Duong Trung Quoc

Once a common means of transport in Hanoi, the rickshaw is a symbol of economic disparity and colonial oppression

Wealthy families owned luxurious rickshaws

Historical accounts reveal that in 1888, after Vietnam’s feudal regime ceded Hanoi, which was no longer its capital, to the French as a “concession land”, the French president issued a plan for the city to be redesigned as a european city. Four years later, the French colonialists outlined a transport system in which local people could only transport wares by boat or upon their own shoulders. The use of horse carts were restricted to privileged French people.

In 1884, the French envoy Bonnal, who was based on hang Gai Street, imported two carts from Japan called “Jinrikisha”. Vietnamese people called these carts “rickshaw” or “hand-drawn carts” because they were pulled by a porter who ran in front and gripped the cart’s handles. The men pulling the carts were known as “rickshaw pullers” or, to Westerners, “coolies”.

The first two rickshaws brought to Vietnam in front of the French Legation on Hang Gai Street

Documents reveal that the envoy presented one of the first two rickshaws to a powerful missionary named Bishop Puginier. The other was used by the envoy and eventually passed to a local envoy to study its manufacture. The French anticipated that once the city was modelled after a Western city with cobbled roads and later asphalt, demand for downtown transport would rocket.

This proved true. After Hanoi became a colonial city, downtown transportation was heavily reliant on two types of transport: rickshaws and trams. Five tram lines constructed in the first quarter of the 20th century connected the city’s four entrance gates, allowing rural inhabitants of suburban villages to reach all major marketplaces and residential neighbourhoods. Sword Lake, the city’s administrative centre, was selected as the convergence point.

Rickshaws and a tram on crowded Hang Dao Street.

Urbanites’ other transport needs were met by rickshaws of different standards, from uptown families with private rickshaws to common people who hired public rickshaws. At first, the City’s administration monitored the number and types of rickshaws in use. iron-wheeled rickshaws were allowed on cobbled roads (mainly on the outskirts) while rickshaws with rubber-coated iron wheels (tires) were allowed on asphalt roads (downtown). Businesses bid on contracts to provide these services.

In the 1930s, many new means of transport were introduced, such as cars, bicycles and an alternative to rickshaws – cyclos. however, it was not until 1945-1946 that the difficult lives of rickshaw pullers’ aroused public concern and people began to view rickshaws as barbaric. This prompted their disappearance from the streets of Hanoi and Vietnam in general.

Rickshaws and an elephant (owned by the local governor) outside a hotel on La Rue Jules Ferry (now Hang Trong Street).

The French once deemed the rickshaw as a civilising tool. Both the carts and the pullers were put on display at colonial fairs in Paris and Marseille. In reality, pulling a rickshaw was so gruelling that it laid bare the social chasm between the haves and the haves-not, the natives and the colonialists. Writer Nguyen Cong Hoan compared coolies to horses (human horses – horse humans) while revolutionist Nguyen ai Quoc illustrated a colonialist seated in a rickshaw as his puller gritted his teeth to condemn social disparity and colonialism.

Emperor Thanh Thai's mother's rickshaw was returned from France to Hue

Recently, a rickshaw that once belonged to the mother of emperor Thanh Thai that was manufactured in Hanoi and exquisitely decorated with mother-of-pearl was returned to Vietnam from France after being bought at auction by the Centre for Preservation of the Hue Former Citadel with the support of various Vietnamese organisations and individuals. The return of this artefact drew widespread public attention, despite the fact that this method of transport has long faded into obscurity in Vietnam.