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Blue Dog Diaries: Harley’s Saigon insurgency

By Terry Roorda

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.”

Harley-Davidson of Saigon

Harley-Davidson of Saigon

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.

How appropriate.

It’s all right here in the diaries…

Harley-Davidson of Saigon T-shirt

Harley-Davidson of Saigon T-shirt


  1. Dana Franklin Welch

    for the mailbag:
    “Look under the seat…” Saturday, April 19, 2014
    After riding up to the Lyon Air Museum from Mission Viejo for their B-25 “open cockpit” event (wow is it small in there! I can’t imagine what an 8 hour run to Berlin must have been like or taking off from the USS Hornet Aircraft Carrier for that famous raid over Tokyo), I stopped by a Classic Car shop nearby and dropped off some flyers for Bikes and Bomber III (http://lyonairmuseum.org/calendarevents/bikes-bombers-iii/) for which I help out as a volunteer. I got to talking to the Manager who relayed this story to me:
    Some folks were out from Ohio recently. They’d purchased an older Harley for $800 or $900. It didn’t run and was in need of a restoration. Soon afterwards, they received a call from Jay Leno who wanted to buy that Harley. They thought it was a prank. After the call, they called the number back and to their surprise, it went right to NBC Studios. They spoke to Jay and he offered enough for them to buy a new truck so the deal was done. They asked Jay why he was so eager to buy this old Harley. Jay told them once the deal was done, he’d tell them. The money was wired, papers signed and the bike was ready to be shipped out to Jay’s Big Dog Garage. Again they asked Jay why he wanted this bike. Jay said “look under the seat…” They lifted the seat and saw handwritten note: To Elvis, with love…Priscilla.
    When I told my wife this story she wanted details…what year was the Harley? What model? How much did Jay pay? What truck did they buy? Like I told her…all I know is what the Manager told me and I have no way of reaching Jay to confirm it and besides, I have no reason to doubt the Manager.
    Dana Franklin Welch
    Mission Viejo, CA


  2. Saigon H-D: That was a surprise. I rode 41,000 miles around Vietnam on my Fat Boy, and didn’t hear anything about it. But news didn’t get to a lot of trails I rode on.
    Riding around Vietnam was more than an adventure, it was the journey of my life. It’s not the most conducive country for Harley’s, but I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
    Check out my web site for photos of the trip, and stay tuned for the tales.
    Ride safe & Enjoy the Spirit


  3. Congrats on the new location. We, Ride of the brotherhood, will be arriving in Vietnam next February (2015) with 10 Vietnam Combat Vets. Our plan is to ride to the different combat where they served (this will be filmed). This is part of the project “the Return ” that ends with the 10 riders returning to US, ride cross country to DC and the Wall, then south to New Orleans, this leg of the quest is a tribute ride to all Veterans and hope to be joined by thousands of other riders. Upon arrival in New Orleans they will enter the Mercedes Benz Superdome where 70,000 plus are waiting on them to kick off the Welcome Home Vietnam Veteran Celebration, an all star celebrity concert.
    The money raised will go the USO and to CAMP NORA, Homeless Veterans Village. We are scheduled to ride 650 Euros unless you have “BIGGER” bike available.


    Mike Rinowski Reply:

    Hello Cowboy,

    I would like to talk with you about your planned ride in Vietnam. You can contact me through harleytracks.com



  4. I am a H-D rider and was in country 1966-67. I am going back for the first time in April. Wow, have things changed ! I sure hope they have some size L t-shirts when I get there.


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