Although they exist the world over, motorbike clubs are a quintessentially American phenomenon..
It’s fitting, then, that I’m asked to meet four members of the Vietnam Veterans & Legacy Veterans Motorcycle Club (VNVLV/MC) in the VIP room of Freebird, Cambodia’s closest facsimile to that other wonderful slice of Americana – the diner.
Out front are a few intimidating, chrome-plated Harleys, dwarfing the inevitable rows of Daelims and Honda scooters lining the sidewalk of Street 240.
Sandwiched in a booth, Aquaman and Art – respectively the president and secretary/treasurer of the club’s Apocalypse Chapter in Southeast Asia – quickly reveal themselves to be keen students of the history of motorbike clubs and their genesis in the US military.
“The Hell’s Angels name came from the Flying Tigers in World War Two,” says Art.
“They were pilots, and one of their aircraft squadrons was called the Hell’s Angels . . . The thing that drove them to become a club was missing the brotherhood of the military.”
The same longing for brotherhood extended to the generation of young men returning from America’s escapades in Vietnam.
By the time Art completed his tour of duty there and returned to the States, public opinion had shifted violently against the Vietnam war.
“Vietnam veterans came back to a country fiercely divided between pro-war and anti-war people,” he recalls. “We were treated like crap. We were spat at, cursed at, yelled at.”
Founded in the Midwest back in 1982, the Vietnam Veterans Motorcycle Club quickly blossomed across the US, with 25 chapters in California alone.
Some time later, the club began accepting other retired service personnel, or legacy veterans, into its ranks.
That decision was the source of some contention. Many VNVMC members believed it should be a dinosaur club, in effect dying out with the last Vietnam veteran.
“In California now, there are probably more legacy vets than Vietnam vets. There are chapters within the US that do not allow any,” Art says.
“Those chapters have seceded from the union in a sense, because everywhere else in the United States legacy is a big part of the club.”
Like any fraternal organisation, potential recruits undergo a rigorous process to prove their worth.
In addition to the requisite period of military service and ownership of a 600cc or above bike, new members are required to operate as prospects for six months to a year, or even longer, in order to prove their fealty to the club.
After being inducted, prospects must send their service records to California to be scrutinised by the club’s central organisation.
“A prospect will see some pressure from us,” Aquaman says.
“They have to clean their bike, demonstrate security, be able to help other members, and feel and understand what the club is for.
“You see right away when someone is motivated, participating and eager to ride with us, and in this case he is in the club right away after six months.”
Says Art: “We strive to make a brotherhood, the same sort of brotherhood military people feel for one another, that men in combat feel.
“We want that same sort of feeling in our chapter. We want to be able to rely on a brother.
“If I have a problem with my bike, I should be able to call my brother and know he’s going to be there as I will be there for him.”
In contrast to the image of lawlessness often associated with motorbike clubs, the local chapter of the VNVLV/MC sees it as imperative to contribute to their host country.
Charity rides have become a regular event for the club, in addition to annual trips to the Burapa Bike Week Show in Pattaya, Thailand and regular meet-ups in Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville.
Art says his group’s interactions with other clubs and the public at large are always governed by respect and common decency.
“Generally, it’s a mutual respect thing,” he says. “You show respect, you get respect.
“It’s well known that our club does not do illegal business. We don’t do selling and manufacturing of drugs, we don’t steal bikes, we don’t run women, we don’t do anything like that. We’re very family-oriented.
“Our main rules are to take care of your family and to take care of your job, because if you can’t do that, you can’t take care of the club.”
Nonetheless, Art warns that his club gives short shrift to anyone who doesn’t return this respect in kind.
“When we’re out together, we stick together. We don’t start stuff; we will finish it.”
The VNVLV/MC is looking for potential recruits in Cambodia and all over Southeast Asia.
Interested parties with an appropriate minimum military background (national military servicemen are eligible) and who own a bike with an engine of at least 600cc can contact chapter president Aquaman at [email protected].
To contact the reporter on this story: Sean Gleeson at [email protected]