The cyclo is a man-powered three-wheeled pedicab that was once ubiquitous in the cities of Vietnam. The English word was pronounced 'sickle-o' by U.S. troops during the war. That is a force-fitting of American English pronunciaton on 'xich lĂ´' (roughly 'sheek-law'), which is a Vietnamization of the French term 'cyclo-pousse' (roughly 'see-klo poo-seh'), itself derived from 'pousse-pousse' for rickshaw.

The cyclo is based on a heavy-duty bicycle, and from the driver's seat on to the back, that's just what it is. What distinguishes the cyclo from the other pedicabs of Asia, such as the samlor of Thailand, is that the passenger seat is up in front of the handlebars, kind of like a large, wide scoop. The seat is supported by wheels on each side, making the cyclo a tricycle. The driver turns the whole seat unit to steer. The 'scoop' is sandwiched between two wheels and has a padded bench seat that is designed to carry two smallish people or one tourist, but it's not uncommon to see one with a load of four or five kids or several crates of goods. There's a fold-up canopy to protect passengers from the incessant, scorching tropical sun and a footrest/splash-guard in front. Other than that minimal protection, the cab is open to the air. It gives a completely unobstructed view forward and to the sides and the movement creates a welcome breeze that is much appreciated by your hot and sweaty body. On the downside, there is nothing to protect you in a collision and the unobstructed view is usually of chaotic traffic and massive objects that all seem to be hurtling directly at you with destruction in mind.

During the war, when things were rather more intense in Vietnamese cities, the motorized cyclo appeared. That monstrous contraption, a fond memory of American GIs and expats of all kinds, was a hell-blend bastard child of Frankenstein motorcyle and front-end loader. It had a wide passenger seat that could accommodate two grownups. It's large, unmuffled and abused two-cycle engine screeched and shrieked like a banshee on crack and spewed great clouds of milky blue smoke that contributed to the very special atmosphere of war-time Saigon. The drivers, relatively safe behind the shield formed by their passengers, drove their inherently unstable mechanical demons in either of two driving styles, 'frenzy' or 'death wish.'

Well, all that is gone now, and the cyclo is back to its original, saner, more traditionally colonial form. A descendent of the renowned but obsolete rickshaw, the cyclo provides an inexpensive urban transportation solution for moving people and goods about town and has a lot of quaint charm appeal for the tourists. It also provides a means of income for the men at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder, the modern-day coolies (a term probably Englishificated from the Chinese ku li, meaning bitter labor). In early post-war communist Vietnam, the bottom of the social ladder was occupied by many skilled and educated men and women who had been cast down permanently because of their relations with the Americans or any of the series of 'democratic' regimes of the war. One young tourist tells of an experience in haggling with a cyclo driver over the fare for a tour. After a long back-and-forth in Pidgin English, the driver suddenly changed his demeanor and said in flawless English, "Look, why don't you just give me the damned dollar. It means a hell of a lot more to me and my family than it does to you."; This driver had been an interpreter for the U.S. military for several years. For many a cyclo jockey in post-war Vietnam, the seat of his vehicle was his bed for the night.

These days, after a few decades of economic and social development, cyclos are more a tourist deal than mainstream transportation, and the business of hauling around overweight tourists who love having pictures of themselves in cyclos powered by men a third their own weight is lucrative enough to interest criminal organizations.


The movie.
tourist experience
The only pic I could find of the motorized beast

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