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Saigon’s cyclo

Cyclo is the favorite of foreign tourists, who see it as Saigon’s “specialty,” but this kind of vehicle is banned in Vietnam’s largest city.

Cyclos at the Great Church.

‘Eradicating’ cyclo

The correspondent who wrote this article dropped by the head office of the cyclo trade association of District 1, on March 14. He saw nice cyclos covered by canvas and chained together on the pavement. Cyclo drivers had nothing to do than grouping up at pavement tea shops to talk. An official of the cyclo trade association said: “Drivers don’t dare to run cyclo on the street because they are afraid of traffic inspectors. Tourist cyclo drivers always wear uniform but their vehicles are still captured.”

Cyclo drivers are not allowed to run on the street to seek passengers. They only serve tourists who use cycle services provided by the cyclo trade association. They earn VND40,00-50,000 ($2-2.5) per hour but they have to contribute VND10,000/hour to the association’s fund.

All cyclo drivers who join the cyclo trade association have pursued this job for at least ten years and they do not want to change their job.

Vietnam’s cyclo service firstly appeared in Saigon. According to historical documents, the first cyclos were seen in Saigon in 1939. It was invented by a French man named P.Coupeaid.

Cyclo, which is easy to use, flexible and good-looking, quickly replaced carts as the most popular mean of transport in Saigon in the early 20th century.

In other Asian countries, cyclo drivers sit in front of passengers but in Vietnam, they sit behind passengers, which enable passengers to view landscapes.

Prior to 1975, there were tens of thousands of cyclos in Saigon, who worked for private transportation firms. After the country’s unification, district authorities set up cyclo cooperatives.

The city’s 24 districts had around 40,000 cyclos, including up to 5,000 in Districts 1 and 4. Many families had both fathers and sons were cyclo drivers. The father ran cyclo in the daytime and son in the night time. Many cyclo drivers did other jobs. A teacher who worked as a cyclo driver at night in the centrally-subsidized period recalled: “My teaching salary was not enough to support my family, so I worked as a cyclo driver at night in District 1. The local department of education blamed me for doing this job but I asked them how could I raise my children by my salary? They could not answer me.”

In the late 80s, cyclo corporatives broke up. The city planed to establish a cyclo trade association. This organization was born in 1991, with 900 cyclo drivers.

Mr. Nghia, chairman of the cyclo trade association of District 1, recalled: “The association borrowed VND50 million from banks to buy 80 cyclos for its members. Drivers paid by installments. But at the same time, the city banned cyclos to get into the center.”

Because of the ban, many cyclos were seized by traffic policemen and traffic inspectors.

Since 2008, cyclos have been banned from running in almost all roads. At present, there are less than 300 cycles in Saigon, including 30 of the cyclo trade association of District 1.

Why ban the cyclo?

One of the last cyclo drivers in Saigon.

Cyclos do not cause air or noise pollution. They are not bulky to make traffic congestion. They do not cause traffic accidents. But why they are banned on the street? That’s the question of cyclo drivers.

After four years of being banned, local people have lost the habit of using cyclo. However, cyclo is still the favorite of foreign tourists, who see cyclo as Vietnam’s traditional culture.

Ms. Ngoc, tour manager of a big travel company, said: “We will welcome five groups of foreign tourists by sea. Each group has from 1,300 to 2,000 tourists. All of them have ordered cyclo tours but we can supply cyclo tours to 100-120 tourists per each group because the cyclo trade association has only 30 cyclos.”

The cyclo trade association of District 1 is very busy. The association’s 30 drivers serve 1,500 to 2,000 foreign visitors each month.

“All big travel firms in the city are our clients. They book our service on daily basis but we have to refuse. We only receive small contracts, which require several cyclos on the evening. It is ridiculous! We have a lot of passengers but we cannot serve them!” said Mr. Nghia of the cyclo trade association of District 1.

Nghia said that the city authorities understood the demand of foreign tourists and they had assigned the Saigon Tourism Corporation (Saigontourist) to set up a team with at least 100 cyclos. However, other travel firms did not want to depend on Saigontourist. In addition, lack of investment was also a reason to prevent the establishment of such a cyclo team.

Nghia worried that cyclo – Saigon’s specialty would disappear in the near future.

Tien Phong

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