My orange deck chair sits behind a squat table, the condensation on my beer shivering from the rumble of passing traffic just a few metres away. Café Zoom, headquarters of city tour company Vietnam Vespa Adventures, sits alongside one of the city’s busiest intersections. Owner Steve Mueller lounges back in his chair next to me, clearly accustomed to the perpetual racket on this busy corner of De Tham. He doesn’t seem fazed as he takes another swig from his own sweaty beer mug.
“I’m not really a bike guy back home, but when you come to Vietnam, how can you not be a bike guy?”
Steve arrived to our interview on a taupe Vespa, which sputtered and popped to a halt on the pavement. Painted on its flank is the tour company’s insignia — an orange outline of what looks like a grinning man in a rice hat driving a motorbike. It now sits to our left next to its siblings, six other vintage Vespas with similar paint jobs.
“Think of a vintage, classic vehicle — they are a weekend ride,” he says. “You don’t see people taking their antique car to work. We have a fleet of 50 bikes, and I would say nowhere in the world is somebody using a fleet of antiques and putting them through what we put these things through.”
The concept is certainly a bizarre one. The fleet — a collection of nearly 50 classic Vespas, all originals from the 60s and early 70s — are ridden regularly around the unforgiving urban jungle of Ho Chi Minh City and beyond. Vietnam Vespa Adventures is a tour company for all intents and purposes. What sets it apart, however, are the unexpected workhorses that are the backbone of the operation. “A Vespa is an incredible machine,” Steve says. He should know, since his own Vespas traverse roads that few motorbikes in the city ever will.
Classic Bikes and Bright Ideas
Steve arrived in Vietnam after nearly a year of travelling the world — that was almost 14 years ago. Just as soon as he arrived, he recognised that without two wheels, there was no easy way of getting anywhere around the city. Steve, though, was only interested if he got to do it in style. He bought himself a Vespa, a cheap one, that demanded constant maintenance to stay running. His DIY mechanics crash course paid off though. Before long word got around about his expertise.
“I told a few friends back home that I was riding an old Vespa. They said, ‘I’ve got to have one of those’, so I started a business exporting bikes.”
The exporting continued until a regular client made an off-handed comment: “How cool would it be to do tours on Vespas?” Steve, already a road trip enthusiast, saw the opportunity and ran with it.
Keeping it Simple
The idea was a big one and took a full year to come to fruition. Slowly Steve collected enough bikes, drivers and mechanics to get the venture up and running. Included was the café owned by his then girlfriend, now wife, who became an integral part of the operation when she took the lead in bike purchases with her two cents: “You’re paying too much!”
The seven-day adventure tours began in 2006, and since then have expanded into both long-range tours with a ‘pit crew’ of mechanics along for the ride as well as shorter city tours. Every tour’s itinerary feels like something plucked from Steve’s own travel diary — locations are often his personal favourites, hidden down sleepy alleyways or up darkened stairwells.
Almost seven years later, Steve still makes time to come along with a few tours every week, braving the heat on his own Vespa with sunglasses and a grin. He obviously loves what he does, and his philosophy matches the smile on his face: “Find your passion, keep it simple and be patient.”
For more information on the tours go to vietnamvespaadventures.com