In the picturesque old town of Hanoi, legions of motorcycles cavort, sometimes laden with entire families or half their household effects. Life in Vietnam’s capital pulsates, cars honk, tourist buses make their way along the blue Hoan Kiem Lake. Those who travel with Tran Viet Dac, on the other hand, discover the charm of slowness: a tour with his cycle rickshaw is like leaping into a bygone era.
The 65-year-old pedals well, although the thermometer shows 36 degrees and the humidity almost takes your breath away. The trees on the wide avenues and the nested, colorful houses in the narrow streets pass by at a leisurely pace. For Tran Viet Dac, on the other hand, every customer means not only money, but also hard work – especially in the hot rainy season from May to September. When his aged tricycle finally comes to a standstill, the petite man is bathed in sweat.
“I’ve been doing this for a quarter of a century,” he says. The hardest part was getting started. If the rickshaw rolls once, then everything is fine. However, his wet shirt reveals how strenuous the job is. He intends to keep pedaling for two or three years before he plans to return to his home village 100 kilometers north of Hanoi for his well-deserved retirement.
The “Cyclos”, as the two-seater vehicles are called here, are old and have neither a gear shift nor other aids that would relieve the driver. They have little in common with the ultra-modern three-wheeler taxis that circulate in Berlin, Paris or London today. Some older semesters moan so loudly on the way that foreigners sometimes find it almost uncomfortable to be chauffeured like this – even if the historical jaunt itself is great fun.
Although the country now has very uncomplicated entry rules again in the wake of the corona pandemic, international tourists are still rare in Hanoi. The rickshaws still have sporadic customers: Travelers from far away Ho Chi Minh City (formerly: Saigon), where the cyclos have had their day for some time, like to use their visit to take a ride on the nostalgic vehicle. “There are two reasons why people love our rickshaws,” says Nguyen Huu Thu, head of Huy Phong Company, which manages 50 – half – of the models still in service. “On the one hand, it is a very slow and also environmentally friendly means of transport – made for taking photos. On the other hand, the passengers can revive the former life in Hanoi and immerse themselves in the past.”
Nevertheless: The companions are becoming increasingly rare. 20 years ago at least 300 rickshaws drove through the old town, says Nguyen Duc Manh, who oversees a team of drivers. Only a third of it is left now. “Of course, that has to do with the fact that the number of other, faster means of transport has exploded,” says the 60-year-old. But it is also becoming increasingly difficult to get young men interested in the profession. “The work is strenuous, most of them want to do other jobs today.”
The pandemic hasn’t exactly made the profession more popular either. Because of the lockdowns, the drivers were without earnings for months. Many have used up all their savings and have had to return to their rural villages, where life is cheaper than in the capital. So does Tran Viet Dac, who has only been pedaling again in Hanoi since mid-March. But business isn’t really going well yet. “On good days I have up to ten trips, on bad days not a single one,” he says.
Every six months there is a kind of cyclo MOT. The responsible operating companies not only check the roadworthiness of the steel steeds, but also the health of the drivers. “It is important that the cycle rickshaws are safe and clean, but also that the handlebars are fit enough to steer them,” says company boss Nguyen Huu Thu.
According to historians, rickshaws, invented in Japan, were introduced to Vietnam in 1883. At that time they were still hand-drawn models – a method of transport that was later considered inhumane. In the early years, it was mainly European colonial rulers and ladies who used the rickshaws in what was then French Indochina. But even they eventually found this type of passenger transport too brutal. At the beginning of the 20th century, pedal-operated versions became more and more popular.
Where is Hanoi’s remaining cyclo fleet headed? “The picturesque Old Quarter is big, but also has many tiny streets – too small for cars, but just right for cycle rickshaws,” says Huu Thu. He is convinced that tourism in the old town, which has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1999, will soon take off again – and that Germans, French and Australians in particular will boost business. To really enjoy the magic, a tour on one of the famous tricycles is a must. And what does cyclo driver Tran Viet Dac say? He laughs full of optimism: “I have no doubt that our cycle rickshaws will still be around in 100 years.”