Hanoi's tranquil bicycle culture threatened by roar of motorbikes
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Ironically, many Vietnamese cannot afford to buy a bicycle all at once. Without the means for such a large capital purchase, they instead buy the seat one year, handlebars the next, and so on until a complete vehicle is assembled - the current version of the installment plan. The cheapest government-made bikes are priced at more than one month's salary.Skip to next paragraph
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Despite a new popularity of motorcycles, the Vietnamese still take their bicycles seriously. Here are some examples:
Ho Chi Minh's original bicycle has been preserved (like his body) and will soon go on display in a museum.
With demand still high, bicycle thefts are on the rise. To cut off locks, thieves commonly use big American metal-cutting shears left over from the war.
Last year, the newspaper Labor ran an investigative series fingering bad bicycle pedals coming from one factory. The manager was fired.
Hanoi's regular circus is actually a bicycle show under a big top in Lenin Park. A favorite act is half-a-dozen monkeys riding tiny two-wheelers. They are followed by bears on bear-friendly bikes. The finale: eight adults on one bicycle, a feat not of acrobatics but of bicycle strength.
``Who ever invented the first bicycle could never imagine what the Vietnamese have done with it,'' says Mr. Hoai. ``We can carry whole families, piles of vegetables, and stocks of weapons.'' For war veterans with amputated legs, bicycles are made that can be pedaled by hand.
``The secret to our success during the wars,'' adds Hoai, ``was the bicycle.'' Transporters competed to see who could carry the heaviest loads. The record was 924 pounds.
In an otherwise socialist nation, private bicycle repairman dot almost every street corner, perhaps the most obvious and common form of free enterprise.
For the government, in fact, a rise in private bikemaking has become as irritating as a broken spring poking up from a bicycle seat. Last year, two men were caught putting Viha stickers on flimsy bikes they had made. But worst of all, factory directors say, cheaper private bikes are cutting into sales of state-made bikes.
Let the buyer beware: a prettily-painted bicycle sold at half price in a private shop may be as sturdy as chicken wire. Unsuspecting riders are often seen crashing to the pavement when metal frames suddenly crumble, like soda cans in the hands of Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Newcomers to Hanoi's cycling etiquette require a measure of fearlessness until they master the thresholds of risk involved in avoiding collisions played out in frequent games of ``chicken.'' The game is measured in millimeters.
But what really irks city bicyclists is peasants who pedal into Hanoi for the day. Their numbers increased after highway checkpoints were removed in 1986.
Peasant bicycles usually do not have brakes, because they carry so much weight, such as large baskets of cucumbers, bricks, or pigs. This is fine on long country roads, where distances allow coasting to a stop. In bustling urban intersections, however, city folk dread crossing paths with their brakeless country cousins. Collisions can bring on a loud clash between the classes.
As more throttling motorcyles throng Hanoi's boulevards, Vietnam could have open class warfare on its hands.
And gone would be the days, as a Vietnamese writer put it recently, that ``whenever you notice two bicycles leant against a tree in a public park or beside a lake, the lovers cannot be far away.''
An era of romance would be gone forever.