Hanoi’s Cycling Comeback ….maybe

Hanoi is not like it used to be. Talk to anyone who is familiar with the classic Hanoi of the 70s and 80s, and they will lament the loss of the quiet, bicycle-filled streets that were characteristic of this ancient city. Up until the early 1990s everyone used to commute by bicycle, but they’ve since been replaced by motorbikes as the predominant form of transportation. (Just as in every city we’ve visited aside from Bangkok). But that’s not to say that no one rides bikes here anymore. As soon as we crossed the border from Laos to Vietnam, we immediately started seeing more bicycles. And as we descended from the tumultuous, tortured mountains of western Vietnam, the number of cyclists increased inversely with the landscape’s slope, until they reached maximum concentration in the poorer cities surrounding Hanoi. Thankfully, this means that there is no shortage of bike shops to help out the stranded bike tourer with a broken rim. Topping that long list of shops is Mr. Quann.

An American War veteran, Quann opened his repair shop (at 136 Le Duan Street) only three years ago, and is already the most sought-out bike mechanic in the city. We found his tiny shop on our second day in the city. It was wedged in the 10ft of space between a café and a fan store on the edge of a fast, busy street filled with the angry roar of vehicles. Squeezed between the shop front and the street, a row of bicycles stood outside and served as scant advertisement for the serious skills housed within. Mr. Quann sat on a small stool, sweating profusely, unfazed by the traffic that buzzed only inches away from his sweat-stained t-shirt. He was tightening the rear derailleur cable on a 1970s era road bike when Alex approached with the broken wheel in his hand. Quann sized us up with one glance. Deeming us worthy of his considerable talents, he gestured that he had a suitable rim and could have the wheel built by 3pm, that day. (For those unfamiliar with the timeframe of a typical western bike shop, that’s like your car mechanic telling you he’ll rebuild your transmission while you wait.)

Broken bicycle on bicycle taxi – Alex getting a ride to Quann’s shop.

He built Alex 2 new wheels in a day, rigged up a new horn, patched his blown-out tire, and replaced his dog-chewed bar tape and crushed helmet for only $90 total. Unbelievable. I met Quann at 5:32am the next morning to join him for a morning ride around Ho Tay Lake while Alex recuperated. I arrived two minutes late, and he waited impatiently in front of his shop, decked out in what I would come to know as his signature color-coordinated yellow spandex outfit. He rode a yellow Giant mountain bike with a red water bottle that matched his red helmet. In contrast, I wore a blue t-shirt and floral-print swimsuit that clashed with my green handlebar tape. Clearly, I was underdressed for this party. On that first morning ride, not a single word passed between us, Quann speaking no English and I little Vietnamese, but we shared a common love of the bicycle and this became our language.

The three of us built a friendship over the next 5 days as we continued to accompany him on his early morning rides around the lake, grinning together as we darted amongst the other walkers, cyclists, and joggers, owning the road. In 5 days of riding, no one passed Quann. He was well known and liked by the other cyclists that gathered around the lake, and friendly shouts and waves echoed behind us as we flew by. On Sunday morning, September 2nd, he took me for an 80km road ride with his cycling club of 12 American War veterans. Amazingly, they greeted the young American as they would a good friend. The old wounds have healed, it seems. Their average age was probably 56, yet I had to struggle to keep up on my heavy touring bike. Afterwards, soaked in sweat, we biked to Quann’s favorite bia hoi joint and celebrated Vietnam’s independence day by downing 12 beers, in rapid succession, at 9am. I spent the rest of the morning in a drunken haze – Mr. Quann rode to his shop and fixed bicycles all day. He’s 55.

The Cuu Chien Binh cycling club

This is truly the first city in which we’ve met other bicycle lovers. It’s been uplifting and inspiring, and has given us renewed purpose for our cause, and the film that we hope to produce. Despite the city’s changes, Hanoi remains a very easy city to cycle, because all the drivers have grown up on bicycles and are thus constantly aware of them on the roadway. Sure, it’s humid as hell, but the air loses much of its stifling heat when you sail through it at 20km/h. As testament to the sport’s growing popularity, hundreds of devoted cyclists wake up every day at 5am (as we did for 5 days) to cycle the 18km route around Ho Tay lake, and then gather in large groups to sip tea and coffee and watch the city wake up. They now compete with Tai-chi practitioners in numbers, and have taken over a large portion of a city park with their cycling clubs, showing off the latest and greatest in cycling gear. Our touring bikes looked grim and disheveled in comparison, but Quann’s boasting of our trip got us plenty of smiles and handshakes every morning.

The Vietnamese are just as skilled on bicycles as they are on motorbikes. Everywhere we saw impossible loads, precariously balanced on ancient steel Chinese bicycles, but effortlessly steered by old and young women wearing the quintessential conical rice hat. For many of the urban poor, the bicycle is an important tool for income generation. It becomes a portable snack shop, a flower cart, a cyclo, and a mode of transportation. It is used to organize and move recyclables, to carry children to school, to sell fruits, and to take goods to market. And now, it is increasingly used as a status symbol by the upper and middle classes to show off their new-found wealth.

Things have almost come full circle in Hanoi. Since incomes started increasing in the mid 1990s, the standard order was bicycle first, then motorbike, then car – never look back. These upgrades in transportation modes consequently increased one’s status, and only those that could not afford a better vehicle rode a bicycle. Bicycles were cheap, and in a country where a conversation usually starts with, “How much you pay for this?” the bike was derided as a moniker of the lower classes, something to replace as soon as you were able. Now, however, imported bicycles have upset the traditional order, and a new flashy bike has become a status symbol of its own. This trend has exploded in the last 2 years, and expensive carbon fiber road bikes and full-suspension downhill bikes are now a common sight in the mornings along the new path that rings Ho Tay lake.

While it is true that most of these cyclists still get to work by motorized transport, this shift in people’s attitudes toward the bicycle marks an important first step in encouraging more urban cycling. Just like back home, the Vietnamese are obsessed with status, and as long as commuter cycling remains a fringe activity, it won’t be embraced en masse. Contemporary Vietnam often looks to western countries to set its trends, and just as bicycle commuting has become hip in cities like San Francisco and NYC, it has started to generate a mini-culture of its own here in Hanoi. Bike shops all over the city have started importing fixed-gear bicycles – ‘fixies’ and single speeds to appeal to Hanoi’s skinny-jean-clad hipsters. Yes, there are hipsters in Hanoi, lots of them.

Many of these imported bicycles are more expensive than a typical motorbike, and so come with a corresponding status. Guim Valls, owner of The Hanoi Bicycle Collective, a bike shop-café cum cycling advocacy center and bike-touring hospitality hotspot, says that many customers who come in are first-time cyclists but want to buy high-end bicycles, simply to own the best. He’s sold $2,000 downhill mountain bikes to people who are only going to ride on flat pavement. While this could easily be dismissed as another form of hyper-consumerism by the rich, it is Guim’s hope – and ours – that this obsession with bicycles will eventually trickle down to encourage even more cycling. Guim’s specialty is electric bicycles – he rode one 25,000km around the world before settling in Hanoi and building the bike shop that he always wished he’d find on the road. He views these bikes as perfect tools for increasing the breadth of cycle commuting. Essentially a bicycle with an electric motor and battery, these are different than the electric bicycles popular in China in that the electric motor is predominantly pedal-assist. They don’t move without some pedal pushing. But they do make cycling much easier, and allow your average cyclist to keep up with the flow of traffic without arriving a sweaty mess (like we usually do). At $3,000 a pop, no one can decry them as a vehicle for the poor, and Guim is hoping that their expense will be part of their appeal. At that price and by their motorized nature, they will never replace the good-ole-bicycle as a cheap, healthy and efficient means of transportation. In our opinion, only the bicycle can provide the joys of self-propelled movement that lie in its widespread appeal. But if they can get more people pedaling, we’re all for it.

We leave Hanoi tomorrow morning, China bound. A vast new country awaits, the snow-clad peaks of the Himalayas promising relief from this choking humidity. We’ll learn to curse the 4,000m climbs soon enough, but right now a 5,500m mountain pass sounds damn nice. Before leaving, we will make one last pilgrimage to Ho Tay to say our goodbyes to the throngs of cyclists who kept us fit, happy, and inspired while we recovered in Hanoi. And we will stop at Quann’s shop for a final beer to say ‘thank you’ to the man whose skills allowed us to continue our journey. We leave the city optimistic about the future of cycling and eager to follow its progress in the years to come. To all the cyclists in Hanoi, ride on.

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