He didn’t go to medical school, but he did pay years of dues at the school of hard-knock.
Phan Van Tu, 48, better known as Tu Trung, starting the engine of a Vespa Sprint at his shop at 224/9 National Highway 13, Ward 26, Binh Thanh District, Ho Chi Minh City. Many Vespa owners claim that Tu is the most reliable Vespa mechanic in the city. Photo by Huu Duy
Phan Van Tu smiled with contentment when asked about his nickname “doctor.”
It’s what the Vespa using community calls this labcoat-less “doctor,” whose patients are old Vespa motorbikes.
The 48-year-old mechanic, better known as Tu Trung, looks no different from any other motorbike mechanic, with oil and dirt spattered on his clothes.
But unlike most of them, his name rings a bell with many Vespa owners who claim that he’s the most reliable Vespa mechanic in Ho Chi Minh City.
Tu Trung is a kind of nickname – also his shop’s name – which is a combination of his name “Tu” and his son’s “Trung,” the oldest of his two children.
A ‘swashbuckling’ mechanic
Tran Khac Dung, an antique collector and owner of several old Vespas, said that he has known Tu for more than 10 years, and it all began as he brought his Vespas to Tu’s shop for repairs.
“If you want to find a swashbuckling motorbike mechanic, go find Tu Trung,” Dung said.
Dung said old Vespa users nationwide know about Tu’s shop thanks to his workmanship, diligence and prestige.
His shop is located near a crossroads along National Highway No.13 in Binh Thanh District.
Small as it is, the shop is easy to spot for all its beautiful old Vespas parked out front: some being repaired, some for sale.
Tu said he has rented several locations to house his shop since 1995. He rented the current one about nine years ago, around the time he and his wife had their second child, a daughter.
Customers often ask Tu to change tires, wires, check the brakes, adjust the carburetors and air and fuel screws and filters. They can have Tu do a comprehensive check before a long trip north or after a long journey.
He not only serves customers at his shop, but also does house-calls or even roadside service to fix small problems like burned spark plugs, broken wires or flat tires on the spot.
“I can figure out which problems their bikes have after only a few questions,” he said.
Tu has customers from all over Vietnam and many foreign customers as well. Most of the foreign customers come from Canada, France, Germany, Japan, South Korea, the UK and the US, and Tu mostly communicates with them by crude sign language or through their Vietnamese friends.
In minor cases, when customers slam their feet hard on the brake and wince, he knows that the brake does not work properly. When they show that their Vespas’ wheels stagger, they mean the wheels or alignment have problems, he said.
“I fix their bikes many times, so when they give me the signs, I know what they want. It’s very easy.”
But in difficult cases, Tu will demand they have friends translate, or else he will refuse to repair their bikes.
“I can usually guess their problems, but I won’t work on their bikes if I cannot understand them properly,” he said.
Tu said he also charges foreigners the same as he charges Vietnamese.
Nguyen Quang Thanh, who works in the real estate sector, said he has been a customer of Tu’s shop for about one year.
Thanh said he had another mechanic fix his Vespa, but the bike still didn’t run properly. He then found Tu’s shop on the Internet, and had him fix the bike.
Thanh said he has since bought three refurbished Vespas from Tu and they all run so well that all he has had to do to maintain them is clean the spark plug every now and then.
He said Tu’s service is reliable, and he knows what customers want and charges reasonable fees.
Nguyen Trung Nghia, a Vietnamese-Australian who has been Tu’s customer for four years, said apart from Tu’s good service, he often gives spot-on advice that helps customers fix their own bikes when they’re on long trips.
Tu has repaired and restored Vespas for more than 20 years, but he said the job was not his first dream.
Born into a farming family in the Mekong Delta province of Tien Giang’s Go Cong Dong District, the arduous, poverty-stricken life forced him to quit his studies when he was in sixth grade.
He joined the army and served in Cambodia in 1984, helping to oust the genocidal Khmer Rouge.
He completed his service in 1987 and went to Ho Chi Minh City the next year as he preferred to stay far from home to make more money. He studied driving and worked as driver’s assistant and sometimes porter at the Ben xe Mien Dong (Eastern Region Bus Station), one of the two biggest bus stations in the city.
Although being driver was his dream job, Tu only kept the job for a year, since he said life at the station was complicated, with fights frequently occurring. He said he witnessed the bad behavior of many drivers there, and felt that the job in fact did not suit his gentle nature.
He then asked his father, who was a driver, to find him a place to learn to repair motorbikes instead. He was taken to a motorbike mechanic shop near his current shop where Vespas were commonly repaired.
During his four years of apprenticeship at the shop, Tu faced many difficulties as there were not many bikes for him to repair and a shortage of parts to replace the damaged ones.
He said that because he was the rookie, the other shop employees bossed him around a lot, and left him to do only the tedious, uninteresting work.
They only instructed him in simple tasks, and he had to learn more complicated skills only by observing them and improving himself.
But he was patient and had the will to pursue the job. He had developed those characteristics, he said, in the military environment.
“The more I practiced, the more proficiency I got,” he said, adding that he did not allow himself to ever get down on himself and eventually surpassed all the shop’s other employees in two years.
After that shop closed, he worked for another shop for one year before opening his own.
His shop focused on Vespas, but had to fix other motorbikes too as not many Vespa owners knew about him then.
He said when he began learning to fix bikes, he had no idea what a Vespa really was. But his passion for it has been “absorbed in his blood,” he said, and now he has five of his own.
“When you are familiar with using it, you will definitely miss it when leaving it for a month.”
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