Do Anh Thu possesses a sonorous and clear voice, calm, sincere eyes and a confident yet gentle manner. Apart from his tanned skin, there aren’t many clues that he drives a cyclo — his personality seems to contrast with the chaos of street life.
But Thu has been riding a cyclo for over 30 years on these busy streets. He’s known among the cyclo community as the ‘King of Cyclo’.
“I didn’t choose to be a cyclo driver, but neither does anyone, I guess,” Thu says in a slow voice. Now the director of a cyclo tourism company with nearly 100 workers, he is more proud of his career than ever.
In 2002, Thu was the first in Hanoi to establish a cyclo tourism company, and is now one of only four who receive permits to take tourists sightseeing in the capital.
From Schoolroom to Cyclo
Graduating in the early 1970s from the National University of Education — one of the most prestigious universities in Vietnam — Thu received his diploma in history and was excited to become a teacher. But when the American War became more intense, he received a call to participate on the battlefield.
After 1975, Thu came back to Hanoi and applied for a teaching job through the Ministry of Education, which is responsible for placing teachers in schools around the country. But in those days, literature and mathematics were the sought-after subjects, while history and other subjects were “just like herbs decorating a dinner table”. It was a very difficult time for his family because he didn’t earn enough from teaching. “They [the ministry staff] kept giving me promises,” Thu says, “but I still didn’t get any call.”
Thu decided to buy a cyclo and drive it to make extra money, but he faced strong opposition from his family. “My family has been living in Hanoi for six generations,” Thu says, “and many of my uncles and aunts are professors, nurses and engineers. They said I was crazy, that I would leave a stain in the family’s history.”
After persuading his family — including his wife — Thu finally moved on with his decision. He only wanted to drive cyclos until he got a stable job teaching. So he borrowed money and bought his first cyclo for two chi of gold (worth VND8 million in modern currency)
The family’s finances soon became better. “On a normal day,” Thu says, “I went out on my cyclo and after taking a few customers, I had enough money to buy food. On lucky days when I met foreign customers, I earned money to feed our family for a week.”
The Xich Lo
There is controversy about which country the cyclo rickshaw (xich lo in Vietnamese) originated from, but it was first brought to Saigon in 1939 by a Frenchman named Maurice Coupeaud. Having already introduced cyclos to Phnom Penh in 1937, which was the first city that the French officially allowed rickshaws to operate in, cyclos quickly became popular, and by 1940 there were over 200 in Saigon, most of which were used to serve the wealthy families of French officials.
It is believed that the cyclo only became common among the ordinary classes in 1945, when Hanoi distributed 30 yellow cyclos to local farmers. Cyclos in Hanoi have the driver’s seat lower than the ones in Ho Chi Minh City or elsewhere.
“I think it’s because it was adapted to fit better with Hanoian people’s tastes,” Thu says. He also thinks it’s easier to use this way.
The golden age of the cyclo in Hanoi came in the late 1980s and the early 1990s. People mostly used public trams or cyclos to get around the city. Thu recalls that cyclo workshops were everywhere. “The workshops were nothing fancy and had no lathes or shaper machines. The mechanics only relied on technical drawings, simple tools like hammers, as well as public street lamps for lighting to help them bend the inox (French shorthand for ‘stainless steel’) or steel details into desired shapes,” he says.
The ‘Don’t Worry’ Company
In 2001, Vietnam officially banned cyclo activity. The decision brought a dark cloud over the lives of many cyclo drivers, whose families relied on their incomes. Many people came to Thu’s house, tucked inside the tiny alley Phat Loc in Hoan Kiem, to seek his help.
“They said I had a university degree and I went to war, so my voice would have better weight,” Thu says, gently smiling.
In 2002, Thu came up with the idea of founding a cyclo tourism company, operating cyclo tours around the city. “For two years I read [the legislation]. But it was only then that I realised it only banned cyclos not for tourism purposes!” he says.
That’s when Thu founded his cyclo company and named it Sans Souci, a French word meaning ‘Carefree’ or ‘Don’t Worry’.
“Many foreign customers get on the cyclo,” Thu explains, “and they get nervous from the traffic — especially the overwhelming numbers of motorbikes passing them. I often give them comfort by saying, ‘Sans souci, sans souci.’ So I thought I would give the company that name as our promise to deliver safe journeys.”
Sans Souci now has 95 cyclos of the same design. Employees are encouraged to wear uniforms or white shirts, learn French or English and get familiar with foreign currency of all kinds. Thu does this to change his staff’s mindsets and attitude about the job.
“We’re not servants like in the feudal period,” he explains. “We bring good service to people and earn fair money. We don’t beg people for money or seek their sympathy through our poor and broken clothing. And if you want to earn good tips, learn to speak a foreign language, let them know about the city and tell a good joke or two.”
In Hanoi, look for the neat red-cushioned cyclos with Sans-Souci Sari written on the sides