When speaking of local transport in Vietnam, no discussion goes on for too long without mention of the bicycle and its role in Vietnamese daily life. In Western countries, most people enjoy bicycles as a kind of sport or a healthy way to commute. For us in Saigon, though, bicycles are a tradition and a livelihood.
For generations, bicycles have been used not only as transport but also as a way of generating income for working-class families. A lot of people’s lives are closely connected to this rudimentary conveyance because they can earn their living right on two wheels.
Then and Now
Times are changing in big cities like Saigon. A few years ago in this city, you might spot women wearing the iconic palm-leaf conical hats and selling sticky rice, corn, bread, vegetables, steamed cake, noodles and other Vietnamese specialties directly from their bicycles. The products would be piled in big baskets and fastened to the saddles of their bicycles with rope.
On bicycles, they could ride down winding roads to new neighbourhoods to sell their produce, sometimes advertising their wares by calling out. If they found a hot spot of customers, they would park their bicycles and sell for a few hours, stationary. For a long time, this was the way of life for the working class in Vietnam; many of today’s successful and talented people were nurtured by their mothers’ loads of food on bicycles.
Nowadays, bicycle vendors are rarely seen in a metropolis like Saigon. Maybe that’s because the standard of living has been raised. More people have ‘innovated’ their little enterprises, switching to businesses in shops, food stalls or even large malls. But if you follow some winding roads yourself and head for the countryside, you might still hear the cries of women (or even men) selling their local produce from the seats of their bicycles. They’ll likely be selling some fruit you can buy.
The image of bicycles in Vietnam has nevertheless remained iconic in Vietnamese poems and songs that praise the beauty of love on bicycles. A bike with no motor is inexpensive transport and has actually become a symbol of pure and nostalgic love from a time when speed and wealth were less important.
Today, bicycles are still used as practical and affordable transport for a lot of people, especially students. Boys often give girls bike rides to high school or university and then back home. Day in and day out, rain or shine, stormy or calm, young hearts are stirred by a first date on a bicycle, which may sweep them away into new love. For us in Vietnam, love and bicycles go together in a way that is beautiful, innocent and simple.
The rare few who also still use their bicycles to sell their wares help to maintain this cultural image. But it’s more than that. It’s a way of life, beautiful for its rich tradition.
Try It Yourself
Travelling by bicycle can be one of the most rewarding ways to experience Vietnam. Just imagine pedalling along a road on the coast of Nha Trang, breathing the fresh air and enjoying the gentle wind in your hair, the salty taste of the sea on your tongue, all while giving your thighs and calves a good workout.
You can find the winding roads that the bicycle vendors would use to seek new markets for their wares. And maybe, if you’re lucky, you’ll even cross paths with a vendor offering you flowers and a glimpse of the past.