It was 8am on Valentine’s Day and the sun was burning hazily through the smog of the city. Perched outside Saigon’s IBIS Hotel in District 7, we watched the beasts arrive. First a 1962 Lambretta, or as someone described it, sex on wheels. Italian sex on wheels.
Was this to be our Valentine’s date?
Then the Hell’s Angels rocked up, or at least, the closest version you’re likely to find in Vietnam. Sat astride their four Harley-Davidsons, booming rumbles preceded them as they rolled down the road in movie-like unison. All we needed now was an outdoor screen showing the classic flick, Easy Rider, with Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper (R.I.P.) on hand to sign autographs. It was not to be.
I had spent the previous sleepless night in between a mix of terror and self-affirmation. I’ve driven bikes for 25 years, glided through Europe, parts of North America and four countries in Asia. Thanks to a close friend, I now own a Honda Trail Bike, a 30-year-old off-roader, and have ridden almost every type of bike you’re likely to find on the roads of Vietnam. But never a Harley. And never a KTM, too, one of the other speedy beasts I was going to try. Would I be able to manage it?
The answer, as I discovered, was yes. Not always with ease, though. The largest of the Harleys weighed in at almost 400kg and, with its 1,800cc-plus engine, is faster than the speed of light. Well, it felt that way.
Nought to 100kmph in under two seconds is not to be sniffed at. But once you’re used to driving a manual bike, and have taken it through a variety of terrains, both on-road and off, converting your skills to something bigger, more powerful and — if the word is apt, better — is not such an arduous task.
So, here’s the lowdown.
This curvaceous beauty of the biking world is so rare now, that only the collectors out there will understand how desirable it is to own a TV175. As owner Steve Mueller reiterated, in its day this was a favourite of the air pilots, who liked to cruise around Saigon and the surrounding countryside in Roman Holiday style. He should know. The man behind Vietnam Vespa Adventures, he has 75 classic Vespas in his keeping, many used for tours. But for Steve, the Lambretta is a little bit special.
Riding and Handling
This is a heavy bike, with the engine rattling through every part of the body. Yet it takes the rough and tumble of the roads with surprising grace. And for a bike of such age, it switches into neutral with ease.
Italian chic. Simple yet robust, curvaceous yet sexy. A real looker.
For a 1964 vehicle, super smooth.
According to Steve, if you can find a TV175, you’ll be looking at over VND100 million. Even 15 years ago when Vespas and Lambrettas captured the imagination of foreigners visiting and living in Vietnam, this particular model was going for up to VND15 million.
Who it’s for
For people who like a Sunday drive on a frame of beautifully crafted metal and paint. It’s a collector’s bike, the kind driven by a mod out of the cult movie Quadrophenia.
If you know your bikes, and like to go for something classic, then Lambrettas and Vespas may just be the models for you. It’s a love affair. But beware the spark plug. In the rain it can get soaked and leave you stranded.
Models: SH Mode and Air Blade Deluxe
Year: 2013 / 2014
If one company can lay claim to pushing forward the motorbike industry in Vietnam, it’s Honda. From the Honda Cubs and Honda 67s through to the Honda Dreams and more recently the Waves, Futures, Spacys and SHs, Honda have played a role in making this country into the motorbike-obsessed nation it is today.
Riding and Handling
I own an Air Blade. So, comparing the latest model to my own 2010 whizz buster was fascinating. What improvements would there be? As I discovered, all were incremental and in the details. The engine is softer, less noisy. The acceleration is smoother, the electric starter almost soundless. And even the speedometer has been changed up — now it has a digital element.
The SH Mode was equally smooth. Honda’s main scooter model, it is powerful yet to drive it feels effortless. Honda bikes are all about a smooth, calming ride. And in the heat of frenetic traffic they are difficult to beat.
Attractive with nice curves. The Air Blade retains its sporty attire while the SH Mode has curves and swirls.
Did I say smooth one too many times? Time to add in the word powerful, then. For relatively small-engine automatics, these bikes really fly.
Hondas retain their value. So, while you’re going to pay more for an Air Blade or an SH than you would for a competitor equivalent, the reliability of the bikes means that secondhand they are as good a buy as new.
Simple yet sleek, now with digital features on the dashboard to complement all those ‘ometers.
Who it’s for
People who can afford it and in particular, people who are searching for bikes that will last. Here Honda is in a world of its own.
As city bikes with some speed and yet easy to operate in traffic, both the Air Blade and the SH Mode are in their element. Attractive yet practical, and most importantly, a brand you can rely on.
Models: Duke 200 and Duke 390
A new addition to the Vietnamese market, KTMs started off as off-road and racing bikes. The recent transition of this Austrian brand to smaller engine models is a masterstroke. Light yet speedy, sporty yet easy to manoeuver, their range of manual bikes in Vietnam starts at the Duke 125 before heading upwards into the precipices of the superbike.
Riding and Handling
Like a dream. Light but with the power of a rocket in its spleen, the Duke 200 is only an entry model but is something to be reckoned with. Good in traffic, but despite its speed it never feels like it’s too difficult to handle.
And then there’s the Duke 390. Now we’re getting somewhere.
Sleek, orange, white and black. Sporty, distinctive and yet easy on the eye. Has ‘racer’ written all over it.
A nice purr, a soft rumble, and when the gas is down, the whizz of acceleration is a dream. For the real deal, switch up to the 390. Now we’re talking.
The word ‘reasonable’ does this brand justice. We’re not going to mention exact prices here, but for under VND150 million you can have yourself one helluva bike.
Simple buttons and switches, but check out that digital speedometer. Everything you need to know about your bike on one simple screen. Watching the speed go up and down as you accelerate or change down gears adds to the sense of usability.
Who it’s for
According to KTM, mainly 20 to 35-year-olds. According to me, people who like speed but want a bike that can navigate the city in heavy traffic.
Possibly the perfect bike for both the city and the open road — if you like speed, that is. The 200 and 390 are so light that you will never feel you have too much weight on your hands. And moving up and down the gears — we’re talking six in both these instances — is effortless. As is changing down into neutral. What more could you ask for of a manual bike, especially one negotiating traffic?
Models: 883, Forty-eight and Street Glider
Year: 2012 / 2013
Now over a century old, Harley-Davidson are the classic American-built beasts of the road. When I say beasts, despite their size and their almost perfect, stuff-of-dreams black and chrome bodywork, get these things moving and they are light. Very light. Even the almost 400kg-heavy Street Glide, the ultimate touring bike and the producer’s best-known model, is light once you get it past walking pace. And wow does it fly!
The recent opening of the Harley-Davidson dealership in Ho Chi Minh City means these bikes can now be purchased in Vietnam. And with the HOG groups (Harley-Davidson owner groups) already claiming scores of members, the fascination with these bikes is set to grow.
Riding and Handling
Beautiful. Smooth with that insane comforting rumble. Amazing acceleration, but controlled. My favourite bike, the Forty-eight, with its stripped down, nothing-to-hide bodywork, was low-slung, small and light with wide handlebars and your legs stretched out in front. Described as an urban brawler, turning in a circle on this boom-boom, double exhaust baby was surprisingly easy. So easy that I must have taken it for 10 rounds of U-turns before our photographer finally got the shot he required.
Black and silver and more black and silver. When it comes to art and motorbikes merged into one, Harleys are beauties. But for me the real beauty of all the beasts was the Forty-eight.
The 883 was slightly tinny, but in that classic sort of way and always with that rumble. The 1,200cc Forty-eight was roaring, displaying a hunger for power and a passion for speed. And the Street Glide, designed for long-haul touring comfort, was all strength, low-end torque and raw, horse-infused power. There was 1,800cc of it, after all.
The Vietnamese phrase “Tien nao cua nay” comes to mind here. You pay your price, you get your quality. Think VND350 million and up, up and up. Here you are truly paying for quality.
The 883 and the Forty-eight by Harley standards are fairly simplistic. But then it’s all about that classic look. And after all, who needs all the mod cons? Now as for the Street Glide, this is the equivalent of a car on two wheels — all the comfort of a four-wheeler fitted into a bike.
Who it’s for
For someone who likes to be seen and look mean. Owning a Harley requires a certain outlook on life. Fortunately, there are so many different models available that there’s something for everyone. For me? The Forty-eight.
I want it, I want it, I want it!