Symbol of Saigon: Cyclos to be completely banned by June 2008

It was a hot afternoon in Saigon. I was sitting in a small plastic chair, busy drinking an iced Vietnamese coffee, when a smiling man came up to me.

“City cyclo tour? I give best one. So good, I’m in magazine. Magazine comes by I wave and say hello and they take picture.”

Sure enough, there he was smiling brightly, smack dab in the center of a long article about cyclo city tours. When I told him “no, thank you very much,” that obviously wasn’t good enough for an answer, so he proceeded to leaf through a small, worn book that he was carrying. He pulled out two plasticized 3×5 cards and laid them down on the table. They were consumer testimonials. He had many in his book, probably in over 10 languages, but he put down one in English and one in French for me.

“See, these are your people. They like me. They have good time with happy cyclo city tour. I give best one.”

It’s hard to go to Vietnam and not spend at least a short ride in a cyclo, otherwise known as a rickshaw. Especially in Saigon, the Vietnamese capital officially known as Ho Chi Minh City, the bicycle-like contraptions that are a quick mode of transportation for both tourists and locals are almost a national symbol. They cover the streets, they cover postcards, and they employ about 60,000 people. Come June 2008 however, the cyclos of Saigon will all be gone.

In an effort to clean up the streets of Ho Chi Minh City, authorities have voted to ban all modified three- and four-wheel vehicles; in other words one of the treasured symbols, and livelihoods, of the city. The controversial ban was originally to take place on January 1, 2008, but in a crucial last minute decision, the complete ban was pushed back to June.

The ban doesn’t just affect locals in the tourist transportation business; other jobs like trash collectors which use modified vehicles will also feel the effects of the ban. Until June, cyclos and other modified vehicles can continue to run, but only at night. Giving them an extra six months is intended to allow time for the 60,000 people whose lives depend on the classic mode of transportation to find other means of earning a living.

Even though I didn’t take his magazine-featured cyclo city tour, I am sure that the smiling driver that approached me the warm afternoon in Saigon gave an excellent one. I only wonder what his next job will be.