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Working as repairmen along busy streets in the motorbike kingdom of Saigon

Monday, December 11, 2017, 13:30 GMT+7

A common sight along many Saigon roads is that of a tire hanging from a tree branch, pole, or fire hydrant, along with a rustic air compressor prominently displayed on the sidewalk. These street-side repair 'shops' have been serving local drivers on their daily rides in the city for years.

Huy, a 33-year-old migrant living in Saigon for the last three years, was riding his ramshackle motorbike to work on a cool morning in December, when suddenly he heard a popping sound, like that of an exploded balloon. 

The effect was immediate, and his wheel began to malfunction. However, remaining calm, Huy knew he could just ask around for the nearest roadside repairman.

Statistics from the Ho Chi Minh City Department of Transport reveal that in March 2017, there were 7.3 million motorbikes in the city.

Data from the General Statistics Office of Vietnam shows that the city’s official population in 2016 was 8.3 million, which translates to 87 motorbikes per 100 city residents.

A rustic compressor by the roadside in Ho Chi Minh City, November 30, 2017. Photo: Tien Bui/Tuoi Tre News
A rustic compressor by the roadside in Ho Chi Minh City, November 30, 2017. Photo: Tien Bui/Tuoi Tre News

Well aware of the potential market, amateur repairmen have taken it upon themselves to ‘set up shop’ on busy sidewalks and at crowded crossroads, with their compact toolkits readily at hand.

Making it a career choice attainable to most is the fact that it does not cost an arm and a leg to invest in the basic equipment, as problems along the roads are relatively minor.

The most common services and replacements are of tires, spark plugs, oil and brakes. Bike parts are generally only purchased on request.

Not all repairmen have their own air compressor though. Prices vary by volume, and may range anywhere from US$140 to $250 for 35-liter to 100-liter versions, according to a search by Tuoi Tre News online.

A flat tire gets pumped for about 10 U.S. cents, meaning it takes 1,500-2,000 flat tires to break even on the investment.

How to qualify?

To become a motorbike repairman or woman, there is formal schooling available in vocational colleges, which offer four-month intensive courses for around $200.

A rustic compressor by the roadside in Ho Chi Minh City, November 30, 2017. Photo: Tien Bui/Tuoi Tre News
A rustic compressor by the roadside in Ho Chi Minh City, November 30, 2017. Photo: Tien Bui/Tuoi Tre News

Such programs immerse learners deeply in the mechanics of motorbikes, issuing certificates recognized in Vietnam upon graduation.

However, as Tuoi Tre News understands, formal training directs those wishing to work in the industry toward registered premises or opening their own business.

Solving basic bike problems on the street does not call for much education.

Very little mechanics is actually required, as most often knowledge of compressors and the ability to fix a flat tire quickly will suffice.

One serviceman on Nguyen Huu Cau Street in District 1 said: “While I’m busy, it’s DIY for customers if they need a pump. It’s really simple: just take the tip of this hose and press it gently against the valve. A piece of cake!”

Wrong-doers

It has been reported that some repairmen overcharge customers, especially on rainy evenings or along empty streets.

A brand-new tire resting on a fire hydrant, with servicemen off duty behind in Ho Chi Minh City, November 30, 2017. Photo: Tien Bui/Tuoi Tre News
A brand-new tire resting on a fire hydrant, with servicemen off duty behind in Ho Chi Minh City, November 30, 2017. Photo: Tien Bui/Tuoi Tre News

Instead of 22 U.S. cents for a puncture, drivers might be forced to cover 10 times that cost. One way to avoid this trick is to agree on the price beforehand.

Worse still, the unscrupulous have reportedly been damaging tires on the job and demanding payments for extra repairs.

Additionally, as it has been frequently covered in local media, some have even spread nails on roads, knowing all too well that a victim will drop by in no time.

Obviously, bike quality and endurance have improved thanks to state-of-the-art technology, which reduces the need for servicing on a regular basis.

But just as the roadside repairmen appeared 50 years ago when the first Honda hit Saigon, these men and women will continue to enjoy the job as long as the motorbike lives on in the city. 

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Tien Bui / Tuoi Tre News

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