Seeing Saigon on three wheels

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Van Son, one of the long-time cyclo drivers in Ho Chi Minh City, poses on a street in District 1. Photo: Fred Wissink

Every day on this job, guests come to me asking, "What are the must-try experiences in Ho Chi Minh City?"

I sometimes point them toward one of the city's grandly conceived buildings you know the type: vaulted ceiling, entrance fee, souvenir shop but more often than not, my recommendation runs along much humbler lines, or should I say, wheels.

Practical, eco-friendly and as Vietnamese as any conical hat or a bowl of pho, the simple cyclo is one of those leftover relics of history that seems to be increasingly overlooked.

From my office window, I often glimpse the cyclo drivers napping or reading the paper on the sidewalks of Lam Son Square below. In the cooler hours of the day, it's not unusual to see a procession of camera-toting tourists being pedaled down Dong Khoi Street.

The offspring of the two-wheeled pulled rickshaws that came to the country in the late 1930s (think of the outdoor scenes from the movie The Lover), Vietnam's current three-wheeled bicycle-powered cyclos vary in height and width from city to city.

Used for transporting everything from building materials to brides, the cyclo enjoyed a few glorious years as Vietnam's main means of inner-city transport during the 1950s and 60s, before it was eclipsed by the faster, more fashionable motorcycle.

But for at least one day every year, the faithful cyclo gets to be the hero of the city again, during the annual Saigon Cyclo Challenge.

Early last month, on a newly built promenade bordered by a line of palm trees and a small pond, the Caravelle's four-man team captured the silver medal in the world's only cyclo race.

Organized by the Saigon Children's Charity, more than 1,000 people came out on March 10 to watch 10 local teams race their cyclos outside the Crescent Mall in District 7.

Earlier in February the Caravelle sponsored a press conference for the race that was well attended by the local media. On the day of the event, pedaling those cyclos in the stifling heat, even without passengers, was backbreaking work for our racers, who took at least one spill on the track.

But in the end, I couldn't have been prouder of the hotel's team. Even though we didn't get to taste the winners' champagne, we were part of an event that raised US$41,500 for a good cause.

 Afterwards, one of the drivers who troll for fares outside the Caravelle shared some of his story.

Over a mug of café sua da, Nguyen Van Son, aged 45, told me he started with his first rented cyclo 20 years ago, after spending three years fighting in the Vietnamese army.

Two decades later, Son has been through 10 cyclos, none of which he has owned. He pays VND1.5 million a month to rent the vehicle that he pedals for about 80 km, from sunup to sundown, seven days a week. Ten dollars, or VND200,000 an hour, is his minimum fee for giving visitors tours around District 1 and 3.

 Son remembers the days when there were as many as 5,000 cyclo drivers in the city. Today he estimates only about one-fifth of that number remain, while the number of people on the city's streets seems to have doubled.

Other changes he points out are the big buildings and hotels, new roads and bridges which didn't exist when he started as a cyclo driver. Son emphasizes that the life of a cyclo driver is very hard, but with a wife and five children, he sees it as his only option.

After this rather melancholy exchange, my thoughts turned to the future of this slowly dying profession, and then back to my first cyclo ride.

I remember feeling overtaken by everything else on the road, but soon quit mentally urging the driver forward, and realized that at that pace, there was time to see everything.

I took in the river breeze together with the old houses and enormous trees, and started looking, really looking, at the street life, the people in the alleys, the food on display.

All these little memories come back when guests, a little disoriented but excited by their first visit to Saigon, ask what they absolutely must do before leaving. I know just what to tell them.

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