Retro motor vehicles in HCMC are not limited to motorbikes, as Brett Davis discovers when he talks to members of a group of dedicated classic car enthusiasts in Saigon. Photos by Vinh Dao and Brett Davis.
On a Sunday afternoon in the park at the rear of the Reunification Palace, groups of people lounge around café tables, chatting and sipping on drinks. However, one particular group stands out from the crowd.
That’s because they arrived at the park in some seriously sweet rides. Classic automobiles, from a host of famous auto makers, that have been meticulously and lovingly restored. In a nation that is almost single mindedly obsessed with all that is modern and new, it is a rare thing to find a collection of individuals who value something of form and function from years gone by.
The group is entirely informal, with no name or organizational structure to speak of, but these vintage motor-heads meet here every Sunday with a shared passion that keeps them coming back.
One of the first to arrive is Tuan, 45, who cruises up in his 1960 Citroen ID 19. He found the car in terrible condition and restored everything from the engine to the body and interior himself. He believes it was imported into Vietnam around 1965.
He says he spent several years saving the money to buy the car, then a year gathering the necessary parts and a further year doing the actual work. Tuan works in computer engineering and is a self-taught mechanic. “I can fix computers, but not cars,” he says in what is obviously a statement of great self-deprecation considering the fine vehicle before us.
Tuan began the project about four years ago and it is the third classic Citroen he has restored, one of which was a Traction Avant, the auto maker’s previous flagship model. The ID series’ (also known as the DS) body styling and engineering were revolutionary for its time, particularly the hydropneumatic self-leveling suspension.
“The ride is completely smooth,” Tuan says of the car’s unique suspension system. It also apparently allows it to corner like it’s on rails. “Ninety kilometres an hour and you can turn just like that,” he says, making a smooth arcing motion with his right arm.
The search for parts can be a tremendous challenge, as any restorer of classic vehicles will tell you. The internet has made this easier in recent years, and Tuan was able to source parts from around the world, including France, the US, Germany and Holland. Social media groups play a part and sometime parts are swapped or even given away among the network of classic car enthusiasts.
As Tuan pops the hood and we look at the suspension system in action, smoothly raising the rear end of the car, he says these are not just any parts he searches for. “It has to be genuine parts; it is not the same otherwise,” he says.
Tuan still has all of the cars he has restored. He says they are difficult to sell in a place where people want new, modern vehicles. However, it is probably just as likely he is unwilling to part with these labours of love.
Long, 46, and his wife, Hai, are at the park in their 1967 Volkswagen Beetle. He talks me through the evolution of this iconic vehicle and what he likes about his model. “They have a better shape, a better look,” he says in Vietnamese.
If this unofficial group has an unofficial leader of sorts, Long is probably it. He says everyone who comes along has something to share about classic vehicles. It might just be general information, advice on restoration techniques or tips on where to track down authentic parts.
Anyone who is interested can come along, even if they do not have a car of their own.
Most certainly at the other end of the spectrum of classic car enthusiasts is 40-year-old hotel operator Phong, who has brought his newly acquired 1967 Mini Cooper to the park. He says he has no plans to do any special work on it at this stage; he merely bought it because he liked it. It is also just one in his collection of 15 classic cars, which also includes a vintage Rolls Royce, Citroen, Alfa Romeo and Chevrolet Bel Air.
When asked which one he likes best, it is perhaps a like asking a parent which of their children is their favourite. “I like them all,” he replies.
The cars are part of Phong’s affection for anything he describes as ‘classic’, and extends to motorcycles, watches and bicycles.
Many of the classic cars that found their way to Vietnam over the years came from European companies. Given the country’s period as a French colony this is perhaps not surprising. So while many of the cars restored by this group of enthusiasts reflect this history, there are a couple of examples from Detroit, USA, the beating heart of global automobile manufacturing in its heyday.
Perhaps one of the most iconic examples of American heavy metal produced by the Motor City is the Ford Mustang. Ban, a 37-year-old business man and owner of a 1970 Mustang, has a clear preference when it comes to the choice between European or American cars.
“Between the two kinds, European cars are smaller. American cars are bigger and more powerful,” he says. “[The Mustang] has style and it’s stronger, like a muscle car.”
Ban has been indulging his passion for restoring vehicles for the past eight years, having previously completed projects including a Volkswagen Beetle, as well as Harley Davidson and Vespa motorcycles.
Like everyone else in this circle, he scoured the globe looking for parts during the two years it took to fully restore his pride and joy. He is so pleased with the results he is keen to tackle another Mustang as his next project.
A car such as this belongs on the open road and Ban has undertaken road trips to places like Hoi An, Danang and Ca Mau. He likes that he can open it up on the highway and that it turns heads wherever he goes. “Lots of people ask me questions or ask to take pictures. They see that it looks different; it’s not like anyone else’s.”
Although not at the park on that particular Sunday, when I speak to him the next day, 26-year-old Cong, a film producer and director, expresses a similar view. “I love antique things, I’m a collector,” he says. Cong has several vintage cars and motorcycles in his collection. He also has a fondness for vintage American cars and has much of the work done in the Unites States before shipping the cars back to Vietnam.
His latest project is the restoration of a 1985 Cadillac Seville, a model that features a distinctive sloped-back design. He has a friend in the States who supervises the work for him. “I know what I want but the mechanics who can do this kind of work are very rare,” he says.
All this classic car love does seem very much like big boys and their toys. I ask Cong if it is unusual that someone as young as he is into these vehicles. He chuckles and says: “People with this hobby are never old.”