A pedicab driver on a street in the Mekong Delta province of An Giang. Photo: Minh Hung
Nguyen Van Ut let out a faint chuckle when he recalled the time one of his four passengers hopped out of his seat to help push his pedicab up a slope.
“That’s the only time I have ever let a passenger help me out. Countless others have offered to peddle for me, but I refused,” said the 54-year-old resident of Chau Doc District in An Giang Province.
Though this sleepy border town is one of just a few Delta communities where you can still pay for a peddle, Ut said the few remaining peddlers take pride in their work and consider seeking help from a customer a dereliction of duty.
Once considered one of the Delta’s most iconic occupations, pedicab drivers have gradually disappeared due to the wide availability of cheap motorized transportation.
They remain relatively plentiful in Chau Doc District, one of the few communities that ignored a 2004 ban on three-wheeled vehicles.
The golden age
Pedicabs in the Mekong Delta typically consist of a normal bicycle hooked to a large two-wheeled trailer that fixes on to the seat post. For this reason, many call them xe loi or xe dap loi (literally, pulling bicycle) rather than xich lo.
Nguyen Thanh Son, an official of the Kien Giang Province’s Transportation Department, said the services were first introduced in the Delta during the colonial-French period (1884-1945), to replace rickshaws.
“The pedicabs could be found everywhere from ferry stations to the markets,” he said.
“There were so many and competition was fierce but they all earned a decent living at the end of each day.”
Ut, the pedicab driver in An Giang, said he started the job over 20 years ago.
“My father was also a pedicab driver who worked around Sam Mountain,” he said, referring to the site of a 200-year-old temple that attracts thousands of pilgrims every year.
“We lived on the mountainside and the occupation was good for me since my family didn't have much land to farm,” Ut said.
A job for good health
Chin Binh usually sits on his bike's trailer to wait for passengers outside Chau Doc Market.
“I used to be very strong. My longest ride was from Chau Doc to Long Xuyen and back--it's about 110 kilometers (68 miles),” said the 58-year-old driver.
“Not many young people can cover that distance easily on a normal bicycle,” he added.
Pedicab driver Chin Binh (R) waiting for passengers near the Chau Doc Market in An Giang Province. Photo: Minh Hung
Binh, who looks much younger than his age, said his job keeps him fit and healthy.
Nowadays, he and his fellow drivers often carry tourists to the Sam Mountain, some six kilometers from the district's namesake market.
“I often charge VND50,000 (US$2.3) for one passenger one-way. Starting at two passengers, I only charge VND30,000 each,” he said.
Decline in peacetime
Chin Binh, another pedicab driver in Chau Doc, said that in the 1990s there used to be more than 50 pedicabs at the station near the market where he is operating.
“Now we're down to less than a dozen,” he said.
“Many migrated to Ho Chi Minh City and nearby provinces to take jobs in factories after facing harsh competition from buses and xe om (motorbike taxi) drivers.”
Binh said they usually start work at 3AM, when many of their regular customers head to the market to set up their stalls.
“They call us after their done at the market. While they're working, we earn some VND5,000-10,000 from non-frequent passengers,” he said.
Binh's two daughters have both married and opened small grocery stalls at the market, leaving Binh and his wife to fend for themselves.
Despite the dire outlook for the profession, Binh remains optimistic.
“It’s easy to make a living here. We're really close to the border (with Cambodia) and that provides a lot of opportunities. Besides, the fish here are very abundant” he said.
“On some days, I only earn VND10,000 (US$0.46). But that's enough to buy some fish at the market to make a day’s meal.”