In a rapidly developing modern city, the cyclo acts as a unique reminder of the past.
Van Nguyen talks to the King of Cyclos, Do Anh Thu, to discover more about his quintessentially Vietnamese occupation.
Walking me through his cyclo parking lot in Tran Quang Khai street, 65-year-old Do Anh Thu tells of how, during the 1990s, cyclos were used mainly for transporting firewood, coal, or stone.
These days however, cyclos have become a fun means of transportation for tourists on a sightseeing trip around Hanoi.
“They cannot walk on foot all day and the taxi fee is too costly, that’s why an affordable and unique cyclo is their top choice,” Thu says before introducing me to some of his colleagues.
“Nobody wants to be a cyclo driver and neither did I,” the ‘king’ shares. “But I think as long as we aren’t doing anything illegal, even the most trivial jobs deserve respect.”
“I usually suggest to tourists that when they want to go somewhere, whether it is a historical site, a street restaurant, or a bar or club, they should ask a cyclo driver because they know everything!” Thu laughs.
Graduating in the early 1970s from Hanoi Pedagogical University, one of the best universities in Vietnam at that time, Thu received a diploma in history and was eager to become a teacher.
His profile was sent to the Ministry of Education, which is responsible for assigning teachers to schools around the country. After three years, he had not received a single job offer.
Thu tutored history students to get by, but in those days, literature and mathematics were the sought-after subjects, whilst there was little demand for history tutors. “It was a very difficult time for me and my family because the money from teaching was not sufficient,” Thu recalls.
Though he faced strong opposition from the elders of his family who were all professors, doctors or engineers, Thu decided to buy a cyclo after first persuading his wife.
“At that time, a cyclo cost two gold units-about VND7 million (US$321) at the current rate. We could only afford half of it and had to borrow the rest from friends. I only intended to drive a cyclo to earn some money while waiting for a job offer. I thought that once I found a job, I would sell the cyclo immediately.”
After making this bold decision, Thu’s family’s life rapidly improved. “Just by taking a few customers, I could earn enough to give my wife money to buy food and sometimes just the tips from foreign tourists would give me enough to feed my family for a week,” he says.
After many years of working the streets, Thu earned the trust of his customers. “My clients always recommend me to their family and friends when they visit Vietnam because I know a little English and French. I often spend weeks driving a customer around, so even though I receive many calls from hotels, I am often too busy to take the work they offer,” Thu says.
In the past, when he was too busy, Thu would pass jobs to his friends. “They were very happy and often I had a group of ten-fifteen other drivers following me, so that if I had any offers of work, I could call upon them immediately,” he says.
“Cyclo riders are usually poor but honest and hardworking farmers. We treat each other like family and it was my honour to give them chances to earn more money,” he adds.
The name Sans Souci, which means ‘no worries’, was created in a group meeting on Hanoi’s busy pavements. “I remember when we parked by Hoan Kiem lake, there were many unnamed cyclos. Ours stood out, with our name painted brightly. Many tourists wanted to take pictures, tipping each driver US$1 for the privilege.”
Thu explains that the name Sans Souci originates from the fact he would often comfort worried customers by saying ‘sans souci’, meaning ‘no worries’. “The name is essentially our promise to give tourists a safe journey,” he explains.
Unfortunately for Thu and his fellow drivers, the Vietnamese Government officially banned cyclo activity as part of Decision 12/2001/QD-UB. This new law gravely affected many cyclo drivers, whose families were reliant upon their incomes.
“After reading through the Decision thoroughly, I found that every cyclo was banned with the exception of touring ones. As a result, I came up with the idea of founding a cyclo tourism company so that our jobs would be legalised,” Thu says with pride.
Thus, in 2002, the Sans Souci cyclo touring company was founded. “Upon holding the license in my hands, I felt like the savior of my fellow cyclo drivers,” Thu recalls with obvious joy.
“Many of them burst into tears when I gave them the papers. It gave them the freedom to pedal around their capital city without any concerns for the law,” Thu says.
These days, Hanoi has about 265 cyclos, of which 95 belong to Sans Souci and the remainder run under the banner of companies like Huy phong, Lam Anh and Van Hoa.
For Thu, the language barrier is usually the biggest problem tourists face. However, with Sans Souci cyclo drivers, this is not an issue. “I am lucky that I know a little French and English, which helps me to communicate with tourists,” says Thu.
“I have printed out some basic sentences such as ‘Hello, where do you want to go?’ and numbers in English and French and given them to my drivers to study so that they can hold simple but useful conversations with visitors.”
Thu has also designed various kinds of tours, including 30-minute, 60-minute, half-day and full-day tours. “The tour that I am most proud of sadly can not be taken anymore. I used to drive visitors on cyclos to the other side of Duong river and then transfer them to cow carts. They really loved sightseeing on this rustic transportation.”
He says that in order to be a good cyclo driver, you must be healthy, friendly, and humble. In the company’s regulations there is a clause stating that if a driver begs visitors for money in any way he will be fired immediately. “If you enjoy begging, you can quit this job and become a beggar,” Thu states firmly.
However, a friendly, funny and knowledgeable cyclo driver will always be tipped-in fact, Thu recalls one occasion when a driver in his company was tipped US$100.