The Xích Lô (Cyclo)
There was a time when the Vietnamese commuted entirely on cyclo. However, new modes of transportation began to take over. Motorbikes and four-wheel vehicles become increasingly popular, leaving cyclos is a top-rated tourist attraction as a memory of a bygone era.
Prior to the arrival of the cyclo in Việt Nam, there was the rickshaw, a cruel and vicious mode of transport that even French experts found unacceptable. In this vein, the French Public Works Ministry began preliminary work on three-wheeled substitutes in the mid-1930s, displaying their innovative buildings in Paris with high-profile demonstrations that featured Tour de France champions in the Bois de Boulogne. A guy named Pierre Coupeaud designed and built his own adaption to transport to French Indochina two years after the first prototype. In Việt Nam, the French occupation was mostly used as a kind of luxury transportation.
At that time, Pierre Coupeaud was in an ideal situation. He’d lived in Indochina since the mid-1920s and was the owner of the “Établissements Pierre Coupeaud et Cie” — a bicycle shop in Phnom Penh. Pierre Coupeaud received permission from the local authorities to build an armada of his new “vélo-pousse,” as the cyclo was known at the time, once he returned to Cambodia with his model. He tried to do the same thing in Sài Gòn, but the experts there were uninterested, claiming that this new trend was too forward-thinking.
The Race, Phnom Penh to Saigon
On February 9th, 1936, two local bikers left Phnom Penh in a vélo-pousse. They were driving to Sài Gòn and were being trailed by authorities in a car who were using chronometers to track their progress. The team went through the night, completing the 240-kilometer (149-mile) journey in 17 hours and 20 minutes, significantly faster than any rickshaw. It was a big step forward for cyclo invention and development.
Following the race, Sài Gòn‘s civic chairman agreed to let 20 of these novel contraptions operate in his city. The experts were correct in their assessment: the cyclo was progressive, but not in a rebellious manner. By the mid-1940s, the new cyclo had largely replaced all of Saigon’s rickshaws.
Following World War II, when imperialism in Việt Nam came to a terrible and long-overdue end, with the French finally withdrawing after their devastation at ĐIện Biên Phủ in 1954, the cyclo remained a popular mode of transportation. It was better than bikes for hauling loads and gatherings, such as mothers with children because the great majority of people couldn’t afford a bike. At initially, a cyclo ride was not bad, but that changed quickly.
Only the military and the really wealthy could afford automobiles and motorcycles during the Việt Nam War – or the American War, as it was known in Việt Nam. The presence of cyclos was far more common. Although a few drivers worked as consultants, much like xe ôm drivers do now, the majority of drivers worked for privately owned enterprises. The new professionals organized the cyclo drivers into huge cooperatives after the fall of Sài Gòn in 1975. These cooperatives lasted until the late 1980s when display powers became significantly more important.
The motorbike was still too expensive for the average person before the Vietnamese government allowed the “Đổi Mới” age in 1986, which took into account market competition in a communist-run economy. A Vespa or a Simson would only be affordable to the wealthy. As the economy grew, so did the number of motorcycles, with Honda’s iconic Super Cub leading the way. In 1994, the country had only 500,000 engine vehicles; by 2004, it had grown to 14 million.
People began to look down on people who rode bicycles and cyclos at the turn of the century. Everyone who was someone rode a motorcycle or took a motorcycle taxi, which was faster and cheaper than riding a bicycle.
There were just one market left for cyclos: large and bulky items that couldn’t be transported by motorbike – and if you’ve ever gone to Việt Nam, you know that people would transport pretty much anything on a motorbike. The cyclo was on the verge of extinction.
Welcome to Việt Nam
In every genuine metropolis, cyclo drivers got harassed and bankrupt as more Vietnamese people learned to ride a motorcycle. Motorcyclists argued that because cyclos were reasonably big and wide, they hindered traffic. As a result, cyclos have been banned from key thoroughfares. As the result, the cyclo has been forbidden in every major city by the mid-2000s.
The cyclists had to decide whether to pay for a costly swap or risk having their cyclos seized by traffic officials. To make up for their hardships, many cyclo rides turned to scam people, which made an already difficult situation even more onerous for cyclo business. The numbers dropped even further as word got out that riding a cyclo wasn’t a good idea.
Travelers are becoming the most important client base for cyclo drivers. Cyclo rides are popular among visitors because they provide a more calm perspective on the landscape, especially in congested cities like Huế, Sài Gòn, and Hà Nội. In any event, the number of administrators is strictly regulated. In this vein, it is estimated that there are just about 300 cyclos left in downtown Sài Gòn, and even fewer in other urban areas.
Furthermore, it isn’t only about control from authority. Workers now have more options for work in Việt Nam’s fast-growing economy. Driving a cyclo is challenging. They frequently work during the hottest hours of the day, for earnings that vary depending on the number of tourists. It’s simply no longer a desirable profession.
Aside from specialists hauling enormous burdens over small separations in metropolitan zones, cyclos close visitor areas – places like the Citadel (Kinh thành) in Huế and the Old Quarter in Hà Nội – are currently the last of a vanishing breed.
The motorbike was the beginning of the end, and with the recent flood of new cars flooding Vietnam’s streets, there won’t be anywhere left for the cyclo on the busy streets. The cyclo is now an antique, a symbol of Việt Nam that exists primarily to allow cash and photo exchanges among travelers.