Ten years ago, fixed gear bikes didn’t exist in Vietnam but today they are a common sight. Michael Tatarski talks to the man who introduced fixies to the country and finds out how the riding community has evolved. Photo by Vinh Dao.
In the early 2000s, fixed gear bikes, or fixies, were already common in many other countries but they had yet to appear in Vietnam. That is, until Le Van Luan decided to import one from Bangkok after seeing the bikes when he worked in Spain in 2004. A decade later, fixies are ridden all over Saigon by people young and old, and Luan is known nationwide as the man who founded Vietnam’s fixie community.
For Luan, learning to ride a fixie was difficult at first, as they have no brakes and require a lot of foresight.
“At the time, people wanted bikes but didn’t know how to ride so I would let them borrow mine,” he says.
As more people started riding, it became clear it was time for a fixie shop in Saigon. Luan explains: “I owned another business and people started saying, ‘You know, fixies, why not import them?’ So I opened Fixed Gear Saigon and started importing bikes from Thailand, Taiwan and China.”
Since then, both the bikes and Saigon’s fixie community have taken off. Watch any major street for more than a few minutes and you’ll likely see groups of teenagers rolling along on the brightly-coloured bikes. Luan also organises Positive Mass rides on the last Friday of every month. These events are open to anyone with a bicycle and regularly attract 200 to 300 people.
One regular rider is Geoffrey Cate, an American who teaches English at a local high school. Cate was a bike messenger and avid fixie rider back in Seattle. When he decided to move to Vietnam last year, he searched on Instagram to see if there was a community here and came across Luan.
“I had heard of him before I came to Vietnam…I found some Vietnamese fixed gear riders online and started talking with them and they told me about him,” Cate says. He now gets most of his gear at Luan’s shop.
Cate finds that there are significant differences between the way fixies are perceived and used here in Vietnam compared to the west.
“When I was new here, a friend from the US who also rides visited,” Cate says. “Luan set up a spur-of-the-moment ride on a Wednesday night and 30 or 40 riders showed up. I don’t think I’ve ever been able to get more than 12 people to ride with me in the US and there has to be a promise of a case of beer. The culture in the US is very interwoven with beer.”
People here also tend to see riding a brakeless fixie as a skill, something which doesn’t hold true in the US.
“Whenever I stop somewhere and I’ve been riding,” he explains, “Someone will come up and show that they’re impressed, whereas in the US most people would say: ‘You’re so stupid, why would you ever do that?’”
Luan, for his part, believes there may be some image problems with fixies in Saigon. When the bikes were still new here, he was friends with everyone who had one and Luan controlled the philosophy of the community. The riders were somewhat older and rode for health and to help reduce pollution.
Young riders, however, do not always follow this trend. They are able to watch YouTube videos of alley cat races in America, which are famously wild, and then emulate what they see. Cate thinks that perhaps this is to blame for some of the careless behaviour among the city’s younger fixie riders. “They want the appearance of being that reckless and crazy,” Cate explains.
This divide between riding for fun while staying safe and riding to show off has split the fixie community. Cate explains: “The kids have taken their groups and think they’re in some sort of fixed gear gang and they avoid certain other groups. It’s become a rivalry rather than what Luan’s idea was of everybody riding together.”
This has turned off older riders, many of whom now ride on their own or have moved on. As a result, Luan is doing his best to spread a message of safety among fixie riders.
“In Vietnamese, the simplest translation for fixie is ‘bike with no brakes’, but I want to change that since modern bikes have brakes and this emphasises safety,” he explains.
While the fixie community may be experiencing some growing pains, there is little doubt as to whether fixies, and cycling in general, are here to stay. Despite his frustrations with younger riders Luan remains very positive about the riding culture he has created.
“I hope everyone rides in the future, no matter the type of bike,” he shares. “Health is very important and I think fixies will be more and more popular since we are a young city.”