Ever since this once-impoverished communist country’s economy began taking off in the 1990s, the motorbike has been an icon of wealth and modernisation. To trade in your bicycle for a motorbike was to show that you were making it and, by 2007, more than two-thirds of Vietnam’s households owned one.
Then the government raised petrol prices by almost a third in June last year to 19,000 dong ($1.10) a litre, and the symbolic status of the motorbike became even more powerful. With inflation running at 27%, fuel costs took a big bite out of the average Vietnamese wage. As a result, more and more of them are leaving their motorcycles at home in favour of buses, electric scooters and, yes, bicycles.
“The number of people using buses and bicycles has increased significantly since the gasoline price was raised,” said Than Van Thanh, director of the ministry of transportation’s transit department. He added that with the price hikes, a motorbike commuter might spend nearly $20 a month on fuel. “Someone who earns 1.5m dong a month [about $100] cannot afford to travel by motorbike anymore.”
The beneficiaries of this sea change in personal transport have been the shops selling electric bicycles and scooters. Once mainly limited to the elderly, electric bicycle sales have taken off in the past months.
”We’re selling five or six units a day, compared with two a day before the gasoline price was raised,” said Huynh Thi Nhung, a salesperson at Robo Electric Bicycle shop in Hanoi. She estimated that the electricity for a 90km journey on an electric bike would cost about 30c, while the same trip using petrol power might cost more than 10 times that.
The combination of petrol price hikes and inflation is also leading to a slight rise in bicycle sales, Hanoi bike shop owner Nguyen Trung Hiep said.
Families that might once have flaunted their wealth by buying motorbikes for their children were now economising by buying them new bicycles.
A shift away from motorbikes would be a healthy twist for Hanoi’s air quality. In the past five years it has become as polluted as the air in more prosperous Asian cities such as Bangkok, according to pollution researcher Pham Duy Hien, who recently concluded a study of Hanoi’s air quality sponsored by the Swiss agency for development and co-operation.
He said that looking East might be the answer. Kunming, the closest big Chinese city, allows only electric scooters and boasts superior air quality to Hanoi. He added that any shift away from motorbikes in Vietnam was still too small and too new to quantify and called for a “general movement of the people” to swap their motorbikes for bicycles and buses.
There was a time when bicycles ruled the road in Vietnam. Images from the 1960s and 1970s feature young women in flowing ao dais cycling down city streets. North Vietnamese wartime propaganda films also show soldiers bicycling through mountainous jungles on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, pedalling enormous loads of weaponry, shells and small-calibre ammunition over bamboo and rope bridges.
As recently as the mid-1990s, westerners visiting Hanoi were struck by the quietness of the city, the sound of traffic limited to the swish of bicycle wheels and the tinkling of bells. Today its traffic is a cacophonous riot. The traffic is a disincentive for cyclists, as the belching fumes make breathing difficult. For the rich Vietnamese who can still afford the fuel prices, the motorcycle habit may prove a hard one to kick.
Pham Van Khai, 45, a customer at the Electric Bicycle Shop, said he didn’t plan to go electric himself. He was looking for one for his granddaughter. “It’s a lot cheaper and safer for her to use an electric one,” he said. “But I have to travel a lot, so I will stick to my motorbike.”