The medieval prophecy behind Vietnam’s best-loved motorbike. Words by Dara O Foghlu. Photos by Julie Vola

 

In the mid-sixteenth century, the great French seer Nostradamus predicted the popularity of the Honda Cub*.

 

The year 1958, the young bear will emerge from the rising sun,

 

Born with nine and forty teeth, his great sons will roll over the earth,

 

The gentle people will straddle his back,

 

and the young men from the shore will sing highly of his merits.

 

— Century X, Quatrain 43

 

Because of the witch trials, Nostradamus had to cloak his predictions in obscure language that only revealed its true meaning after the fact. However, this particular forecast, more than any other, is eerily accurate.

 

In 1958, Soichiro Honda put the Cub into continuous manufacture in Japan [the young bear will emerge from [the land of] the rising sun].

 

A Rising Star

 

 

The 49cc bike [nine and forty teeth] became a global phenomenon thanks to the 1962 US ad campaign, “You meet the nicest people on a Honda” [gentle people will straddle his back]. This marketing campaign expanded the image of the motorcycle owner beyond that of a bearded gang member, and became the template for lifestyle advertising, while at the same time making the Cub the most produced internal combustion engine on the planet.

 

The Honda 50 was followed by the Honda Super Cub 70, 90, 100 and 110 [the great sons will roll over the earth.] The use of the word “roll” here is a favourite pun among Nostradamites.

 

The last line silences Nostradamus’ most sceptical detractors. It refers to a 1964 song recorded by The Beach Boys called Little Honda. Scholars point out that Nostradamus’ vision of the future was so clear that he even knew that The Beach Boys [the young men from the shore] would sing in high-pitched voices [will sing highly...].

 

Of course, Nostradamus never mentioned why people liked the Honda Cub as much as they do, or why he was interested in motorbike sales figures at all. So far, approximately 90 million Honda Cubs have been manufactured worldwide — pretty much equal to the population of Vietnam. Across all generations and demographics, the Cub is popular, and has been for more than 50 years.

 

A relatively new trend among Cub owners in Vietnam, however, is restoring and customising classic models. I arranged to meet Cub restorationist and owner of Raw Bikes, Eachan Andrew, to find out what’s so appealing about this motorbike that is, according to The Beach Boys, “more fun than a barrel of monkeys”.

 

Join the Cub

 

 

I was half an hour early for our appointment. In a restaurant on the northern lip of West Lake, a speaker overhead was going, “love me like you do, blah blah like you do, do-da do-da do... what are you waiting for?” Over and over. It turns out this was the one-hour version of Ellie Goulding’s, Love Me Like You Do, from the 50 Shades of Grey soundtrack. (Nostradamus, by the way, panned both the books and the movie.) After the third loop of the song, and close to an existential crisis (what was I waiting for?), I ran downstairs and asked the waitress to change the music.

 

When I came back to my seat, Eachan had arrived. A 20-something-year-old Scot living in Hanoi for the last few years, he restores and customises Honda Cubs for a living. He pulled his leather wallet out of his back pocket and sat down. The wallet is about two inches thick because of all the bike registration cards he carries around — bikes he’s fixing, and others he owns. His fingernails are constantly underlined with oil, and he tells me he was recently turned away by a manicurist who felt he was too much of a challenge.

 

I asked Eachan why people like Cubs.

 

“I think what makes them so popular is that young people can get them without a licence — they can get them as 50ccs,” he explained. “And they look retro. All over the world people are into their retro bikes and going back to really simple, old-fashioned ways.”

 

So it’s a hipster thing, then?

 

“I think it’s quite a hipster thing,” he adds. “I wouldn’t use the word ‘hipster’ though... it’s very hip. They’re cheap as well, and because there’s so many of them, they’re easy to repair.”

 

He went on to tell me about a group of university students in Hanoi called the Vietnam Young Cubbers who take their classic Cubs on road trips. Their Facebook page is choc-a-bloc with soft-focus photos of Honda Cubs in pastoral settings. Cub clubs like these are everywhere, it seems, playing the part of David next to the Goliaths like Hell’s Angels on their beefy motorcycles.

 

Through Thick or Thin

 

 

Many of Eachan’s customers — mostly males, aged 30 and under — want their Cubs restored to the original condition (which can cost up to US$1,000 or VND21.8 million), while others want their bikes ‘pimped’ for as much as VND40 million. Eachan says that when a customer wants a bike, he goes through every little detail so it comes out how they want it, but when they suggest something too gaudy, he tries to dissuade them.

 

“If it’s something I know won’t look good, I’ll say, ‘Go ahead with it if you want, but I would suggest this’. And nine times out of 10 they say ‘oh okay’. The craziest design I was ever asked for was a crocodile skin wrap on the bike.”

 

“You did it?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“Did it look good?”

 

“No. He loved it though.”

 

This human-machine love exists for the VW Beetle as well, and certainly there are plenty of similarities between the classic Volkswagen and the Honda Cub. The manufacturing facility for the Cub was based on the Beetle’s Titanic production scale, both have become 20th century pop design icons, and — perhaps most importantly — people have made movies based on them. In Herbie (1964), the titular character is a sentient Beetle that helps a washed-up driver succeed both on the track and in love. There are several other movies in this series you should not watch.

 

Meanwhile, in the 2008 Japanese film Super Cub (or Supa Kabu), a guy loses his superbike in a race and has to get a job in a noodle restaurant where he finds a rusty old Cub and restores it, and somehow ends up beating the Yakusa with it. The point is not that these films are brilliant. The point is that someone thought they could be, and that they loved their Beetle or Honda Cub enough to make a movie out of it.

 

A Total Eclipse of the Heart

 

Although he has owned more than 20 bikes in his life, Eachan is somewhat sentimental about his own Cub which he Frankensteined from the first two bikes he ever owned.

 

“It’s the first bike I properly built, so I couldn’t get rid of it.”

 

The original bird’s heart engine of the Honda C50 has been replaced with the oxen heart of a Honda Win, souping-up the black and red monster to 125cc. He has also fitted a higher steering column and BMX handlebars, giving it a chopper-style look. He tells me proudly that it survived a 2,000km road trip around Laos.

 

As a bad parent to my Honda Wave, this warm and goodly obsession with Cubs was still beyond me. Perhaps it’s related to Flann O Brien’s “Molecule Theory” from The Dalkey Archive: “people who spend most of their natural lives riding [bikes] over the rocky roadsteads of the parish get their personalities mixed up with the personalities of their [bikes] as a result of the interchanging of the mollycules of each of them”.

 

By this logic, these long-time Cub owners would, in fact, be more Cub than human, and the bikes themselves would contain the trapped essence of the original bike owners. This might explain the exponential rise of the Cubs, and the owners’ dedication to their bikes.

 

Nostradamus did try to warn us.

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