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Hanoi's tranquil bicycle culture threatened by roar of motorbikes

By Clayton JonesStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 20, 1988

Hanoi, Vietnam

HERE, in a shabby Hanoi factory with stained-glass windows, the country's most common transport has been manufactured for 50 years. This is the Detroit of Vietnam, home to the ``steel horse'' that helped bring two great powers to their knees.

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Here, the metal frames were forged that enabled Vietnamese to haul ammunition up the mountains to Dien Bien Phu and defeat the French. Here, the gears and spokes were made that traversed jungle paths, carrying up to 900 pounds, bringing victory over the Americans.

And here, today, the celebrated Vietnamese bicycle has met its match: the motorcycle.

So far, the ubiquitous bicycle is but slightly challenged. Unlike Asia's other car-clogged cities, Hanoi has remained a bicycle culture with its slow rhythm of a lost era.

Its tree-draped boulevards are filled with gentle sounds of handlebar bells and the quiet chatter of cyclists. The city's charm is its setting of bicyclists flowing back and forth like schools of fish, past old and mossy French-colonial mansions preserved by the country's poverty and patched up after American bombing.

No need for stoplights in a city of 3 million people with no private cars and 1 million bicycles.

But over the past few years more and more Japanese and East European motorcycles have invaded the calm dignity of Hanoi, like high-speed motorboats blasting the quiet of a tranquil lake.

An informal survey shows about 20 motorcycles for every 100 bikes, and rising. On the main drag of old Hanoi, a narrow-laned artisan area called ``36 Streets,'' a ban on motorcycles is set. But police enforce it only feebly.

``To foreigners, the bicycles are exotic,'' says To Hoai, editor of the literary Hanoi Resident newspaper. ``But to us, they are backward. It's ridiculous for one of the world's capitals to still be using bicycles.''

The beginning of the end for Hanoi's bicycle culture began in earnest perhaps this year. The directors of Hanoi's original bicycle factory, which opened in 1938 and is now called Viha, decided to design and manufacture the country's first motorcycle.

Well, actually, it's more like a motorscooter, small, pedal-started and based on a Czech model - one small step up for bicyclists, one giant leap for Vietnam.

Until 1978, Viha was the only bicycle factory in Hanoi. Now three factories produce more than 100,000 bicycles a year in seven styles - two for men, five for women - although many Vietnamese prefer to buy better-made Chinese and French models, when they can find them. Bikes with more than one gear were sold for the first time last year.

Like other state enterprises, bicycle factories are being hit with Vietnam's own version of perestroika (restructuring). Government subsidies are out, profitmaking in. Communist Party interference is out, worker democracy is in. Lazy work habits are out, merit pay is in.

Most of all, appealing to the customer's wants is in - and young and status-conscious Hanoians want motorcycles. In fact, two Vietnamese words for motorcycle are ``honda'' and ``cub'' (for engine size in cubic centimeters). With a flood of motorcycles from smuggling and an easing of import restrictions, Hanoi's bicyclemakers are gearing up for the inevitable.

One plan is to build an electric bike, the dream of Nguyen Cao Tieu, director of Hanoi's three bicycle factories. ``It has not been invented yet,'' he admits. Meanwhile, he wants to import American bicyclemaking technology to improve quality.