow the import of high-speed bikes and it was not until 2007, when the country joined the WTO, that the ban was lifted. Even still, the process in which to get a big bike into Vietnam is complicated and frustrating, as the government strictly monitors who owns and rides them.
In 2010, Vinh formed the Harley-Davidson club with two branches, one in Hanoi and one Saigon. The club is relatively small, not surprising considering the price and difficulty in obtaining the bikes, having 57 members in the north and 48 the south. Those numbers have grown to 127 and 75 respectively. The club members are all sanctioned by a government body and part of the responsibilities for the Harley owners is they must take part in national holiday parades countrywide.
When you ask anyone involved within motorbike circles or clubs about Vinh, they all know and respect what he has done for biking culture in Vietnam. He keeps a strong presence in the Saigon and Hanoi Moto clubs and is invited as a guest speaker at conventions both in Vietnam and regionally. What is most telling is when one meets some random collector living deep in the Mekong and Vinh’s name is brought up he says, with a smile “Yes, yes – Big Harley. Vroom Vroom.”
As motorbikes are so entwined with Vietnam’s history and culture, Vinh is looking to create a space, like a motorcycle museum, where people can come and see the collection and learn about how motorbikes transformed and influenced Vietnamese society.
“It’s my hobby,” Vinh says, “so I’d love to be able to share it with everyone – other collectors and enthusiasts. Buying and restoring old bikes satisfies a need within me and to showcase my work, it makes me feel proud.”