Sleepless in Saigon

February 21, 2014

It’s 5:30 am in Ho Chi Min City, I’ve been up since 3.  Ambien is fighting a losing battle against the 15 hour time difference. 

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The factory has a nice R&D office right in downtown Saigon, complete with designers, sourcing capabilities, expert pattern-makers, and a staff of sewers.  The design team is led by an American named Anton who — in a happy coincidence — also happens to be a fellow moto-junkie.  He commutes on a Yamaha 400, which is an unusually large bike for Vietnam, and he’s in the process of rebuilding a vintage Honda CB125.  Our project is in good hands.

These guys move fast.  The R&D team completed two rounds of samples before I arrived, and they were much further along with our designs than I expected.  The samples we reviewed were excellent.  I also brought the revised bottle holder and hydration pouch with me on the plane, and they were pattered and sampled overnight.  After spending literally hundreds of hours with Andrew and Chip in the shop tracing, cutting, sewing, and revising, I have a whole new level of appreciation for the skill required to make a bag.  It’s awesome to watch these guys work.  

Anton, Steve, and David, with Andrew on Skype.

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Pattern-maker working on the hydration pouch

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R&D sewer working on the hydration pouch

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R&D sewing team

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Anton & the design office

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We’re also looking for local source for the hardware components, like the aluminum mounting brackets and the HDPE frame, so I’ll be meeting with a variety of machine shops over the next few weeks.  We’re looking for a small shop, because our orders will be pretty small by machine-shop standards.  Here’s a few pics from the first shop we met with.

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The bag factory itself is separate from the R&D office, about 2 hours outside of HCMC on the Cambodia border, where real estate is cheaper and taxes are lower.  There’s a whole micro-economy of restaurants and shops that has sprouted up around the factory entrance.

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I noticed there’s not a single car in the employee parking lot.  Motorcycles and scooters have taken over where bicycles left off.  Vietnam moves on two wheels.

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Spotted this vintage Honda.

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And several vintage Super Cubs.  Some trivia from wikipedia: the Super Cub is the most produced motor vehicle in history.  They’ve been in continuous production since 1958, with over 60 million units sold.  Cool.

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The factory employs approximately 1,000 people.  It’s clean, orderly, and well-managed.  There are visual tracking systems, separate QC teams, clearly defined standards, and minimal/well-organized inventory.  Here the workers all live in the local community, so they go home to their houses and families every night.  There are no big concrete “factory dorms” like in China, where the workforce is mostly transient.  I got a really good vibe from this factory.

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QC team at the end of one production line.  The white board has all the info about the order being processed, plus specs and QC standards for reference.

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A bar-tacker.  On our bags, in addition to seam binding, they will bar-tack all the webbing into the seam for added strength.

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The use a couple different cutting techniques.  Here she’s tracing patterns by hand to be cut with a hand saw.

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Here he’s cutting the fabric with a press and mold.

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Embroidery machine

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They have these awesome mechanical knitting machines which are way vintage but in perfect running order.  Steve said they staff this room with only a few employees and it runs 24/7.

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Viewed up close, the machines are like some kind of steampunk wet dream.

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Coconuts and conference rooms.

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On the 2 hour drive home, Steve broke out his ipad with the 2008 Top Gear Vietnam Special, where they ride up the coast of Vietnam on a Minsk, a Super Cub, and a Vespa.   This is well worth a watch if you’re interested, and it sure helped pass the time.

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I’m really excited about the progress we’ve made so far, and there is a lot more to come over the next few weeks.  The R&D team is currently working on our “minimalist” pannier and duffle (targeting 22l and 32l respectively), and we’re hoping to get the rackless system into development next week as well.  In the meantime, I’ll spend the first half of next week riding around to local machine shops in search of a vendor for the HDPE and aluminum, and then I’ll fly up to Hanoi on Thursday to meet with an apparel factory.

Now if I could only get some sleep.

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