My images of Vietnam had been largely formed by historical events as provided by news media. I did do some internet investigating to familiarize myself with general tourist information regarding the most often visited attractions. I was, however, unsure as to how I would be received as a citizen of the US given our involvement in previous Vietnamese affairs. It wasn't until I heard about an unofficial HOG chapter that I decided it would be a good visit and immediately made plans to go after contacting the group via some email correspondence. As with my usual experience of Asian Harley groups, I was immediately accepted as a fellow rider and greeted with the best of hospitality. Possibly my past trips to Asia and photojournalist work preceded me and greased the wheels. Whatever the reason, they had a record turnout to welcome and assist me in gathering as much material as I needed for an informative article.
I say unofficial HOG chapter because to be official the group needs to have a local Harley dealership to be associated with, which they don't. This doesn't dampen their spirit or their allegiance to the marquee or enthusiasm for riding. Momma H-D hasn't arrived yet because it has only been since 2007 that big engine motorcycles have been allowed in the country; previously 250cc motorcycles being the upper limit. With this in mind, it was quite surprising for me to see more than 30 bikes show up for the usual Saturday gathering and most were newer '08-and-later bikes. Amongst the bikes were a 1200 Sportster, a V-rod, a Dyna, a Rocker, and a Buell, and a bunch of Electra Glides, the newest being a '10 CVO Ultra Classic Electra Glide. This particular bike cost about $100,000 USD in Vietnam as the import duty alone is 175 percent (about $61,000 tax on a $35,000 MSRP) for "luxury" motorcycles, plus registration, shipping, and miscellaneous charges. So the next time you go to your local dealer and look at the price tags think about those guys overseas, they have to really want one bad to suck up a premium that heavy.
The group had recently moved their meeting place to a location that happened to be conveniently close to my hotel. Saigon is a fairly well spread out city and it can take some time with massive traffic delays to get from one area to another, so this was indeed helpful for me. They gather every Saturday about midday for a light lunch and refreshments. Along with congestive (as in heart failure) traffic, there is also a premium for parking and this new location had sufficient parking for the space we Harley riders come to expect but they do not have in Saigon. Their are about 10 million people in Saigon and about half of them have a motorbike which means that there are 5 million motorbikes in the city, and it looks more like 5 billion when you are out and about as they are everywhere riding in any direction even on sidewalks and parked everywhere.
I suggest you go to YouTube and look at some Saigon traffic (this link is excellent: youtube.com/watch?v=azxQx1tX-0o). You have to see it to believe it or even understand it. Words are difficult to find that can describe the madness of movement. As long as we are talking about traffic, let me explain something not so obvious to go along with the video. Horns honk/beep constantly and seem to serve some purpose of announcing your presence but does not seem to have much to do with your right to any space on the street. Most streets are two lines wide and one way. The right lane (and sidewalk) is for the 5 million motorbikes and the left lane is for cagers which at the onset seems reasonable-until it comes time for a car to make a right turn through the unending herd of scooters; all without traffic lights for assistance. On the highway it is a similar situation that at the onset seems reasonable keeping the underpowered 50cc motorbikes in the slow lane until you have a big bike and by law are supposed to stay in the herd of scooters at 30 mph. The guys seem to take their chances and spend most of the time in the left lane with cars going at "normal" highway speeds of up to 60 mph.
My vision for this article was to place several motorcycles about town in front of various monuments or landmarks for photo-op pictures. As you may guess that vision was somewhat clouded by the reality of traffic and logistics, as well as too many bikes showing up initially. Apparently we would not be allowed to amass in numbers and stop at most locations due to traffic or parking but the guys did their best and we did accomplish a bit as you can see from the photos. Due to the newness and scarcity of Harley-Davidsons in Vietnam, they certainly attract more than their share of attention and generate more traffic problems than already exist creating a circus atmosphere. Saigon is a rather picturesque city and, resulting from the French occupation, they have quite a lot of architecturally photogenic buildings, parks, and monuments as well as many large, wide tree-lined streets.
At the end of this day, the group had their usual after-meeting "party" at a selected location. They extended their hospitality to invite me to the affair held this day at a private convention center used mostly for weddings and business meetings, aptly named the White Palace due to its grandeur. Given the expense of owning and operating a Harley in Vietnam, I am sure you would expect the guys to be financially above the average wage earner and they are in fact mostly successful, well-connected businessmen. I seriously doubt that a cycle-gear clad bunch of Harley riders would normally be allowed entrance to this facility but one of the guys in the group knew the owner and that got us in to a private hall for a multi-course meal served by an efficient staff that could have been as large as our group. The food was first class, and the servers were on the spot removing plates, replacing silverware, and constantly attending to every need. We should have been in black tie formalwear rather than black leather casual wear. Impressive indeed.
On another day, I was able to ride a Street Glide about two hours to the nearest and most popular beach resort. Even after getting out of the mayhem of in-town traffic, the highway posed its own special challenge. As mentioned before, bikes are supposed to stay in the right lane but at highway speeds, this doesn't seem practical for a 1600cc motorcycle, so again the guys shared some of the left lane occasionally with the four wheelers to keep a practical pace. The infrastructure of most communist countries does not match that of its neighboring, more capitalistic countries so you see a quick change as you leave the main, heavily populated city zones. Traffic control seems nonexistent and many small commercial zones crop out along the highway presenting a need for approaching crossroads with extreme caution as any vehicle or animal is liable to move in any direction at any moment. Generally speaking, the roads are not in good enough condition to speed much faster than 50-60 mph. You also share the road with trucks, farm vehicles, and 50cc motorbikes hauling refrigerators, but as we got closer to the beach, the highway became a multi-lane super-slab lined with trees and dividers. This road is as smooth and straight as any you have been on, allowing for a much faster ride. The resort area itself was extremely well developed with a multitude of modern beachfront hotels, restaurants, coast highway, and landscaping elevating it to what appeared to be world-class standards.
There is so much more to talk about in this new frontier, but hopefully I have sparked an interest to look at it as a possible destination for a visit or at least as a subject for some of your reading and viewing time. With politics, food, entertainment, history, weather, exotic surroundings, modern development, old traditional culture, and so much more that makes for an interesting vacation, I can highly recommend it.