Thursday, 11 January 2018 05:07

From Behind The Iron Curtain

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A Soviet-era motorcycle collection revealed


Collectors are insatiable. They don’t rest until they’ve got what they want. Once they’ve got it, the search begins again in earnest for the next thing on their list.


Take the case of Linh Nguyen, a 39-year-old Hanoian who’s been living in Saigon since 2004. Since starting his Soviet-era motorcycle collection 13 years ago, Linh has accumulated 20 motorcycles manufactured in the former USSR, valuable remnants of the former Communist bloc’s support of North Vietnam during the American War; every one of them restored close to their original condition.


Linh was introduced to motorbikes by his father, who used to work at Hanoi’s Noi Bai Airport in the 1970s after the war. On the odd weekend he would plonk his young son on the tank of his Czech-made 350cc Jawa and take him to work on it.


“I can remember the Jawa’s colour,” recalls Linh. “It was orange with a little bit of red. And the smoke. Because it had a two-stroke engine, it blew a lot of smoke and I’ve carried that memory with me ever since. That is the memory I will always have of that time — the smoke and the sound of that two-stroke engine.”



A Story Is Telling


Collectors become obsessed with the story behind the piece as much as the actual piece itself that they spend vast amounts of time and money on pursuing.


“It not enough to be beautiful, original and rare,” says Linh. “It has to tell a story.”


After the war finished in 1975, most of the motorcycles in Vietnam originated from what was then the Eastern Bloc; the north in particular was home to motorcycles manufactured in what is present-day Russia, Belarus, Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary. Motorcycles manufactured in China were also common.


One common sight in Hanoi at the time was the Ural motorcycle, with its trademark sidecar, its origins linked to the eastern front during World War 2 after the Soviet Union acquired the design and production techniques for BMW motorcycles from the Nazis. Also common were Dnepr (pronounced neeper) motorcycles, named after one of the major rivers of Europe that flows through Kiev in Ukraine, along with Izh motorcycles from the maker of the AK-47 assault rifle, which for a time enjoyed the same reputation as the AK-47 for being reliable in harsh conditions. Linh has one of these on display on the ground floor of his bistro — Biker Shield — in District 1.



The Chase


While over a relatively short period of time, Linh has built a collection that is among the most impressive in Vietnam, he’s selective.


“If the motorcycle is 100 years old but not a rare make, doesn’t catch my eye or doesn’t have any historic value, then it’s just an old bike and I’m not interested,” he says.

To reinforce his point, Linh points in the direction of one of the motorcycles on display on the second floor that I now suddenly find myself dying to touch, perhaps even sneaking a quick sit on when he’s not looking.


“That’s a Triumph Werke Nurnberg built in Germany,” he explains. “After 1957, the Triumph factory in Germany closed down and stopped manufacturing them so it’s extremely rare, and as far as I know, I own one of only five left in Vietnam.”


But paradoxically, the motorcycle in Linh’s collection that perhaps has the most moving story to tell is his Innocenti Lambretta, also on display on the second floor. Linh has been reliably told that it’s the most original Lambretta in Vietnam and has been ridden for just 3,000km. It’s first owner was a South Vietnam soldier who was killed during the war and whose family kept it through the 1980s as a keepsake but eventually sold it to a family friend who Linh then acquired it from after a long chase.


“When he handed it over to me, he cried,” says Linh.


And that just about sums up the lot of the collector. Linh says that he doesn’t sleep for at least three days after acquiring a new addition to his collection. Only then can he look over every detail of the motorcycle to the point where he’s confident he knows every single part of it.


And what collectible has he got on his mind right now?


“I’ve just put a deposit on a 1946 Izh 350 and I’ve just heard that there are some Norton Commandos in the Ukraine still in their boxes from the 1970s that were destined for the United States. That’s what’s on my mind.” — 


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Matt Cowan

Managing Editor of Word Vietnam. Destined to be a dairy farmer until he accepted a spur of the moment job offer in Japan in 1998. After making it big in Japan, he now finds himself wrangling stories in Vietnam instead of cows in Australia. Matt has been living in Saigon since 2010.

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