The Vientiane Scooter Club recently conducted its annual rally from Laos to Vietnam, a journey which saw many of its members rediscover their origins. A group of urban middle class Lao nationals of Vietnamese and Chinese descent, the club members are driven by a desire to find their own authentic place in Lao society.

The club is one of a few new social groups to have emerged in recent years along with greater economic and cultural liberalization in Laos. On their rallies through the countryside they spread a road safety message and donate equipment to rural schools on a painstakingly restored fleet of forty-year-old Italian Piaggio Vespa motor scooters.

The club has a policeman as its leader and its activities are conducted with politically correct ‘development’ aims in mind. But the club also functions as a way urbanites with transnational origins can represent themselves in non-state ways and forge relations with foreign nationals in the region.

The club riders this year made an historic pilgrimage along the new multi-million dollar trade route that now links Thailand with Vietnam through Laos. The rally was held from February 17-24 and saw the scooters travel almost 2,500 kilometres.

The riders stayed in the Lao town of Seno in Savannakhet province before crossing the Lao Bao border checkpoint into Vietnam on their second day. They then spent the night in the old imperial city of Hue before going on to spend a further two nights in Da Nang.

In Vietnam they established relations with the scooter club in Hue and future joint rallies were promised. They met a wealthy collector in Da Nang and discussed the provision of parts and old models that will enable the club to grow into the future. Club members own most of the estimated 40 original Vespas found in Laos.

The club is made up of a core group of Lao-Vietnamese-Chinese urban Lao, whose professions range from government official and goldsmith to mechanic and journalist. It has also been joined on current and previous rallies by riders from Australia, Luxembourg and Holland.

The vintage Piaggio Vespa has been in Laos for around 50 years since the first models were most likely imported by French and American expatriates in the post-independence period.

In 2004 the club held its first major rally accompanied by a group of Thai scooter riders from Vientiane to the southern Lao city of Pakse. In 2006 the club held its rally to the southern Chinese city of Meung La and accompanied a large group of Thai riders to Luang Prabang. On both occasions, the Lao club acted as hosts for their Thai friends and patrons for development.

Photo Essay

Slide One. Vientiane Scooter Club riders reached the Lao Bao international border checkpoint between Laos and Vietnam on their second day.

Slide 1

Slide Two. Extraordinary views on the road between Hue and Da Nang.

Slide 2

Slide Three. Riders crossed the river bridge in Da Nang on the third day.

Slide 3

Slide Four. High mountain roads took the group into the clouds.

Slide 4

Slide Five. Yellow Lao number plates were conspicuous on the streets of Da Nang.

Slide 5

Slide Six. The riders have fashioned themselves as new age explorers.

Slide 6

Slide Seven. The Lao and Vietnamese scooter clubs met in the old imperial city of Hue.

Slide 7

Slide Eight. For some club members it was the first opportunity in their lives to visit the sea.

Slide 8

Slide Nine. Riders call their scooters lot bohan, literally ‘ancient’ or ‘antique’ bikes, a term denoting their ‘vintage’ status and associated cultural value.

Slide 9

Slide Ten. Accommodation was at times very ‘traditional’.

Slide 10

[Warren Mayes is a PhD Student in Anthropology at the Australian National University currently working on a thesis on urban elites and social change in Laos. He is also a member of the Vientiane Scooter Club.]