I was riding my bicycle home from work yesterday, whistling to myself and running all available red lights like the irresponsible hooligan I am, when I met with a line of moving giants.
There was a strip of them, maybe seven, one following the other. They trailed away from me down the road, moving slowly and deliberately and swaying slightly from side to side as they lifted their stringy calves and pushed their pedals down. Those men drove those cyclos like buffalos to a water-hole.
They were all old. I think that was the most interesting thing about this line of loping mountains. The men are all ancient. At least 50 years old, often thin, many times broken. They tower above the mopeds and loom over cars. They drive steadily, stop slowly and as they move they seem to drag the whole of time with them, like a piece of Vietnam’s past trying to cling to itself while living in the present.
You see, the reality is that cyclo-driving is a dying occupation. Originally introduced by the French during colonial rule, the cyclo or ‘xích lô’ in Vietnamese was first used as a means of transport, similar to a taxi.
But with cheaper taxi rates, the rise of the ‘xe ôm’ or motorbike taxi and the faster pace of life in Vietam’s urban centres, cyclos have been seriously outdated as a convenient way to get from A to B.
They have moved from a social staple, a key contender in Vietnam’s traffic, to a relic from the past for the nostalgic tourist…and their drivers? Those men are poor.
So many cyclo drivers here in Ho Chi Minh City have found themselves out of work simply because their services are no longer needed, but still have mouths to feed and rent to pay.
So what can they do? I have seen men sleeping in their cyclos, eating bread and killing hunger with a cheap ciggy or two, driving round and round the backpacker centre with a cheesy grin, trying to catch the attention of beery, jovial holiday-makers.
Different drivers have different ways of keeping their trade alive.
As I rode past that line of cyclos, tiny by comparison on my sleek new pushbike, I saw the strata of these men’s past and present unwind before me. First in line were three men in matching yellow shirts. They were part of a growing trend in this city – a number of start-up companies have started appearing which employ cyclo drivers to take their tourist clients around the city, pay them a steady salary, and in doing so both keep this piece of Vietnam’s past alive and ensure that the passengers don’t get scammed.
The shirts were clean, new looking, and the drivers themselves seemed to be carrying less worry on their shoulders. I could feel their hope – they had a steady wage, they would eat that night, and they would sleep well knowing that the next day they didn’t have to trawl around the city in hunt for a customer.
Behind these men was one private cyclo. A man who was not part of a company. He wore brown and his eyes were like a novel – deep, glistening in the sun and crudely calculating. He smiled at me, and I watched as he moved his cyclo into place in the line, joining the steady loping of his contemporaries. Same, same…but so different.
I wondered where he would sleep that night? He reminded me of a man I used to meet every evening outside my room in D10. He was older, like this man, and his hair was always tidy but never shone.
He had one set of trousers and a spare shirt which he tucked under the seat of his vehicle with a few thousand dong and a picture I never got to see properly. Maybe his wife? I don’t know.
This man would lie under the stars every night. He would smoke one cigarette, and watch me as I walked home.
We would share a nod, both acknowledging the irony of life, and go on with our distinct evenings – one in front of a laptop with a warm, soft blanket, and one with his bare toes on cold hard metal.
Private cyclo drivers are unfortunately known for their scams. Imagine if your entire day is a process of hunting, of ‘catching’ a tourist to take around the city.
A fat, heavy man or woman which you’ve got to break your back in order to propel, on whom you’ve got to spend even more energy in smiles and jovial eyebrow wiggles as you attempt to fit in with their holiday spirit, someone with a pocket of cash that totals more than you’ve earn’t in the past 6 months..
Now tell, what would you do? It’s not right, I know, but like so
many of this city’s other well-known scams and rip-offs, it’s understandable.
Other private drivers are clever with their situation. Instead of taking advantage of their tourist customers they take advantage of the tourist industry itself, and mould themselves into some of this city’s best tour guides.
As the taxis of the past, these men know their city like the backs of their ancient hands. Fifth in line was a driver I know well. A man who, no matter how many times I tell him that I live here, always offers me a ‘city tour you me yes very good one hour lets go!’ whenever he sees me.
He wears a jaunty cap perched on his head, and his white whiskery moustache tickles the lines under his eyes. He has the air of a man who is determined to make the most of what he has. A fighter.
Behind this man were more t-shirt clad drivers, ploughing their way after their fellows as the lights turned green and we all moved off. I was turning left, and as I did so I met with a final breed of the cyclos of Saigon today. These men were possibly the dirtiest of drivers I had seen, and that was largely due to the load they were carrying.
One had a front seat full and overflowing with fruit – bananas, knobbly durian and bags of bright red dragon fruit. His contemporary was parked just behind him, waiting for their traffic lights, and stretched across his vehicle and over his back were 5 or 6 long strips of flaky wood. His face was brick red with the effort of it, and his hands were rough.
And as I passed them our eyes met, and held for a few seconds. What did they think of me and my bike? We did the same thing, me and these men. We both rode around this city every day, from A to B.
I kept cycling, heading home. I smiled again as the wind brushed my cheeks, feeling the freedom of my own smooth pedals and the fact that I could go wherever I wanted with these legs and these tires. And I thought about how strange life is, how different two people could be, and how time changes the face of everything.