Log onto the website ecochariots.com or bugbugs.com and you will find two rival, London-based companies offering rides on pedicabs, otherwise known as zero-emission transportation. With fully working lights, hydraulic brakes, gears and seat belts, these 21st century all mod-con rickshaws, pedicabs, cyclos or tuk-tuks, are now a common sight in many of the world’s major cities.
Take London, for example, where this eco-transport is proving to be a big hit. Not only can you hail down this calf-muscle powered form of transport all over the West End and the centre of the city, but you can also top up on “all your carbon neutral needs” by hiring the pedicab for your wedding, stag night or hen do. In addition, say the two websites, this humble form of transport acts as a perfect location for outdoor, on-the-street advertising such as the type you may find on buses or taxis.
Sprucing up the Image
Yet head over to Vietnam and the cyclo truly is the humblest mode of transport around. Forget the bandwagon obsession with all things ‘green’, here the hardy pedicab is the lowest of the low. So low, indeed, that for many of its drivers their vehicle also doubles up as their abode. Such is the reality of the poverty associated with their trade.
Then there is the issue of accessibility. For many years you could hop on a cyclo in downtown Ho Chi Minh City and travel the 7km or so to Tan Son Nhat Airport, something that was quite conveniently put to an end when the new international terminal was opened a few years ago. The method was ingenious. Create certain streets, thoroughfares such as Hai Ba Trung or Nguyen Van Troi, where cyclos aren’t allowed to go, and suddenly they lose their utility.
In Hanoi a similar game was played. Deemed to ‘block’ the streets in the capital’s historic Old Quarter, the authorities helped set up Du Lich Xanh. Using adapted, electric-powered golf carts, these vehicles noiselessly and effortlessly transport tourists and locals around the city and the sites of West Lake. All making the hardy cyclo increasingly redundant.
Time for a Revival?
But with pollution becoming such an issue in Vietnam’s major metropolises, and xanh (green) now a fashionable word, surely the eco-friendly cyclo may be a solution? Indeed, with some upgrades like dynamo-powered lighting, pasting advertising hoardings to the side of the vehicles, meters to measure fares and distance, and perhaps even an electric engine to relieve the energy expended by the driver and allow the cyclo to travel at greater speeds, surely the cyclo could once again become a viable form of public transport? Investing into the cyclo industry would also create jobs.
To reach such heights, though, the cyclo would need to overcome a range of issues. First is image. For many in Vietnam the cyclo represents the country of the past, the poverty that they are so determined to leave behind. It’s viewed as something for tourists and French colonials, not for Vietnamese. Then there is the sense that due to their unwieldy size and death-defyingly slow speeds, cyclos cause traffic jams — there are already enough issues here with transportation. And of course, the lack of gears and technological prowess makes the cyclo unattractive for a country speeding down the super-transformation highway.
Yet, it is certainly a thought. And with a bit of dedication could become reality. But for such dreams to come to fruition would require the work of a bold entrepreneur and perhaps the support of an NGO or overseas government or two. Because without this, cyclos in Vietnam will truly become a phenomenon of the past.