KVT – Dzung’s Bicycles Hanoi

KVT – Dzung’s Bicycles Hanoi

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KVT embraces one young man’s talent and optimistic enthusiasm in another of his occasional series about personalities, well known or otherwise, in the Hanoi arts and culture scene.

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Like most young Vietnamese, Dao Viet Dzung wasn’t born into a wealthy family and like a lot of young, rural Vietnamese, lack of ready cash and the need to support the extended family meant that many of his generation were destined for the sweat shop floors of the factories that had started to eat up a lot of surrounding arable land near his village. Some young men, like Dzung, from enlightened families were able to finish high school and then attend an industrial college and take courses in practical areas like auto mechanics… but only because they could catch a bus there each morning.

Dzung’s family is hard working. Besides farming their few scattered hectares, his mother sells fish from the village pond in the nearby market. His father cuts hair there. His grandparents take care of the family’s couple of cows and poultry. His married brother is a mechanic in one of the factories.

And Dzung?

Well he’s inherited the creative and entrepreneurial streak that zig zags through his relatives and that enabled his youngest uncle to start a small enterprise in his backyard that made wire clothes hangers out of steel wire. One day he fabricated a miniature bicycle for his small sons.

Dzung and a cousin saw beyond just one bike and persuaded the uncle to make a few dozen that they painted with cheap enamel gloss and started to peddle around the old quarter streets of Hanoi for 20 000VND each.

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This was way back in 2002 when Dzung just out of high school.

The miniature Xe Dap business took off and soon Uncle was employing five young relatives in a busy little workshop while Dzung was kept busy painting and selling on the streets… avoiding ever vigilant authorities or paying them small fines when apprehended.

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Some village neighbors saw the money possibilities and started their own enterprises and then some from near by villages did the same and soon Hanoi streets were almost awash with copies, some good, some bad.

Eventually most went out of business, except for Dzung’s uncle who got a contract to send consignments of unpainted bikes to Da Nang and TP Ho Chi Minh. Eventually this petered out and Uncle went back to the original business of making wire clothes hangers, and stayed afloat thanks to his southern connections and was able to keep some of his workers in their repetitive employment.

But Dzung was once again faced with the prospect of studying to be a mechanic…a prospect for which he didn’t really have a liking. But if you’re part of a farming extended family, every member has to take on whatever employment rears its head, ugly or otherwise

When you’ve got a creative streak and come from a fairly well off family you might be able to do something creative with it, even get to an art school. And when you’ve graduated you would probably able to find an associated job such as in graphic design. If your family is definitely well off they may decide to support your career path as a hopeful emerging artist. If your family has good connections you may be able to get a good art related job in government or with foreign concerns.

There wasn’t much fun in having a creative streak in Dzung’s generation if you were born poor. A girl might end up peering closely at thread for little money in an embroidery workshops, and a boy….well perhaps with lungs full of dust carving marble or cement or wood or worse.

Dzung wasn’t a person to lament his position. And luck sometimes appears at the most unlikely times and places if your creative streak is paired with optimism!

It was autumn, 2003 and he was squatting on the corner of Tran Phu and Hoang Dieu opportunistically displaying little bikes to rush hour drivers who were stuck in a traffic jam, and keeping a wary eye out for those vigilant authorities, when he was confronted by a red faced foreigner.

The red faced foreigner wanted bikes, a lot of them, and over a few days, with a translator, he drew up a contract that enabled him to buy a couple of hundred at above the going rate and, in the future, exhibit them in Australia alongside his own Vietnamese themed artwork. Should they sell then Dzung would receive four fifths of the selling price.

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This was a bit too complicated for Dzung to take in and he was content with the immediate eight million VND in his wallet.

A year or so later the foreigner confronted Dzung again, this time in Dzung’s village, and gave him money from overseas sales. One collector of unique sculptures had bought a row of the xe daps for his private collection and when this was specially exhibited a couple of years ago, a magazine featured the collector on its cover with Dzung’s bikes lined up behind his head. The unexpected money filled hole in the family coffers and the young man was able to persuade his parents to let him to start a computer course.

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In between studying, the red faced foreigner (who doesn’t at all mind this appellation) employed Dzung to go traveling with him throughout Vietnam on occasional collecting expeditions…. and over eight very exciting years they trekked over heaps of mountain trails; met just about every group of ethnic minority people around; boated along nearly every canal and tributary in the Mekong Delta; saw just about every beach and island that was possible to get to; stayed in places with 4 stars and absolutely no stars; traveled in an amazing variety of vehicles; and wore out a lot of shoes.

Way back in 2005, the red faced foreigner took Dzung along to the original Bookworm in Ngo Van So because they were interested in his bikes. They commissioned him to make a new series painted in the firm’s signature colors of red, purple, yellow and brown. These sold like hotcakes so Dzung used that inherited creative streak and also made some miniature cyclos on the same theme.

The red faced foreigner persuaded Dzung to try his hand at painting on canvas and supplied him with stretchers and acrylic paint and told him to try his luck.

Dzung was impressed with the tiles on the floors of old buildings in the French Quarter so he painted a couple of canvasses, 30X30cm, with them in mind. But that creative streak encouraged the tile details to become whimsical animals and flowers.

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Truong at the Bookworm liked them and commissioned a small series and gave him an exhibition. He sold a few at and Truong and red faced foreigner bought the remainder. But Dzung realized the precariousness of a struggling artist’s life without financial backup or parental approval so he decided to stick to the job he’d just managed to get with a supplier of soap and detergents which he delivered to shops and supermarkets, 6 days a week, 7am to 7pm, on a salary of two to three million Dong per month (minus motorbike fuel)

In 2009, using the money he’d meagerly saved, plus the few million Dong he made by supplying the book shop with one series of miniature bikes every year, plus the generous salary he got when traveling occasionally with the red faced foreigner, and by cautiously borrowing from family and friends, he had enough to start a small enterprise selling bathroom fixtures in a shop he rented near his village. Business was OK and soon he employed his brother’s wife to manage this while he went into the business of selling oil and lubricants, on commission, to motor bike repair shops.

By mid 2012 his oil selling business was on the ropes and profits were minimal as he was muscled out by brawnier competitors and the bathroom supply enterprise was only just getting by so he decided to see if he could make another series of miniature bikes for the Bookworm…he gets 90% of their selling price….. to keep his head above water.

And that’s where he is now. The 100 bikes in his latest series are raring to go. Each one is painted individually with the same whimsical approach that he used in his floor tile canvasses and he’s considering making a few cyclos to go with them.

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He’s been encouraged to try his hand at another floor tile series and he’s considering this. As well he’s putting together some fanciful machines made of scrap bike chains. Recently a prototype was sitting on a shelf in the Bookworm, just for fun, and had two interested viewers in the first hour before it was snapped up for 150 000VND the next day….and this was unfortunately before anyone thought of getting a photo of it.

Dzung still realizes that a life as a full time artist or artisan is an impossible pipe dream for him as he starts to think about marriage and children and those continued responsibilities towards his close relatives. But, as always, he remains optimistic and is still determined to be his own boss and run his own small business and occasionally may be able to allow his creative streak a chance to flare.

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Many readers may be thinking, ‘why doesn’t Dzung go into making xe daps as a full time occupation?’

Dzung has often contemplated this but thinks that the risk of being copied and the market flooding again is just too great. It’s a bit like the fear that most successful artists in Vietnam carry around with them, the fear of forgery that can drive down their prices and reputations. Dzung thinks that sometimes it is best to have a niche market and a price that reflects the quality of the product than have to sell at a fraction above cost price or be insulted by poor imitations.

He’s also thought about a career as a guide in the travel industry but lacks the tertiary qualifications, the family connections and the considerable amount of money he’d have to pay to get a position in most agencies…and besides, he has as much difficulty getting his head and tongue around English as lots of foreigners have with Vietnamese. And it’s hard to find intrepid travelers like the red faced foreigner who have the peculiar insistence that their guide only speaks Vietnamese.

All images used in this text are from Dzung’s latest series of Xe Daps.. All are individually hand painted and are sculptural objects rather than children’s toys, though kids love them. The xe daps are exhibited at both Bookworms during December.with all money paid to Dzung.

Kiem Van Tim is a keen observer of life in general and the Hanoi cultural scene in particular and offers some of these observations to the Grapevine. KVT insists that these observations and opinion pieces are not critical reviews. Please see our Comment Guidelines / Moderation Policy and add your thoughts in the comment field below.


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