I was approached by Mike from the Hoiannow.com travel blog in Vietnam about writing a guest post, I happily accepted. Do read his account on the Cyclos of Hoi An below.
‘Vietnam is infatuating and intertwined with a deep cultural history, part of which is the classic cyclo – an experience that lots of tourists are willing to give a spin. Now when I’m cycling, I’m normally on my own bike (although I do like the odd tour now and then). So being pushed around in a shrouded carriage like a prince hasn’t been something I’ve considered much. But I quickly changed my mind about that when I got on my first cyclo tour around the historic town of Hoi An.
While at first, I felt a bit lazy as I watched more ambitious cyclists pedal around, I figured out quickly that I could grow accustomed to the cushy seat and royal treatment…hidden away in my private, covered cabin while everyone else wasted valuable energy on transporting their increasingly weary bodies.
Just before this transformation – from commoner to prince – took place, my translator Kiet and I met our drivers. There we had to decide whether we wanted to tour the Old Town, head out into the countryside, or venture to the beach and Tra Que vegetable village. We opted for the Old Town and hopped into our private carriages with a corresponding feeling of entitlement.
Just as we were setting off, the mockingly full clouds decided to burst – and my visions of a dry, lazy drive through the charming Old Town were shattered. That is until our trusted drivers pulled out the rain gear and sealed us up as snug as could be inside our cyclos. The back and sides were sealed with heavy plastic and my legs were covered with another sturdy tarp, allowing me to savour the scenery from my safe, warm, and effortless ride through the narrow streets.
I sat in dry splendour on my throne, watching other tourists frantically pull on their plastic ponchos and get soaked in the steady rain. Those poor saps on bikes, or – heaven forbid – their feet! Such a pity. They could use a good cyclo, I thought (rather smugly).
Our first destination was the Tran family chapel, which is still possessed by the ancestors of its original Mandarin owner. Built-in 1802, this well-preserved home consists of only three small rooms. We were given a mini-tour that explained the important architectural and culturally significant features of the house. Then it was time to shuffle us into an area for buying souvenirs.
Next, Kiet and I were packed back into our cyclos and driven to Phuc Kien, an assembly house near the Central Market. By this time the rain had started to come down hard, and we’d really rather have been pushed freely around the streets than jammed into touristy places – regardless of how beautiful they were. We were dry and warm in our comfortable seats and found the town much more charming from that view.
And it was hard to be enthusiastic when we didn’t really know what we were looking at. Because aside from the Hoi An museum, not much is written about the buildings at each site – so all we could do was take a look and enjoy the art and architecture before getting into our cosy cyclos again.
Apparently, to get the full learning experience, visitors should ask for a tour guide at the Information Center. Their guide can explain the history behind these buildings with better accuracy than the small information placards at each home, communal house, and assembly hall.
After we’d seen the buildings of interest in the Old Town, we were driven to see the folk music and dance performance at 9 Nguyen Thai Hoc. The show at the Hoi An Art Craft and Manufacturing Workshop was a real treat – but get there early for a seat as it can get pretty packed!
Showtimes are at 10:15 am, 3:15 pm, and 7:20 pm; when the shows are not on, visitors can wander around the interior and browse the souvenir shops set up in a village market style.
Throughout the trip, I had a growing curiosity about the lives of the cyclo drivers, especially as they were lugging me and my heavy backpack around plus countless other cumbersome loads throughout the day. What’s more, none of them looked to be under 50.
They’re doing a job that’s clearly better suited to a younger, more energetic driver. But Kiet’s driver, Dang Xi, was in his late 50s. He explained that the younger generation doesn’t want a job like that. “They get educated, and they do other things in the tourist industry that make more money,” he said.
Unfortunately, the older generation has fewer options to make money in tourism, especially if they don’t speak English. Cyclos were not in use in Vietnam until the time of French colonization, and in Hoi An they were not common in the Old Town until the city gained UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 1999.
My driver, Huynh Thanh, has been driving cyclos since 1983 – but despite being on the bike for 30 years, he’s only been using it for tourism in the past 15. (His prior cyclo life involved transporting fish to the market. I can only hope I was a less smelly passenger!)
Thank is such a mainstay of the cyclo community that his cyclo registration number is 001! I was so honoured to have the very first cyclo as my guide. And surprised that he’s still going strong.
Because trust me, this 70-year-old driver does not look like he’s in very good shape. I’d expect a man who spent 30 years on a bike to look like Lance Armstrong, but frankly, he was a bit soft around the midsection.
However, once I convinced them to let me drive Dang Xi around in his cyclo, I realized why these guys don’t look terribly fit. The bike is actually very comfortable and extremely easy to use. It’s no mountain bike, but it certainly doesn’t take much effort to push, even with a good size load. The guys can cruise along quite easily in these babies – especially as Hoi An is fairly flat.
An hour to the two-hour tour cost 200,000 per person (plus the cost of the entrance ticket at 120,000 VND). So they’re not doing too badly, really.
This is a great way to spend a rainy day in the Old Town, or even a sunrise drive through Cam Thanh’s coconut palm groves – though the longer and further tours cost closer to 400,000-500,000, depending on the length of the trip.’
Guest Post: ‘Hi, I’m Mike, and I’m currently living life as a “Digital Nomad”. When I’m not sourcing out the newest bike touring gear, I’m helping out the guys at Hoi An Now. The very kind Dawn of Incidental Tourist has let me share a recent trip to Hoi An with you today. I hope you like it!’ To read about more of Mike’s adventures’ take a look at Hoiannow.com.