Motorbikes and scooters rule the streets in Hanoi. They are the city’s main mode of transportation and it’s safe to say more than half of the city’s 6.5 million population owns one. Hondas, Suzuki’s, Yamahas, and Vespas jam every artery and they all need to go to the shop sometime during their lifespan. So what better vocational training for disadvantaged youth than motorbike servicing and repair?
Australian Andrew Souto first visited Vietnam as a volunteer with Australian Volunteers for International Development (AVID) in 2005. A qualified motor mechanic, he noticed the dearth of repair shops and a light went on in his head. “The local organization I was working with, Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation, received some funds from a donor in 2007. The director asked me if I had any ideas of what to do with the money. I told him, ‘Let’s get into motorbikes.’” A few years later when Blue Dragon decided to get out the business, Souto bought VIP.
Motorbike rentals, the majority of VIP’s business, need constant upkeep. Walk into the shop and you’re likely to see lots of tweaking and spray washing of VIP’s two-wheeled fleet. At the back of the shop sit Souto’s babies, three candy coloured 1967 50 cc Hondas. “When I ride them around town, the Vietnamese guys in their cars roll down their windows and give me the thumbs up,” says Souto, who plans to search out more of the vintage bikes and customize them for clients. No license is needed for bikes 50cc or under, but if your ride is 175cc or more the only way you can drive it in Vietnam is by belonging to a government sanctioned club, hence there are few big bikes in Hanoi.
To date, more than 100 trainees have taken the VIP course given by Souto and his three senior mechanics. “We’ve had up to eight trainees at a time, which was a lot. It’s better when they can work one-on-one with us,” says Souto. Usually trainees are referred to VIP by the Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation and their backgrounds vary, from urban street kids to impoverished rural villagers. “What they get here is good, free, training, especially regarding health and safety. They also get real life experience. Many of them go on to get a government recognized repair certificate from one of the vocational college courses,” explains Souto. At VIP, trainees can follow a one month, three month, six month or 12 month course, depending on how much time they can commit. What Souto offers disadvantaged youth is more than livelihood skills. “One trainee checked into a drug rehabilitation program when he finished here. Others go into the army or go back to the country,” he says. The most valuable assets they leave VIP with are hope and confidence. “Motorbike repair isn’t for everyone, but at least they’ve tried it out and they know they can do it,” says Souto.
VIP is housed in a small shop on a back lane and the work is never-ending. Souto dreams of expanding one day. “I’d like a bigger space with a waiting room and a showroom. It would be good to have living quarters for the trainees, as well,” he says.
In the meantime, he’ll bide his time, continue to take on trainees and search out more 1967 Hondas to customize. One thing that his nine years in Vietnam have taught him is patience.