Author in Hanoi - 1997.
A cyclo is a unique passenger bicycle, having two wheels across the front supporting a bench seat and one wheel at the rear. Some have canopies, others don’t. The bench seat can support 2 large adults (westerners) - a tight squeeze - or a small family of Vietnamese.
There is no welfare system operating in many Asian countries, since their GNP is too low to support one. In Vietnam, those on the lower socio-economic scale have to survive by whatever means are available. In one such group are the cyclo drivers. It is an all-male occupation and life on the bike is extremely tiring for little reward. Many of the drivers actually use their cyclo as their sole means of housing.
The drivers themselves are mainly derived from the flotsam of war, having been ostracised and disadvantaged for having fought on the losing side or they are the half-cast discarded children ( ‘children of the dust’ ) of ex-prostitutes and soldiers from yester-year. Cyclo drivers know all the tourist spots and are ever on street patrol, actively seeking out likely customers who might be looking for a guide or needing simple cheap transport across town. The drivers are crazy risk-takers but know their trade well and generally exude a jovial attitude to their customers. A ride on a cyclo in Saigon or Hanoi is an experience not to be missed. (N.B. ‘cyclo’ is pronounced ‘ziclo’ in Vietnamese).
“The bicycle powered vehicle that provides most of the everyday transport in Vietnam is the xyclo.
This term is a phonetic corruption of the French word ‘cyclo’, which is short for ‘cyclo-pousse’.”
- Introduction to Vietnam, by Jacques Népote and Xavier Guillaume.
“What a pity it is that all the people who know how to really run
this country are far too busy cutting hair and driving taxis!”
- George Burns.
On any street, in this Asian heat,
All types of people milling there;
Squatting, looking, selling, or cooking,
Pungent aromas fill the air.
And one thing’s for sure, you just can’t ignore,
They’ll take you where you like;
Drivers call to you, like a friend they knew,
To ride on their 3-wheeled bike.
“Yoh! Yoh! Where you go?”
’Tis a trip anyone can afford;
“Hello! Hello! You want cyc-lo?”
“Very cheap!” ... So you climb aboard.
Just a rusty frame, each one looks the same,
Bench seat that’s often torn;
A fixed-wheel brake, wiry legs must ache,
Tyres patched and all badly worn.
Another traffic jam, common in Vietnam,
In cities like Saigon;
Any night or day, not much to pay,
In terms of dollars, just only one.
“Yoh! Yoh! Hey! Where you go?
Cyclo cheap, go where you want!
It my guess, you change money, yes?
Maybe go to good restaurant?”
Not just a ride, but a tour guide,
Drivers know all the major sites;
All museum stops, hotels and bargain shops,
And bars with girls at nights.
Now take my advice, for such a price,
There’s really no better deal;
Though not a car, cheaper by far they are,
Each pedal-powered and short one wheel.
“Yoh! Yoh! You want cyc-lo?
One dollar show you all Hanoi!
Maybe you just take, trip ’round lake?
I get you girl … or pretty boy?”
From where they came, a sympathy claim,
Perhaps a discarded soldier’s son;
This job he keeps, is where he sleeps,
Of 50,000 odd, he’s just one.
And should it rain, it’s all the same,
They’ll still be working in each street;
Yet you won’t get wet, for in the price you get,
A small canopy and plastic sheet.
“Yoh! Yoh! O.K.? Cyc-lo?
Where you from and what your name?
Ah! ... An Uc-dai-loi? Oh ... xin loi!
Maybe I drive you just the same!”