Hanoi's tranquil bicycle culture threatened by roar of motorbikes

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

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.

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.

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