Jan 14, 2015

My first month as an ex-pat, Part 2

One of the things I hoped to accomplish in the first two weeks here, was the purchase of a motorcycle and possibly a motorbike (step-through scooter). As documented in Part 1, I did purchase the step-through—a peppy Nouvo 3.

Finding the right motorcycle was a bit more difficult.

Since my first week in VN over a year ago, I've heard talk about a local named Hau. He's reported by some to be "the best mechanic in Ho Chi Minh City", though he is also known to take his time and you can forget about promise times—or allow for 200-1000% over. I finally got to meet him in mid-December when I tagged along with Terence when he went over to check on the progress of his bike. According to Terence, it was originally promised for early December. When we got to the shop, it was nowhere to be seen. As I write this almost one month later, his bike is almost complete (I saw it this morning) and T is hoping to have it within a week.

"It's Việt Nam..." is the explanation for almost everything here and it definitely applies to missed promise times. Best I can figure, confrontation is NOT in their DNA. I recommend you go with the flow and stay mellow... getting upset will just get you pushed to the back of the queue.

To clarify, when I say "motorbike" or "scooter", I am referring to a step-thru like the Nouvo pictured above. When I say "motorcycle", I'm referring to a bike with the fuel tank between the handlebars and the seat. There are 500cc scooters and 100cc motorcycles, so engine size is not a determining factor in MY terminology. Clear as mud?

Hau also sells reconditioned motorcycles and scooters and that is where I found my 1999 Honda Steed 400... 
...ready for reconditioning. I am unable to find the photo I took showing the split in the left side of the rear fender, though it was pretty big. Hau assured me that he would fix it and everything else that needed repair; paint it to my specifications (color and design); change the oil and filter and replace the radiator fluid (yes, it's water-cooled); add a set of top-opening saddlebags; and replace the handlebars with a new set. The price, only US$3800.

Here you can see the bodywork stripped off and the new handlebars in place. The old ones are still hanging by the cables. Note also the position of the rear turn signals.

Hau's promise time was 4-5 days, so I figured 10 days to two weeks and he hit the outside at 15 days. I think it was worth the wait and the $$$...

The blue is lighter than I remember picking, though I definitely got the classic 1950's cruiser look I was after. He even made the seat a bit wider and more cushioned to better fit my Western posterior. Separate rider and pillion seats would complete the look, though those can wait for another time.

A previous owner modified the exhaust to give it a very throaty growl under acceleration, so it sounds as awesome as it looks :-D

Hau's shop is the best in HCMC for repairing/customizing your motorcycle. The name is Hein Moto (after his brother, the owner, though only Hau speaks English). It is at 142 Nguyến Hữu Cảnh, P. 22, Ben Thahn District. Stop by and tell him John says hello!

A couple days after picking up my beautiful new bike, Cong took me to Kim Thanh, a shop that specializes in metal and chrome. WOW!

The owner, Duong, speaks zero Tiếng Anh (English), so Cong translated for both of us. In the 14 months I've known him, Cong's English has improved dramatically! It's rare that he needs assistance in working with clients, he's the best mechanic I've met here, and his selling skills are improving daily. Because his bikes are mechanically sound, he charges and gets a premium... and those who want to pay less can go elsewhere. I know a LOT of "Sales Consultants" who could take a lesson or three from him about building value!

Oh yeah, metal and chrome...

As I've related in theses posts, (and if I don't tell you, my good friend Pete will) there were a few times in the past that I was unable to keep the rubber side down. For this reason, and because I could add foot pegs to them and stretch my legs on a long ride, I wanted highway bars to help limit damage to the rest of the bike if the rubber goes out from under me again. I also thought the bike could use a small rear luggage rack and a pillion seat back. Duong and his people made and installed all of these for me for 3.5 million (US$167).

In the first photo you can see the peeled chrome on the top of the tail/license plate light. I've ordered another via eBay and it should arrive in the next couple weeks.

When I first saw the bike, I noticed that the front edge of the headlight was scratched and the yellow-ish plastic was showing through and I was on the lookout for a good metal headlight. When I asked Duong about headlights, he brought out a number of beautiful pieces, each hand-made by his crew and every one chromed steel. One was almost Beau Arts style and so gorgeous that I was tempted to buy it as a piece of art. It was, unfortunately, too large for my bike, though it would look great on a 1000cc or maybe an 800.... and I failed to take a photo.

With Cong's help, Duong and I worked out exactly what my headlight should look like. He told me to come back in three days to have it installed. Total cost, 2.2 million VND. Even better, when he says three days, it's ready in three days.

Duong is perfecting the fit on my new headlight
As they were installing the new headlight, I ordered a new set of handlebars (1.7M VND). The new ones Hau put on seemed fine at first; after my 150 kilometer round-trip a few days ago, I realized that I need something higher—though short of "ape hangers".  When none of the bars he had in inventory were right, he dug around in the shop for thin rod which he then bent into the approximate shape of a handlebar. While he held it in place, I sat on the bike and held my hands where I thought they would be most comfortable on a long ride. He then tweaked the bends in the bar until they were just right and told me to come back in two days. They're nice!

The shop is Kim Thảnh, 135E Nguyến Chì Thanh, P. 9, District (Quan.) 5, HCMC.

The bike is now back at Hau's shop for a touch-up on the paint and application of a product that he tells me will protect the paint. Clearcoat is not mixed into the final coat here, so the paint is softer than we're used to... and takes scratches too easily.

That's the story behind my 400cc Honda Steed.

A couple days after putting down my deposit on the Steed I was walking down the street that my hotel's on and saw a beautiful BIG black cruiser sitting outside of Flamingo Travel. Cong (~ pronounced Kahm with a truncated "m") was polishing it, so I asked, "What is it?"

A Yamaha XVS1000

It had Cambodian plates, so I asked him if it was legal to ride in Việt Nam. He said that it was "No problem" for a foreigner. Can you guess my next question?

"How much?"



A little later I spoke to Flamingo's owner, Hung (whom I've known for over a year), to discuss the Cambodian registration, details of possible "issues" with the local police, and verify the price. The next morning I delivered a US$1000 cash deposit with the agreement that I would pick up the bike in six days—after Hung verified its provenance and Cong went over every inch of it.

I paid the balance and picked up the bike the following Monday... what a GREAT bike! Smooth, comfortable, and it even has a drive shaft! I LOVE IT!

A local motorcycle apparel shop had an armored jacket that fit Nhi perfectly and the helmet and gloves donated during my Estate Sale also fit (they're too big for a Vietnamese child), so Nhi took a morning off and we went for a 90-minute ride outside of the city. The bike is uncomfortably large for HCMC traffic, though once we got outside the city, it was awesome—handles great, rides comfortably, and sounds like a big bike should.

I don't have a photo of the XVS1000, so I thought this would be a good substitute
I can't WAIT to ride it to Đà Lạt!!!

Then the other shoe dropped...

It turns out that a foreign-licensed motorcycle must be stamped into the country on the owner's passport and has to leave after a designated period—in no case more than one month. Since it wasn't stamped into MY passport, the police would confiscate it and I would have NO leg to stand on... bye-bye $3500 as well as the Bike Trac, battery tender connection, and GPS wiring Cong had already added for me.


During my initial conversation with Hung, he assured me that, if for any reason, I changed my mind about the bike in the first few weeks, he would give me a full refund. It was with a heavy heart that I walked into Flamingo's office and handed back the key and paperwork in exchange for my $3500.

I still want a second bike, though rather than another cruiser, I'm now leaning toward an enduro like the Honda XR250 or the Suzuki DZ-R400... something that will take me through the hills of the Central Highlands with ease.

Enough for now... stay tuned for an upcoming post in which John might actually leave for Đà Lạt...

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