Hammocks launched Viet Nam on road to mass transport
Next to the horse, the vong (hammock) and the kieu (palanquin) were the earliest modes of transport in Viet Nam. A hammock hung on a pole with a bearer at either end was more manoeuvrable and more affordable. Palanquins were classy: the last of them were still on the road until 1920.
The French began modernising transport by bringing European horse-drawn vehicles to southern Viet Nam, their colonies and known at the time as Cochinchina. These included the barouche, a four-wheeled carnage with a half-hood. Locals called it xe song mã because of the pair of horses in front. People who liked to take the reins themselves opted for a tilbury, a two-wheeler without a top and so light that only one horse was needed. Passenger coaches were mostly driven by natives of Malabar in southeastern India and were thus named xe malaba. They were the forerunners of xe tho mo, the locally built vehicles for passenger and goods transport that were widely used in the whole of the south until recently. In the north, urban transport was not very developed. Only a few barouches were seen in Ha Noi around 1885.
Bicycles became popular almost overnight. The novelty was such that the first females to appear on the saddle were hailed as gai tan thoi, new-era women. Tran Thi Lich made a name for herself in the 1930s by pedalling her bike all the way from Sai Gon to Ha Noi.
The Japanese invented rickshaw appeared first in Ha Noi, around 1884, and came Hue and Sai Gon several years later. Its Vietnamese name was xe keo or xe tay, both names meaning the use of human arms. A cartoon published in Paris by the young Ho Chi Minh features an obese cotonist perched on a xe keo drawn by a skinny native. Later versions of xe keo were pedal-propelled fence-wheelers called xe xich lo.
Automobiles were seen for the fust time in 1883 and remained, till the end of the colonial period, a mark of the privileged. With them came busses, which mainly serviced inter-provincial lines.
Ha Noi and Sai Gon also had the benefit of streetcars. The system in Ha Noi became operational in 1902. It survived the two Indochina wars only to be dismantled in 1985, to the great regret of many old residents. I still miss the loud clanging made by those antique carsls they passed by at a snail’s pace.
The first railway was put into service in 1885, linking Sai Gon to My Tho. This sparked violent debates between supporters of river transported promoters of a grandiose plan to link Viet Nam by rail to Cambodia, Laos, and even Southern China to rival the British in India. The matter was settled with the French occupation of Tonkin, and a line was built running from Hai Phong to Kunming in the Chinese province of Yunnan, costing the lives of some fifty thousand Chinese and Vietnamese labourers. As for the national network, it was not completed until the late 1930s.
Sea transport was the monopoly of the French, but in river transport a Vietnamese by the name of Bach Thai Buoi succeeded in keeping French and Chinese competitors at bay. An average of 1.5 million passengers travelled every year on his fleet of 25 boats. Buoi also built the first sea-going ship, in 1917, for a shuttle service between Hai Phong and Sai Gon.
Air transport was the home turf of the military. Once, two of my classmates were awarded a flight over Ha Noi on a biplane for their high marks in French. Also, two Vietnamese pilots distinguished themselves in the two World Wars. One was Captain Đo Huu Vi, the other was ex-king Duy Tan.
See more about the hammock and the palanquin with Vietnam Cambodia Thailand vacation
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