1950s to 1970s — Mobylette.
A product of a more carefree time, these 50cc two-strokers cruised the streets in style, one remembered fondly by Mobylette enthusiasts to this day.
1950s to 1960s — BMWs, Vespas and Lambrettas.
With the oldest Vespa in Vietnam dating to 1952, and the oldest Lambretta, 1954, the 1950s and 1960s were the era of all things Italian. However, the German BMWs weren’t to be outdone, also having an impact on the market. The oldest BMW motorcycle presently known to exist in Vietnam dates in 1939.
1960s to 1970s — Honda 67.
These stylish numbers were among the first wave of Japanese motorcycles in Vietnam, and some of the most popular. From their pre-war heyday to now they’ve achieved mythical status, making a comeback on the Hanoi and Saigon streets of the 2010s.
1970s to 1980s — Minsk.
This ‘old buffalo’ was a belching, rumbling sight even in its production years, when the Belarusian product terrorised quiet streets around Hanoi. Due to privatisation hiccups back home, the steady flow of Minsks into Vietnam stopped in the 2000s, and most of the Minsks you’re likely to see nowadays have the scars to prove their age. In 2012 after a short hiatus, production re-started and there is now a new range of rebranded Minsks — now called M1NSK — coming off the production lines.
1980s — Honda Cub.
These low-powered city cruisers first took to the streets in the 1980s, where their clean lines and modest fuel consumption made them a favourite of a slower-paced Vietnam. Today, these 50cc ‘Cubbies’ can still be seen lumbering to the devil-may-care throttles of legally-helmetless riders.
1980s — Motorcycle Modesty.
As motorbikes were coming into vogue, Vietnam’s roadside ateliers worked on a new fashion standard. The no-peeping aprons and colourful facemasks would become standard wear two decades later, when motorbikes became a way of life.
Late 1990s — Honda Spacy.
First hitting the streets in 1995, the Spacy was the bike of choice for Vietnam’s millennial femme fatales. Its purse-accommodating body spelled class at a time when semi-automatics — with their tiny storage holds — ruled the road.
1990s to 2000s — Honda Win.
Not only the favourite of motopackers, these 110cc road warriors are exceptionally fuel efficient and trail-tested, making them a natural choice for the mountains of northern Vietnam. Along with Minsks, of course.
1990s to 2000s — Honda Dream.
Actually a Super Cub, with the engine bumped up to 100cc and a slight makeover, the Honda Dream took Vietnam by storm in the 1990s, briefly becoming Vietnam’s ‘it’ bike before the Yamaha takeover. These smooth rides can still be seen under the posteriors of the classier xe om drivers.
1997 — First Honda Vietnam Factory Established.
Responding to new import restrictions, Honda Vietnam’s first factory was set up in Vinh Phuc Province, 32km northwest of Hanoi. Today joined by a second Vinh Phuc factory built in 2008 and a 2012 Ha Nam Province location, Honda Vietnam has a production capacity of 2.5 million motorcycles, with their bike sales accounting for nearly 65 percent of the market.
Early 2000s — ‘China Shock’.
As the Vietnamese market looked to be reaching capacity, it began to be flooded with low-priced imitations of Japanese motorcycles imported from China. Not only did this jumpstart the stagnant industry — at one point accounting for 80 percent of the four-fold increase in annual sales — it also forced Honda’s hand in releasing the Wave Alpha at a third of the price of the company’s previous models. Behind the Wave Alpha, Honda quickly gained back market share, as the low quality of the Chinese products became more widely known.
2000s — Transitioning the Roadways.
Behind the market expansion of the China shock and the rise of local assemblers, motorcycle consumption jumped from under a half-million per year at the end of the 1990s to nearly three million per year at the end of the 2000s. Motorcycles quickly became a must-have, and just like that the age of the bicycle was over.
2002 — Yamaha Nouvo Ushers in the Scooter Era.
Breaking the Honda stranglehold on the region, Yamaha dipped out of the racing market for this 125cc entry, which brought the scooter craze to Vietnam and made automatic transmissions the desired standard. To this day, Yamaha holds 25 percent of the domestic market.
2007 — Honda Air Blade.
In a long-delayed response to Yamaha’s market incursion, Honda released the Air Blade, taking back market share in the process — only cooling off a bit four years later, as recession hit and the design flaws of the 2011 model became apparent.
2000s to 2010s — Honda Lead.
Bulking up the purse compartment even more, Honda replaced its Spacy line with these cool customers, whose 125cc engine was powerful enough to take its bulky back-end wherever it needed to go.
2000s — Suzuki and SYM Try Their Luck.
Hoping to carve space into a scooter market dominated by Yamaha and Honda, Suzuki and SYM both released automatic models. However, despite the modest success of bikes such as SYM’s Atilla, neither really gained the foothold they were looking for, and today concentrate on 50cc “naked bikes”. Together with Piaggio, these companies share the 10 percent of the market not controlled by Honda or Yamaha.
2010s — Piaggio.
Piaggio rebooted its Vespa and Piaggio lines for domestic consumption in 2009, and soon erased memories of the smoking relics of yesteryear. Nowadays, the classic lines of bikes made in their Vinh Phuc factory support the very chicest of Vietnam’s commuters, as well as commuters in the other Southeast Asian countries to which they export.
2013 — Vietnam Takes to the Global Export Market.
Having come far from the days when the quality of domestically bought Hondas couldn’t be assured, Vietnam-produced Hondas are now being exported for sale in their country of trademark origin, Japan. This is only part of a new market reality, which sees the five major motorbike makers continually raising their production capacity — to nearly 5.5 million bikes a year, currently — and domestic consumption falling, now only accounting for about three million of those produced.
March 2014 — 175cc Within Reach.
As of this month, new legislation will allow anyone passing the standard driving test to qualify for an A2 license — and own motorbikes with engines larger than 175cc — which previously was only available to government officials and members of motorcycle clubs. How this will affect the desire to keep motorbikes in-country below the 36 million mark targeted by 2020 — there are currently 37 million registered — can only be speculated upon.