“There is nothing you can complain about in it. Every single detail of the bike is refined, pretty and elegant,” he continues.
The bicycle Cong is talking about is a Peugeot he received from a relative abroad. He’s convinced that I won’t get bored looking at it.
Boom and Bust
The boom period of bicycles in Europe occurred during the French occupation of Vietnam. There is little known about exactly when the first bicycle arrived in Vietnam — in late 19th century photos, they’re mostly ridden by French officials — but in February, 1924, the first bicycle race in Hanoi took place and cycling hit the country in a big way.
The race was organised by Berset, a Peugeot subsidiary on Trang Thi in Hoan Kiem. Several bicycle manufacturers were established during the French period, but the type of Peugeot Cong rides remained the gold standard.
In those days, only wealthy families could afford to buy bikes. After 1954, when France was forced out of the northern section of Vietnam, all French-related products were banned and whoever used them was investigated. Peugeots became even more scarce, almost disappearing — probably one of the reasons these French bikes receive so much love from Hanoians.
During the bao cap (‘government subsidy’) period, only Vietnamese bikes and a few specific Chinese and Soviet imports were available. They were distributed to people in very limited numbers — and were not available for sale. There were many stories of people trading property for bicycles because of their scarcity. Only after 1986, when the doi moi (‘restoration’) period started, could Vietnamese abroad send goods back home. That’s when Peugeots came back to the country.
“My father traded two parts of our house just to get a Peugeot that was made in the Soviet Union in 1972,” says Thang, the chairman of the club. His family had to sell the bike later because of financial issues, but Thang always had a nostalgia for it. Now he has four Peugeots in the house, one for himself, one for his wife and one each for his son and grandson.
“This one is the 1967 model,” Thang says. “It’s a beautiful piece of art.” He points to his moss green ladies’ Peugeot, with a dropped twin crossbar, a leather saddle and upright touring handlebars. The front of the bike is decorated with a little steel kangaroo.
“The one in the later series of that year has a slightly higher crossbar, but it lost a lot of charm compared to this one,” Thang says. He paid VND6 million for it six years ago, from an old lady.
“She had it hung in her house for a very long time and didn’t want to sell it. So I had to ‘flirt’ with her to get her to sell,” he says, laughing.
Every morning, dozens of members of the club congregate on Thanh Nien, all with vintage bikes from 60 years old to brand new. They cycle around West Lake, chit-chat about bike parts, joke with each other or simply enjoy some hot green tea after the ride.
“One day I hope Hanoi will become like Amsterdam,” Cong tells me, “where only bicycles run on the streets.” In his eyes, I can see real passion for that dream.
The Hanoi Vintage Bicycle Club meets daily at 5.30am on Thanh Nien for an hour-and-a-half long ride around West Lake
Critical Mass started in San Francisco in 1992. There are no rules apart from a regular meeting time and place, and travelling as a group through the city’s streets on bicycles. Now, there are monthly Critical Mass rides in over 300 cities around the world.
Usually setting off from the same location on the last Friday of the Month, Hanoi is no different. Rides start outside St Joseph’s Cathedral and the date to put in your diary this month is the 30th, with the two-wheeled vehicles rolling away at 8pm.
Although the name in English for the Hanoi meet is Positive Mass, in Vietnamese it’s known as Dap Cho Suong, which translates as ‘riding for pleasure’. The suggestion implied by its Vietnamese name reinforces the fact this is by no means a protest, but a meeting of likeminded cyclists going for a ride at a certain time and place each month.
There’s no organising committee, no website, no official anything, in fact. Just turn up and ride. It’s a lot of fun, as one participant pointed out. “It’s a real sense of community and it’s a blast riding around the city with a bunch of people who just want to have fun, not cause trouble.”
For more info go to thbc.vn
The Sunday Ride
Departing from Saigon Cycles in Phu My Hung every Sunday at 6am, this weekly event has become “almost a local institution amongst the bicycling fraternity of Ho Chi Minh City”.
Saigon Cycles has been conducting this five-hour ride out to the countryside for three years, and the routes have covered a combined distance of around 1,600km of trails, tracks, back-country roads and thoroughfares. With a six-week rotation, every ride is different.
A social event, with a prerequisite VND100,000 donation to cover the costs of food and drinks as well as a bike cleansing at the end, the balance is donated to the Saigon Children’s Charity.
For more information go to xedapcaocap.com
Fixed Gear Biking Clubs
They don’t look like your average fixed gear riders of San Francisco or London. These are the new Asian generation of riders on readily available and affordable frames which they paint in bright colours and pimp with components of their choice to stand out on the streets of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.
There isn’t a specific meeting time or point, in fact, it’s more about the getting together over a few beers and home cooked food to discuss just about anything but bikes.
But when they ride, they ride. “The bike is a part of you. There are no brakes but you have more control as you use your legs to pace the bike. It’s a great way to ride around the city; as long as you know how to skid,” says one member of the Hanoi chapter.
It maybe dangerous but it looks effortlessly cool.