“I’ve been working in this business for over 40 years. I’m 65 this year.”
Tiny and resilient, cyclo driver Thanh has the air of someone who’s learned to be content with what life gave him. “I grew up near Dong Khoi,” he says. “Before the war, I worked for the former government, and when it ended I spent six or seven months in a re-education camp.” When Thanh got out, he couldn’t find work. So he bought himself a cyclo.
In the years after the war, Vietnam’s economy was isolated from the rest of the world under an American embargo on trade that was to last until 1994. At that time very few vehicles were imported, and motorbikes did not become a way of life until the 1986 doi moi policy re-integrated the country into the global economy.
Before then, cyclos were society’s staple means of transport.
“There were no xe oms or taxis,” says Thanh, “and the bus system was very small, so everyone used the cyclo. At that time I earned a lot of money.” He often used to serve nine to 10 customers per day, earning up to VND1,000 at a time, the equivalent of about VND1 million today. Like many other cyclo drivers, Thanh also carried goods and supplies for companies around the city.
“The strangest thing I have ever carried was a sling of trees,” he laughs. “I still carry things for companies today. They have my number and they call me to work when they need me.”
After doi moi, Vietnam’s economy began to develop along with a fast-rising GDP. Foreign investment was encouraged, as was a new focus on tourism, with 1.6 million international visitors recorded in 1996. Tourists came looking for culture, adventure and excitement, and the cyclo drivers’ clientele began to change.
Long-time expat Ben Scott (name changed) remembers what life was like for the cyclos in those days, when tourism was still young. He came to Vietnam in early 2000.
“At that time most of the cyclo drivers I knew were trying to work with tourists,” he says. “They complained constantly about money, and because they were often short and in debt, some of them would try and scam their customers. This made other cyclo drivers angry and there were often big arguments and even fights.”
Over the years, Ben has observed a decline in the number of drivers working in Ho Chi Minh City. “There used to be cyclo drivers everywhere,” he says. “Not any more. Part of the reason is a government drive to get rid of them. The other reason is that the work is hard, and with more options available, many drivers have found other jobs.”
Today, an hour’s private cyclo tour will cost you VND200,000. Most cyclos have a tourist map and they will discuss a route and price with their customers before setting off. Cyclo driver Nam has been working solo for 23 years, but today, freelance work can be hard to find. Local society has little need for cyclos, and tourists are growing sceptical after a number of scam scares during 2016.
For Ho Quang Man, owner of The 5 Oysters on the Bui Vien backpacker strip, this scepticism is not unfounded. Working with tourists, Man has heard many stories of cyclo scams.
“I would only take a cyclo through a registered tour company, and I remind my guests to be careful when I see a solo cyclo driver approach them,” he says. “Often a driver will seem completely professional and might offer a good deal at first, but the price will go up significantly at the end of the ride.”
Hoping to keep the cyclo trade alive and to attract new interest from foreign clients, a number of corporate tour providers are starting to run cyclo tours. They usually get in touch with one of two middlemen to coordinate drivers for a tour. Son, a cyclo driver of over 40 years, is one of them. You will find him lounging on the corner of Bui Vien and Tran Hung Dao, the big boss of cyclos waiting for the next big deal. His cyclo is one of the expensive ones. “Mine is made of stainless steel, and it cost about VND15 million,” he says. “But a cheaper one could be as low as half of that.”
When companies call Son, they ask him to arrange a specific number of drivers to drive a certain tour, at a certain time for a certain duration, and Son gathers the cyclos.
“The companies only have my number but I have all the other numbers,” he says. “So it’s easier to call me and let me arrange the drivers.” Son’s group has earned itself a good reputation among local tour companies and charges a cheap but fair rate.
The Big Bosses
There is a wide range of companies offering cyclo tours in Ho Chi Minh City. Kim Travel on the corner of Bui Vien and De Tham, offers two cyclo tour options to its clients.
“You can take a 15-minute ride as part of our night tour, and you can also create a custom trip with the drivers through our agency,” says sales manager Annie. A night tour with Kim Travel costs customers VND890,000 and the cyclos take VND50,000 for their 15 minutes, but a custom tour just using cyclos is priced by the hour and all payment goes straight to the drivers. Middleman Son charges companies VND100,000 per driver per hour for tours like these, and most travel agents in the backpacker area offer similar deals.
According to Annie, most of Kim Travel’s clients who want to ride a cyclo are older. “A lot of Europeans of about 30 to 40 years old want to ride cyclos,” she says. “They like it because it’s less dangerous than motorbike tours and you have time to take everything in.” Kim Travel carefully monitors the safety of the cyclo tours they run, working with the same group of drivers each time and assigning a tour guide to follow the tour.
“Some freelance cyclos are very good scam artists,” says Annie. “But the drivers that we work with take care to keep up their good reputation. They work well and charge a fair price.”
In a society where cyclos are increasingly rare, this new trend of corporate-organised cyclo tours has helped to keep the trade alive, increasing the average cyclo driver’s income and lessening his workload.
“Many foreigners don’t trust freelance drivers and are lazy to bargain with them, so it can be hard for cyclos to find work,” says Annie. “We get the work for them, and we also guarantee a safe, reliable experience to our customers.”
Most travel agencies on Bui Vien arrange cyclo tours this way, but a few bigger companies offer more carefully regulated trips. Vietnam Adventure Tours uses only registered cyclo drivers.
“We try to create stable jobs for our cyclo drivers,” says sales representative Trinh. “Drivers register with our company, and then we get in touch with them when we have work for them. We pay them by the hour, and we have a rewards policy for our best staff.”
With more private vehicles in Vietnam than ever before and the wheel of progress in full tilt, the future of cyclos and the history they represent seems based entirely on the tourism sector.
For now, they have work, but the demand is thin and with every year that passes, fewer drivers roam the streets. Iconic cultural symbols or simply a thing of the past, at the end of the day these are working men and the question remains — where will they be in another few years?