Thursday, August 23, 2012

The new motorbikes of Old Saigon

The Nuovo in my Hem (alley)
Many cities around the globe have a vehicle that is intertwined with its unique character and culture; Rome with its stylish and youthful Vespas and Fiat 500s, the staid and steady London taxi, or the muscle cars of Detroit. But there is no city where that association transcends the Romantic to the Actual more than Saigon and the Honda Cub. Even in the years of the Vietnam War, any picture or news footage of the Paris of Indochina had at least a half dozen of the thrifty, reliable scoots buzzing in the background, shuttling around everything from Generals to crates full of pigs. Whenever I step out of my apartment on Le Thanh Ton street in the heart of District 1, I am immediately dodging Honda scooters. Today, most of the semi-automatic bikes you see are 110cc version of the original 50cc cub, sold either as a Super Cub, Super Dream, or Alpha. I'd be hard pressed to tell you the mechanical differences between them, but the Super Cubs still retain the 60s styling, while the Dream's have square, 80s style headlight, and the Alpha attempt a more modern, sporty design (some even have - gasp! - front disk brakes).

So if the traditional Honda is so common in Saigon, why am I not writing about it? Well, for two reasons; first of all, the Alpha S I rented had no front brake. To be sure, there was a drum attached to the front wheel, and a lever, and a brake line; but, as a unit, this did nothing to actually slow my momentum. I discovered this after I had planned a trip to Monkey Island, a small nature preserve infested with notoriously larcenous monkey gangs, just south of the city. I was all geared up, with a Kriega bag full of water, a change of shoes, and a towel in case of swimming (thank you, Hitchhicker's Guide to the Galaxy). As I started out of the city, however, through the kind of lawless traffic that would make even an Italian taxi driver curl up in the fetal position, I began to notice that my right hand really had zero effect on the bike. Distracted, I took a wrong turn, and found up riding 25 km west of the city, through some very interesting suburbs. When I returned a few hours later, I took the bike back to the small convenience store/cafe/boardinghouse/motorbike rental shop to ask for a different bike.

I did want to ride a Honda cub; it fit with every preconceived notion I had about Saigon. But the longer I've been here, the more I've realized the city is changing, rapidly. Every young Vietnamese person I've met and traveled with has been eager to point out how they are NOT like their parent's, or grandparent's, generation. Dressed in Gucci and designer jeans, drinking Heineken and Carlsburg, listening to west-coast hip hop and electronica...

...and NOT riding Honda cubs.

Vietnam is a country with an extremely young population; 60% of its population is under 30, and its average age is 26. Compare this with the grey-bush United States of America, whose average age is nearly 37. I'm 26; if I came to Vietnam to experience its culture, I'd better start acting like my Vietnamese peers.

Examining the huge valet parking lots near trendier clubs like District 3's Acoustic, you'll notice a much larger percentage of larger, automatic scooters. While Vespas and Vespa-styled small-wheel automatics like the SYM Atilla are more popular with girls, bikes like Honda's Airblade and Yamaha's Nuovo tend to be more popular with guys. An Airblade sports modern features like water-cooling, fuel injection, and a CVT transmission, but retains the 16" wheels of their Cub forebearers. All the better to deal with the uneven road surfaces and required curb-jumping for parking (or just to scare the tourists). These bikes also tend to be very aggressively styled; the Nuovo apes the angular style of its big-brothers the R6 and R1, while the Airblade looks like a scooter-VFR. Not your father's nicest-people Honda, to be sure.

I wound up renting a Yamaha Nuovo; its an older model, a 115cc air-cooled, carburetted, 2-valve engine mated to a CVT, but its styling makes it appear much more advanced. Never having ridden a traditional sit-in scooter, I was a bit surprised by the seating position; I usually wind up riding around with my feet under my butt, with the balls of my feet well to the back of the runners. The CVT is convenient, if a bit slow to respond to throttle inputs at walking speed, in traffic; any machine that can handle Saigon during rush-hour is a well-engineered machine. Opening it up on the wide, empty boulevards in front of "Unification Palace" at midnight was extremely fun; racing a friend riding two-up on a newer Vespa, I was able to take turns with reckless abandon and total confidence. Luckily, the ubiquitous white police CB250s were nowhere to be found; foreigners without a license hooning on public street are ripe for an expensive shakedown. 

All the Gear, All The Continents

Cool old bike in an inside cafe painted to look like a street cafe...confusing
Dirt Tracker down by the riverside. Stylish!

The Nuovo in the underground parking at the Somerset Hotel

Ural Side Car!

Seen outside a night club in District 1. The German claimed it was the, "Only Buell in Vietnam!" I was in no position to doubt him.

Kickass little motorbike I passed during my walk to work through the Saigon Children's Hospital. 150ccs, 6-speed true manual transmission, under-seat storage. Tell me why they don't sell these in America, again?

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