I got a phone call last month from my old buddy and neighbor Larry Equitz, and there’s nothing unusual about that. The fact that the call came from Vietnam wasn’t all that unusual either. He was spending a month over there as he has done every year since 1999, and he’s called me from there a number of times in the past, generally after imbibing a few buckets of iced local brew in some tropical watering hole. What was unusual, though, was that he was calling me from a Harley-Davidson dealership, Harley-Davidson of Saigon, to be exact, which had recently opened without a lot of splash or hoopla, despite the obvious significance of that development.
The reasons for keeping the opening somewhat low key are also fairly obvious. As the dealership’s General Director Lawson Dixon explained to Larry, they were “concerned about the kind of feedback” they were going to get, particularly from American Vietnam vets. So far, he says, the feedback has been “all positive.”
And why shouldn’t it be? The Vietnam War ended 40 years ago, after all, but at the same time it remains a sore and sensitive subject to many—which would certainly explain the use of “Saigon” on the sign instead of the less palatable “Ho Chi Minh City.”
To all outward appearances, the dealership could be any other contemporary Harley emporium in any city in this country. An imposing façade, replete with a colonnaded portico and an immense mural of Harleys on the open road (apparently shot in the Rocky Mountains) opens up to a spacious showroom with all 27 of Harley’s current model offerings on the floor, as well as some customized units including Mr. Dixon’s own extensively modified Street Glide. A large service area is staffed by imported talent (the service manager came from Arizona). The only distinguishing feature of the service department is the presence of a guard and the necessity to swipe an access card to get in.
The speculation surrounding the rumored dealership had appeared over the last year in the local press outlets, but the first indication in this country of what was afoot was, of all things, a LinkedIn page for the phantom establishment advertising a number of positions available including that of general director, merchandising manager, and openings in P&A, marketing and human resources.
In the big picture, Vietnam figures significantly into Milwaukee’s Asian retail offensive that has brought the marque to China, Thailand and, especially, India. The markets for motorcycles in those countries are enormous and that’s certainly the case in Vietnam, which boasts a booming economy, 40 million motorcycles in use and annual sales of three million units—which is four times that of the U.S., though the vast majority of sales over there are (very) small-displacement machines. The Motor Company’s move into Vietnam was enabled primarily by the Bilateral WTO Market Access Agreement between the two countries in 2006, an agreement that relaxed import regulations prohibiting large-displacement machines and led to the revision of the complex licensing procedures that went with operating anything much bigger than a 125cc.
As both a lifelong biker and a Vietnam vet who spent 15 months in-country in 1968 and ’69, mostly humping an M-60 around the Mekong Delta, Larry’s presumably the kind of guy they had in mind when worrying about potential negative reception of the Saigon enterprise. His personal response was, “I think it’s fantastic.” He originally made his first of many visits to the country to, as he puts it, “See what was what”—to try to get some perspective on what he’d endured there in his lost youth and see where the country was headed in the aftermath. He’s one of literally thousands of vets who’ve returned to visit the country for similar catharsis, or even to relocate there because of the incredibly low cost of living, the beauty of the country, the graciousness of the people, and the richness of the culture and cuisine.
During that trip to Vietnam in 1999 he recalls having seen exactly one H-D—an old Ironhead Sportster. By 2007, after the trade barriers had been curtailed, he saw a whole lot more Milwaukee machinery, including heavily customized specimens (“They love that chopper shit,” he notes), and by 2009 a H.O.G chapter had started up in Ho Chi Minh City—called “Saigon H.O.G.,” naturally.
To be sure, Harley ownership is still the province of the super-rich in a country where the average income is somewhere south of $150 a month, and new H-D models sell for twice what they cost here, even with the more oppressive tariffs a thing of the past (a Fat Bob, for example, sells for $33,392). Pricing of models expressed in the Vietnamese dong currency is jaw-dropping, ranging from the mid-hundred millions to the low billions for CVO models. The price of a Saigon Harley-Davidson T-shirt, on the other hand, is a mere 900,000VND (about $42—roughly the same as dealership logo Tees in the U.S.) and they’re apparently doing a brisk trade in the garments. When Larry first visited the shop the inventory was depleted to the point where only small sizes remained, and Larry’s definitely not small. Even so, they were considerate enough to call him on his cell a week later to let him know that his size was again in stock and he went back to score one. Cool shirt, too. The front features a vintage Harley flat track racer and the caption “Race Hard.” The reverse side depicts a Vietnamese lass in traditional garb astride a bicycle. In the background are various motorized two-wheelers riding by, all led by Harley’s new Softail Breakout.
It’s all right here in the diaries…