Published October 6 2017
From Manchester to Hanoi, Jonny Hill is the man now helping others create their own two-wheeled adventure in Vietnam.
The front man of Style Motorbikes in Hanoi, Hill is a Brit who part owns the shop with local mechanic Vu Ngoc Thanh. Jonny knows his Phong Nha’s from his Phú Quốc’s, and I spoke to him about the unique appeal of motorcycling across Vietnam, and his own journey from the Finance sector in the U.K. to handing over the keys to travelers embarking on the trip of a lifetime.
Style is the first (or last) port of call for many in Hanoi, and the shop this month celebrates its two year anniversary, with Jonny being part of what he happily calls ‘the family’, for around a year.
It wasn’t planned this way, and like many travellers to South East Asia, Jonny came a year ago with vague intentions. A monotonous career in finance was left behind in the wing mirror of a Honda Win.
He got to know the guys in the shop and bonded over the universal staples of football and beer.
“I would help them out by talking to customers but mainly just being friendly, I was helping them sell more bikes”
After a while, it became clear that things were working.
“Everyone who works at the shop are friends and often eat dinner together, lunch together, have beers after work, play football, watch football and anything else we do we would invite everyone else. It really is like a family”
This communal atmosphere even extends to their customers.
“When we get a customer who is happy, relaxed with everything and is open to Vietnamese people and experiences they often come and eat with us at one of our homes. This is always a great experience for them and everyone at the shop enjoys it as well as it becomes a bit of a party”
Eventually, the friendship between Jonny and the locals who run the shop turned into a business relationship, and Jonny became a part-owner.
If Jonny is the motorcycle shop equivalent of a Maître De and in charge of front of house at Style, then there is a dedicated team of 7 motor chefs beavering away in the background with spanners and wrenches, making sure the bikes are in tip top condition as Jonny listens to a trip debrief, or helps wide eyed tourists plot their routes.
Three of the mechanics are learning English, and perhaps there is no better place than Style for them to practice – with a steady stream of English speakers coming and going throughout the working day, they become proficient in the lingo of the engine.
Buying a motorbike in Vietnam can feel like a bit of a minefield and Jonny explains that this can create ill feeling between rival shops.
“Our biggest difficulty is other shops being able to say anything they want, promise anything and having no negative feedback. This means they do no repairs so they can charge less but the bike is now dangerous and will almost certainly breakdown”
This creates the unreliable, lucky dip reputation of the Win, and puts many off, but does Jonny agree that some backpackers are attracted to the perverse glamour of owning the most run down piece of junk possible?
“Definitely some people don’t care and think it will be fun or cool to breakdown. I think they might feel like this for the first time but after this it I think they will change their mind quickly. It’s naïve”.
This is where Jonny’s northern straightforwardness comes in handy for the business. The fantasy of buying the cheapest and is not one that is built for reality, and certainly not one that can last for 2000km.
“Many shops promise a high buy back in Ho Chi Minh City while we offer 50% on an old bike and 65% on a new bike. This isn’t the amount most people want to hear, they hear that they can sell for the same price so when I tell them we buy it back for 50% they think its rubbish”
“But the truth is if they can’t find another backpacker to sell to then 50% is better than what other shops will pay them. This honesty and good repairs that we do means we have a lot of business from old customers recommending us to people they meet and their friends. Just the reviews on TripAdvisor that people leave help us generate more business”.
Jonny introduced a digital nous to Style which has been instrumental to the success of the business. Having a presence on Facebook and TripAdvisor has been crucial to building trust with customers and advertising their services for free.
“The internet and TripAdvisor reviews have helped us fight back against the poor reputation of many ‘backpacker friendly’ motorbike shops”
The motorbike trip across Vietnam has become a familiar rite of passage in recent years for adventurous spirits, armed with a map saved to Google and dreams of travelling the S shaped 2000km by tarmac, travelling through some of the most breath-taking roads in the world.
“Just like a lot of the customers that come here, I had never ridden a motorbike before I came to Vietnam!” says Hill. Now though, the apprentice has become the master, and he relishes his role as the go-to guy for travellers looking to buy a reliable and affordable bike in Hanoi.
“You really do get every kind of person doing the trip’ says Hill, “from teenagers to people in their 60s”, “We get UK, American, Canadian, Dutch, German, Australian, but we also get plenty of French, Danish, Irish and many more”
I wonder how effects that the now famous Top Gear in Vietnam episode had on exposing the trip to a wider audience, mythologizing it to many.
The sharp rise of tourists coming to Vietnam to explore the country via motorcycle roughly coincides with the programs original airing in 2008, and as terrifying as the prospect of 10,000 Jeremy Clarkson’s entering the country every year is, Jonny explains that this isn’t the full story.
“With English people the Top Gear show has had an effect and we are often asked about the way that they travelled, in particular the Hai Van pass”
“But I think the biggest effect has come from people who have previously done the trip. Someone tells them and shows them pictures of Vietnam, others come to Vietnam with no intention of riding through, but they talk to some people and they change their plans”
Plans are there to be broken, after all. And perhaps the beauty of the motorbike is the unadultered freedom it offers travellers, which is a spirit that has rubbed off on Hill.
“The pace of life is a lot less stressful and rushed. People aren’t desperate to get somewhere or earn money all the time they work” he says.
“I have no real plan but think i will be here for a long time. I enjoy it here and hope that that doesn’t change”.
29 Đào Duy Từ, Hàng Buồm, Hoàn Kiếm, Hànội