At some point, most of us can remember getting that first bicycle, with the terrible training wheels, on Christmas morning or your birthday. Depending on the weather, you were outside with someone coaching you, just racing up and down the pavement. In my case, I think I stared at it wondering what the heck you do with it.
A bicycle, in my youth, was a rite of passage, one of those stages in our lives marking another step into the big wide world. A bike was for show, a hobby or a way to keep fit in my world. I couldn’t even imagine the myriad uses of a bike in Vietnam. Yet, I think bikes are something more in Vietnam. Imagine life in Vietnam if you couldn’t even afford a bicycle, let alone anything more sophisticated.
What got me writing about this was observing a young girl of about six or seven struggling to learn how to ride an over-sized bicycle in an alley-way near her mum’s main street café.
It brought back so many memories of all those hours of falling off the bike, trying to line-up the pedals for that first downward thrust to get moving and balanced. Such memories include all those awkward moments braking too hard or too late, all those scary times attempting to turn the bike around in full motion, and the achievement of accomplishing all this in a matter of weeks. I thought I was a genius until the first time all the other kids whizzed past me confidently and recklessly on the way to school.
Back then, I had miles of empty space to safely practice. There have been hundreds of times I’ve cringed here in Vietnam watching parents helping their children, or worse, unattended kids, who were learning to ride horrifyingly close to the passing madhouse traffic. They’re wobbling, stumbling, jumping off, and trying again. It’s even worse sometimes when I see a six-year-old zapping around with a four-year-old giggling on the back on the tiny trainer bike with no apparent sense of danger.
But that’s nothing compared to using a bicycle for a living. I think my first realization of this was seeing someone cycle a full-size fridge down the street precariously balanced and sticking out crossways. From custom-made bicycle food stalls to the unpretentious eighteen plastic bags, two chairs, and a table hanging off a back-rack to sell off some veggies and fruit on a street corner – a bicycle is transport, food, work, and ultimately, income.
Bikes are obviously not luxuries here. They are so vital that many charities have donated bikes for schoolchildren and disadvantaged locals. Times are changing, however, as I see fewer human-powered pedal bikes and more electric/pedal combination bikes in circulation, a good indication of rising incomes and posterity. It is interesting how cycling for sport and road trips has become so popular in recent years.
We think of Vietnam as nothing but a zillion motorbikes but even going out a few blocks from main urban areas shows the difference. A bicycle is cheap, easy to lock away, and can be fixed anyway. No license is needed and it is capable of carrying almost anything that the tires and rider can manage. It’s not just going to work or school either – one shock I had was learning that many construction workers still carry all their tools to their workplace on a bike in Hoi An. Want to lose kilos off your waist? Try riding a bicycle in a raincoat. The humidity is like a sauna.
For some, this is not possible, particularly the old ladies trudging on foot to the markets with baskets across their backs. Yet, is it surprising just how many old folks still power up a road on a big, rusty bike with a big load on the back? There’s no early retirement here, folks! Heck, I still regularly see a senior citizen belting back to her place on the bike while smoking a ciggy! We wink at each other sometimes.
Whether it is good or bad time, Vietnamese people just get on with life and use what they have, be it an old clunker or a bicycle, whether they are the disabled newspaper sellers using the hand-push style tricycles, the youngsters on a flashy Zoomer, or a mum with tiny tots squeezed between the handle bars holding on for dear life around the markets.
In the end, I think the best part of a bicycle ride is getting exposed to the world. It’s slow enough to look around and take in impressions of what is around you – you can’t shut it out the way you can in a car or hide on a motorbike rushing to get to a destination. Relaxing or nerve-racking, pedaling your way through life might just offer something more valuable than we think… to just enjoy the ride.