Vespas and Vietnam are like Jack and Jill, Laurel and Hardy, peaches and cream or Veuve Clicquot and Beluga (for me).
Vespa is Italian for wasp, and the distinctive scooter was first produced by its owner, Piaggio, in 1948. Showing how quick off the draw French style-seekers can be, by the time France was kicked out of Vietnam in 1954, Vespas had been status symbols for legions of French residents.
After the end of the Vietnam War in 1975 and the country’s subsequent closure to all foreign travel, scooters became the workhorses of Vietnam. With no new replacements available, locals had to maintain these machines as best they could, and they became experts at understanding the secret workings of the fickle Italian two-strokes. And when foreigners started flooding back into Vietnam in 1990, they discovered masses of scooter parts as well as new value-model scooters from China and Japan.
In 1998 Steve Mueller paid $300 for a 1968 green and white Sprint Vespa. He bought four more, restored them and sold them on, in New York City. He set up a workshop and now he and his 15-strong team export up to ten restored Vespas every month (“I wish I knew the history of each bike,” he says).
In Ho Chi Minh City, I last stayed at New World Hotel Saigon on January 21st, 2003, in room 1120, and I warmly thanked the then-GM for providing all-plug adaptors that should be the norm in all luxury hotels. I loved the stylish Frette robes, and – obviously more suitably dressed – running in the park opposite. On my next visit, I promise warmly to thank the now-GM for finding space in the hotel’s spa package, which includes a half day – pillion – tour of Ho Chi Minh City on one of Steve Mueller’s restored Vespas.