Text and Photos: Andreas Pohl
45 year old dumpling seller and vintage bike collector, Nguyen Van Tuan, made his US debut this June. Not in person, but as the main character of a short movie entitled Banh Bao Bikes which premiered in the Worldwide Bike Shorts Section of the Bicycle Film Festival (BFF) in New York.
The movie, written, produced and co-directed by RMIT lecturer in Professional Communications, Brenda Mattick, features Tuan restoring and riding vintage bicycles in Hanoi. Mattick, who came to Vietnam four years ago, recalls how she got to know him and his group of like-minded bicycle enthusiasts through a “series of happy accidents when I attended a group ride in the city not long after I arrived in Hanoi.” Hailing from Sydney and a passionate bike rider herself, she loves film-making and always wanted to make a movie. With Tuan she found an ideal subject to combine both her interests in cycling and film and put together the short with a group of local film professionals over three years.
In the movie and even more so in real life, Tuan is a collector at heart. He lives on the periphery of Hanoi’s old quarter in a house crammed full of artefacts from the 1980s: TVs, reel-to-reel recorders and bric-a-brac from the bao cap or subsidy era fill up his living room. The pride of his collection is, however, his vintage French bicycles for which his home became too small so he keeps them in a store room near the Red River.
“When I was a child, I always longed to have a French bicycle. Everybody worked hard to buy one, but most could only afford a local one, if one at all,” Tuan recalls. Being one of six brothers, his family grew up poor with only one bicycle as a mode of everyday transport between them. The bike was a local Sai Gon Gia Phong which in those days the family bought for the equivalent of one US dollar and fifty cents.
Starting out as a simple factory worker, Tuan opened his own banh bao stall 15 years ago. His dumplings proved to be so popular with the locals that he could finally afford to fulfill his childhood dream. “I started buying old French bikes. My first one was a Follis made in Lyon,” Tuan says.
Rummaging through backyards and dusty spare rooms he has amassed almost 30 French bicycles since then, the vast majority in working order. His most precious possession is a 1952 Mercier Dural that took years and four bicycles in various stages of disrepair to restore. Yet, for Tuan his passion is more than just a love of bicycles. “Now my life has become easier, I feel nostalgic about my childhood,” he says. “I dream of a city with only trams, bicycles and pedestrians.”
After a half a dozen years of collecting and repairing vintage bikes by himself, Tuan helped found the Old & New Bicycle Club which boasts about 60 members from his vast network of bicycle lovers. The club meets on weekends for group rides near Westlake, to show off their latest restorations and to trade in hard-to-get spare parts. “We meet to share our happiness and difficulties in life,” Tuan says. “The bicycles just provide the connection between us.”
Tuan and his fellow club members are proud to share their love of vintage bicycles with an international audience. Now in its 15th year, the BFF attracts not only large crowds in its hometown but tours other global cities as well. “I am so glad that I could play a role representing this group of passionate cyclists from Vietnam in New York and maybe beyond,” Mattick says, hoping that her short will be picked up for the BFF travelling program which will be showing in her hometown of Sydney later this year.