”The Vietnamese have a saying: ”Better a good enemy than a bad friend.” So says food/travel writer, Vietnam vet and Saigon resident Richard Sterling when asked about the current state of Vietnamese enmity toward the West. With the fall of the Soviet Union and the rise of a capitalist economy in China, the role of global superpowers in the region are far from what they were back in the Cold War era. In fact, the spread of consumerist values has created some strange bedfellows in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam as regards local wants, needs and desires.
To wit: Ho Chi Minh’s love affair with one of the more potent symbols of American steel, industrial might and commercial rebellion — the Harley-Davidson motorcycle.
Asia in total represents a booming market for two-wheeled transport, and Vietnam specifically seems to be the local market of choice according to industry analyst Andy Brennan of IBISWorld. “There are 40 million motorcycles registered in Vietnam,” says Brennan. And while most are at the lower end, Harley-Davidson has found a niche market there and they’re jumping all over it. Up to and including using LinkedIn to recruit staff for a Saigon Harley dealership they’re reportedly opening toward the end of 2013. (Harley was contacted but declined to comment for this story.)
Ho Chi Minh has a love affair with one of the more potent symbols of American steel, industrial might and commercial rebellion.
So amidst new buildings and other signs of economic investment in what used to be called Saigon, Harleys are roaring through the streets at occasional weekend road rallies, yet another sign of “Vietnam’s growing middle class.”
”Thirty-five percent of Harley’s shipments are international. That’s about 87,000 bikes annually. For the past 10 years the lion’s share of these have been going to Beijing, but trade barriers to Vietnam dropped in 2006 and Harley’s presence there has definitely been growing,” Brennan says.
This may not be so surprising given that Vietnam’s GDP rose 5.54 percent in the third quarter year over year, it’s emerging as the third largest oil producer in Asia, and it’s projected to be among the world’s top 20 economies by 2050. Nor is it surprising that Harley Owners Groups – which gave us the nickname “hog” for a Harley — are fairly widespread globally, from posts as far-flung as Croatia, New Zealand and now Ho Chi Minh City (boasting 84 members at last count but only one woman among their ranks). Except that Ho Chi Minh City was formerly home to a government that scorned American capitalism and the trappings of consumerism, of which an expensive motorcycle is surely one.
But let’s put some black motorcycle boots on the ground to put this in perspective.
”Buying a Harley in Vietnam is like buying a jet airplane in the U.S.,” says motorcyclist and expat Erik Koehne, now living in Vietnam. ”I mean, if 99.5 percent of the population makes $150 a month, and they work their asses off, they can save $25 each month, if they are lucky.”
Luck probably has tons to do with it, because when a $20,000 Harley gets shipped to Vietnam, according to Koehne, it gets taxed seven times before the consumer gets to see it. So driving it off the lot? A not-so-easy $40,000. “The average Joe in Hanoi could buy a Harley in about 1,600 months, or about 133 years.”
Which doesn’t really explain who the hell the folks are who are tooling around town not on xe moto (scooters) or in xe autos (cars) but on Harley-Davidson panheads, shovelheads and all manner of muscled-up motorcycles.
And this is where the trail gets strangely silent, departing from solid statements about the ”growing middle class” and heading into off-the-record whispers about people with “connections” or “in government.” It all seems darkly suggestive until you get a gander at a road rally in Saigon: It looks like a road rally in any part of the world. Bikers leaning on bikes, profiling and talking shop about parts, upgrades and upkeep. Against the background of what you recognize as the Vietnam of more than half a dozen movies. Minus the war.
“You need to realize,” Koehne laughs. “All of that stuff was 40 years ago. This country’s had economic reforms, social reforms, and if these guys want to kick back, ride and drink a little beer, well, that’s really just a certain type of progress.”
Emblazoned with a Harley winged eagle logo. Perfect.
Why you should care
Because sometimes a good former enemy is better than a bad friend.