Catch A Ride

Bamboo bikes that put social change in the frame

While known mostly for their premium handcrafted quilts, Saigon-based social enterprise Mekong Plus ventured into unchartered territory in 2010 with a radical new concept: bamboo bikes. Combining local craftsmanship with a Vietnamese commodity, the bamboo bikes are taking hold globally.

A seasoned humanitarian worker with experience in Bangladesh and further afield, Belgian-born Bernard Kervyn was central to the establishment of Mekong Plus in 2001. Having an intimate understanding of labor exploitation and the desperate situations that exist in much of rural Asia, the vision of the organization is clear: to provide fair income streams to those most in need; specifically those living on less than a dollar per day.

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Each bike provides 50 hours of work for its artisan; the purchase of one effectively funds a week’s worth of living costs for a disadvantaged family in Vietnam or Cambodia. What’s more, any profits generated by the bikes are re-invested into the communities, where they facilitate education, scholarships and much-needed infrastructure.

So… bamboo bikes? That’s right, with bamboo helmets and all the fixings to match. The kinks have been ironed out in the production process and these uniquely Vietnamese bicycles are now a global export with enthusiastic owners as far as France and Bernard’s own Belgium.

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Bamboo has a unique combination of strength and flexibility, making for a softer, supple ride that aluminum frames simply don’t offer. The bikes are respected for their natural shock absorption on rough terrain, even on models without suspension. That said, the range has all its bases covered, with a Fixie, Mountain Bike, Hybrid, and more. With the lightest model (the Fixie) hitting the scales at 9kg, bamboo bikes weigh in roughly the same as conventional models. Talking safety, bamboo frames are truly resilient—bamboo breaks extremely slowly over months or years, unlike metallic frames such as carbon that can fracture in an instant (to the dismay of its rider). Bernard has tested the physics, having (snugly) accommodated three adults on one of the bamboo machines.

All technical perks aside, the bikes are simply beautiful; there’s something undeniably endearing about their glossy bamboo frames, a true feat of ingenuity.

Made to Order

In accordance with an altruistic mission, the manufacturing process provides some 20 Vietnamese and Cambodians with steady, critically needed income. With two factories in Vietnam’s Binh Thuan province and one in Rumdoul (Cambodia), the workers are skilled, resilient people that have honed their craft. The current rate of production sits between 6-12 bikes per month, with a focus on premium quality (versus quantity). Bikes are only made to order, and thus the higher the demand, the more profound the outcomes of Mekong Plus’s projects.

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Naturally, the bike frames are composed of Vietnamese bamboo canes. While Mekong Plus first opted for the more romantic option of forested bamboo, the logistics soon proved difficult—the bamboo’s sheen became tarnished in the process of being dragged out of the forest. The bamboo’s sleek appearance is one of the bike’s biggest selling points, and thus untarnished bamboo is now sourced from an export plantation in Binh Thuan.

The bamboo is subsequently treated with boric acid to kill insects, and dried in a low-humidity glasshouse. Bernard admits that one of the biggest difficulties was finding a suitable means to join the frames, however, they soon found success using an epoxy to link and adhere the lengths of bamboo.

With the Vietnamese bicycle parts market being somewhat barren, the team was faced with a significant hurdle. Bernard equates this problem to building a car—purchasing and assembling one piece-by-piece would be financially unfavorable. Instead of opting for the unaffordable imported components on offer at local stores, fully assembled bikes are imported new from Taiwan. The team then relieves them of all useful components (gears, cables, sprockets, brakes, etc.), sells the remaining frame and affixes all new parts to the completed bamboo frames.

The bamboo bike is in itself a tool to educate, support and facilitate grassroots development—engaging global citizens with the concerns of the impoverished—the product itself is just the tip of the iceberg.

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Mekong Plus also facilitates bicycle tours throughout Vietnam and Cambodia. These are educational experiences for its foreign riders, taking them through many of Mekong Plus’s development projects in poorer areas. The workers of Mekong Plus are always invited to join, with seven local Vietnamese team members joining the next 450km tour. Visit www.mekongplus.org or mekong-plus.com for more info on bamboo bikes and bike tours. 

Images by Ngoc Tran

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