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Meet Chú Hai Bạc, Saigon's Veteran Vespa and Lambretta 'Doctor'

Even in his 70s, Phan Văn Bạc — better known among friends and fans as chú Hai Bạc — is still getting his hands dirty every day working with engines, screws and bolts to take care of vintage Vespas and Lambrettas. Bạc is among a handful of veteran mechanics remaining in Saigon whose specialties are Vespas and Lambrettas.

On a bright Saturday morning in September, one tiny hẻm on Nguyễn Văn Cừ Street of District 1 is suddenly rowdier than normal because a “gang” of Vespa bikers has descended upon Bạc’s workshop, a cozy home where he lives with his wife.

The homey vibes of Bạc’s garage.

Hân, a Vespa aficionado and regular at Bạc’s shop, tells me he got to know the mechanic from other members of a Vespa community. That was a long time ago, and now Hân has been a loyal customer for almost a decade and forged a close friendship with Bạc in the process. “It’s very rare to find a Vespa fixer as dedicated as chú Hai [Bạc],” he says.

Chú Hai Bạc and his wife at their workshop.

Born and raised in Saigon, Bạc has been exposed to the world of Lambrettas and Vespas through an uncle’s repair shop since he was 15 years old. The place was a reputable workshop in Saigon during the pre-1975 period, servicing one scooter after another constantly during the day, according to him. “Back then, people queued to have their scooter fixed everywhere in the shop, to the point that there’s nowhere to sit,” chú reminisces.

Life initially has other plans for him as he was conscripted when he was just 20. He fought in the military for two years and then was imprisoned for one due to his involvement with the past regime. Eventually, he was released and officially joined the uncle’s repair shop. Naturally talented, Bạc quickly honed his tinkering skills and became the sterling right hand of his uncle.

After a while, the uncle felt he was getting old and it was high time he retire and passed down the shop. Knowing all too well his nephew’s ability, he handed over the repair business to Bạc. At 30, chú Hai Bạc was a business owner; the shop’s ample clientele thanks to its years of good reputation helped improve the family’s livelihood. There were days when he would close up shop having fixed over ten scooters, not to mention the work of his team of 10 other mechanics.

Bạc shares that, despite their similar appearance, Lambretta and Vespa are quite different, anatomy-wise. The innards of a Lambretta are much more complicated than a Vespa, taking more time to make over and repair. On average, he needs from 1.5 months to 2 months to finish a job on a Lambretta, including the paint job and ordering of replacement parts. “Most parts are available, but not readily so I have to make an order. Usually it takes 1–2 weeks for the parts to reach me,” Bạc explains.

To work on components in relation to the engine, he has to remove the outer facade before fixing or replacing anything. The disassembling can take the whole day because he has to be extra careful when handling vintage engines. To paint the scooter body, he seeks professional help from other specialists, so each assignment takes up to three weeks.

In the decades before 1975, the golden age of these scooters, Lambretta, with its sturdy, robust build, was a highly sought-after purchase by Saigoneers, especially college students and officers. Vespa, on the other hand, had softer lines, a classic build, and intricate details, which appealed to older buyers.

“Young people went for Lambrettas, but if you’re older, like bosses, you would love a Vespa,” chú Hai explains. Even then, because the models were both European imports, they came with a hefty price tag and were regarded as symbols of style at the time. When one encounters a collection of retro images taken in past decades in Saigon, it’s easy to spot these scooters in downtown areas.

The vehicles’ well-loved status ushered in a prosperous era for scooter part shops, and finding parts was an easy job for mechanics like Bạc back then. Alas, after 1975, most shops shuttered and the stock of scooter items began depleting fast. He had to try his hand at crafting makeshift replacements for broken parts.

“No part in a scooter is hard to fix and replace, it was just the matter of knowing where to source and how to create impromptu fixes,” Bạc divulges. Many Vespa veterans already have a list of trusted sources of rare “gadgets” for their bikes, so they seek out Bạc for help in installation. Long-time regulars entrust chú Bạc with carrying out a “full package” maintenance, meaning sourcing parts and zhuzhing up their vehicular babies. “Hanoi used to be a good market to seek scooter parts. Luckily, after the market opened, parts are more readily available so I rarely have to create them myself anymore,” he recalls.

Today, old Lambrettas and Vespas have gradually left the roads to flashy new bike models, so it’s natural that his bike shop is not doing as well financially as in previous decades. In 1998, Bạc decided to close the shop to retire. It wasn’t too tough a choice as he felt overwhelmed by the workload as most experienced mechanics at the shops have left. He felt a little sad to let it go but reassured that it was a timely decision.

Despite the official closure, his connection with the trade has never waned. Vespa and Lambretta enthusiasts like Hân and his buddies have since started to take their beloved scooters to his home instead, and slowly that has become a mini repair shop too. “Saturday mornings are really fun here! The guys take their bikes here for him to fix and stay to shoot the shit, reminiscing about their past road trips on the scooters that he helps build and repair,” Hân claims. To him, Bạc is not just a repairman, but a dependable family member always ready to lend a hand when their ride has any ailment.

When asked about finding a successor, Bạc shares he has no current plan to pass down the trade. His own son was an apprentice for a while, but he quickly realized it wasn’t a good fit and the son wasn’t too excited to follow this career path. “To practice a trade, talent is also a key element. An instinctive learner only needs 2–3 years of study and might be able to repair better than others who work for 7–8 years,” he explains.

These days, chú Bạc’s daily source of contentment is seeing Vespas and Lambrettas that he repaired around town. Sometimes, while dashing about on Saigon streets, I come across vintage Vespas and Lambrettas driving alongside us. Perhaps those were once the “patients” of Hai Bạc’s decades-old scooter clinic.

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