Bicycles the new 'bling' in Vietnam

HANOI - A sunny afternoon in Hanoi and a crowd of cyclists in blinding shades of stylish Lycra pedal leisurely over Long Bien bridge, holding up a narrow lane of traffic.

The increasing popularity of high-end, imported sports bicycles marks a new chapter in the status of the push-bike, which for many years was associated with poor farmers and students. 

"Four years ago, I paid 4 million dong (200 United States dollars) for a bike. Everyone in my family was so surprised. But now, people are getting used to it," says Huy Thang Nguyen, a member of one of the most popular bicycle clubs in the city, Tour de Fun. 

In just a year the club has attracted over 2,000 "likes" on Facebook, although only about 300 are frequent cyclists, says founding member Ha To. The group organises regular tours and races several times a week.

Social media is a common way people find out about cycling, Ha To says. Others have learned about the sport during trips abroad or on the internet.

"I started because I read online it was a good way to lose weight, then I became more serious about it," she says. "It can be a good way to relieve stress and is very sociable." 

To meet demand, the number of bicycle shops has mushroomed. Viet Anh set up the Thang Long bike shop in the city centre in 2011 when there were just two or three other bicycle shops in Hanoi. 

"Now there are 40 to 50 shops," he says. 

The most popular brands are mid-range names from the US, including Specialized and Trek, which sell for about 500 dollars, he says. 

"The French bicycles are very expensive, they can cost up to 10,000 dollars. Many people who buy expensive bikes are professional. They have strong experience," he says, but admits that some people buy expensive models "just go to a coffee shop and show off."

Over the last 30 years, Vietnam has risen from the ashes of war to achieve a lower middle-income economy, with an average 5% annual economic growth over recent years. 

Even so, 400 dollars is still a lot of money in a country where the average monthly salary is 185 dollars.

Ha To insists that sports cycling is affordable for people like her. She says a cycling outfit of shorts, trainers and T-shirt can cost from 30 to 400 dollars.

"You can pay what you want and still take part," she says.

The bicycle has a special status in Vietnamese history. Used during decades of war to carry supplies to communist troops, during peacetime bicycles became an iconic feature of urban life, often remarked on by visiting writers.

"Official cars were few, and government functionaries, even some ministers, travelled on their poor-men's bicycles with a modesty and sense of social equality quite difficult to conceive of," Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote after a trip to Hanoi in an article in Rolling Stone Magazine in May 1980.

But even then, some bicycles were more equal than others. Bicycle maker Peugeot left the country at the end of the First Indochina War, but it remained a coveted brand, says Dang Quang Minh, owner of Velo Chic - Vietnam's first official Peugeot dealer since the war.

"After 1954, there were no dealers in Hanoi," he said. "In the 70s and 80s there was a trend to have these bikes in Hanoi, but people bought them in 'unofficial' ways."

The shop, which opened in December, sells several European brands, with prices ranging from 250 to 5,000 dollars, but Peugeot is the most popular. 

"We sold out all Peugeots after the first week," he says.

The revived passion for cycling does not extend to vehicles made inside the country, which are mostly cheap and sold for under 30 dollars.

Shop owner Viet Ha says that people did not understand his passion for bicycles for many years, because they thought only poor people used them, while the wealthier drove cars. 

"That is changing so much now," he says. 

As the fashion for sports bicycling gathers momentum in the city, Ha says he thinks most cyclists drifting through the gridlock in Hanoi in their branded gear can be confident that passers-by will appreciate their style.

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