Steve Mueller’s Vietnam adventures started back in the twilight years of the last century when a round-the-world trip included a month’s journey around the country. He only made it as far as Nha Trang before bad roads brought an end to his first trip, but opened the door to a new life.
After a brief visit back home, he returned to Vietnam a year later to start his new life, unsure where it would take it but full of enthusiasm and motivation to seize the opportunities he had seen while first here. He bought his first Vespa on his second day back, unaware that these classic Italian scooters would play such a part of his future.
A brief stint as an English teacher kept the money coming in, but on his first trip he had been inspired by the entrepreneurial spirit of the Vietnamese. “Everybody was hustling and rubbing nickels together to make some cash” Steve told me, and he wanted a part of it too.
The first venture was executive training, and it did well, but the wild-west vibe was slowly disappearing and there was a need to legitimise himself further. Yet more ventures followed, including a fun but financially unrewarding stint trading tuna. Then in 2000 he once again turned his attention to the Italian classics and started restoring Vespas for sale in the States.
His girlfriend at the time owned a small café on the corner of De Tham and Trang Hung Dao. “I stuck a couple of Vespas out front and the next thing you know, people are buying them. I built a website and it started to turn into a successful business”, Steve explained.
Life went well, the business grew and he started to put down roots. The girlfriend became a wife, and his first child was born in 2005. Becoming a family man spurred a reflection on values and he started to think about how he could give back to the community that had helped him grow.
A chance conversation in the café one day recalled the wild story about how Willie Nelson rode around America in his RV fuelled by French fry oil, biodiesel, and a new idea was born. “This was a great time to get the expat community involved in an environmental project that was viable” Steve told me.
With his brother, Kenneth taking care of the technical aspects, and Steve looking after business, they started to source the components needed to produce their own bio fuel. Their first hurdle was the reluctance of companies to sell their reactor technologies to Vietnam, such was the fear of copying.
But building a reactor is not rocket science and there was enough information available on the internet for them to start building one themselves. They gathered the support from the Dean of Chemical Engineering at Adelaide University and six months later he arrived in Vietnam to put the finishing touches to their machine. 45 days later, they had their first bio fuel reactor ready to go.
They sold their oil to a local guy just a few blocks away for refining, and in no time they were selling at 20% of the pump price.
“People couldn’t get enough but this was just a non-profit, feel good project. We hadn’t anticipated the success. This had just started as an environmental project but now we were starting to make money. People were putting pressure on us to find more stock.” Steve explained. Constantly trying to source more cooking oil to use in their production hampered progress and meant that they were not reaching their potential. Demand kept growing, especially with rising oil prices and a new mandate demanding that a percentage of the country’s oil needed to be bio fuel, either ethanol or biodiesel.
“We had heard about a type of weed called Jatropha with seeds you could crush to produce a very high quality oil that is great for biofuel.” Steve told me. He had a small plot of land on the outskirts of the city so started harvesting crops. The results were tremendous, and before long he attracted the attention of the government and investors.
With the price of traditional oil rising sharply to almost $100 a barrel, a lot of money was being pumped into alternative energies and biofuels. The Vietnamese Department of Forestry was awarded a grant from the World Bank and Steve started to produce much larger quantities of the crop in central Vietnam, in cooperation with the government.
Partnership with the government brought credibility for serious investors and the money came tumbling in. “Then the bells struck in 2008, the price of fuel plummeted and the whole thing came tumbling down. It ceased to be a viable business prospect and we folded shop.” Steve explained. It was time to look for the next venture.
The Vespas had been ticking over in the background all this time, and in 2007 Steve had launch Vietnam Vespa Adventure. The Top Gear team came to do their journey in 2010 and by luck, JetStar had written an article about the tours in their inflight magazine. Suddenly, everyone wanted to tour Vietnam on the back of a vintage Italian scooter.
Vietnam Vespa Adventure now operates in 6 location in Vietnam and Cambodia. The bikes produce a lot of pollution, so Steve continued his campaigns for environmental protection by founding Viet Nam Sach va Xanh. “I wanted to continue to give back to the community, so with a partner Nhan X from RMIT, we founded the green ribbon programme and started an anti-litter campaign.”
Like many business owners, Steve’s days are varied with no two days the same. He wakes early to spend time with his sons before taking them to school. This is one of his most important times of the day. Mornings are often spent checking emails and overseeing operations. “I tend to be more hands-off than hands-on, taking a developmental role checking out new locations and planning new tours.” He explained.
Much of this development takes him travelling on one of his bikes. With 6 locations, there are always new places for him to explore around the country, and where possible he tries to take the kids with him.
“My bikes require care, many of them are between 40 and 50 years old, mostly from the 1960s. Some of the lads working with me have been there from the start, they’re a great team and perhaps some of the last skilled mechanics for Vespas. There are things fading, but as long as we’re allowed to drive Vespas, we will still be here. We’re lucky to have jobs we love.”