It may seem like any other Sunday or weekend, but it couldn’t be more different. As eager participants arrived early to select their preferred bamboo bicycles and bamboo helmets, Bernard Kervyn, founding director of Mekong Quilts, gave a quick breakdown of what was about to happen.
Upon departure, the bamboo bikes are being set up for everyone.
“Once or twice every month, Mekong Quilts organises a bicycle tour with our bamboo bicycles to the greener parts surrounding the centre of Ho Chi Minh City,” he explained.
A unique experience through Saigon’s ‘Urban Green’
For just VND250,000, of which all goes into a funding a scholarship programme for the poorest children in the Mekong delta, such an excursion offers both friends and potential customers a glimpse of Mekong Quilts’ unique and durable bamboo bicycles and a chance to understand its organisational core values. The day began at Mekong Quilts’ bicycle workshop near to Gigamall Thủ Đức, where participants pedalled 5-kilometres to An Phú Đông ferry terminal, to reach one of the most untouched parts of Saigon in District 12; a rare opportunity to enjoy fresh air, comfortably away from the hard-to-avoid buzz of the fast growing Asian metropolis.
People are getting used to their bicycle.
After traversing Bình Lợi bridge,, which stretches over the Saigon river, and reaching the edge of Gò Vấp district, participants had to board a rudimentary diesel ferry to cross the smaller Vàm Thuật river that diverts directly from the Saigon river.
The team getting off the ferry.
Upon arrival in District 12 via truly local commuter means, paved roads became instantly less common. It’s the right time and place for Mekong Quilts’ bamboo bicycles to shine.
A hidden piece of nature within the city
Bamboo bicycles practical and not just novelty
“Bamboo has more tensile strength than steel. It’s also flexible and offers a very comfortable ride,” Bernard explained. It may seem odd at first that none of Mekong Quilts’ bamboo bicycles come equipped with shocks or suspensions in a technical sense, but the natural flexibility of the material itself offers a bump free ride on different types of terrain. An Phú Đông’s pebbled and slightly unpredictable grassy paths were the perfect place to test the rideability and functionality of the unique bicycles.
Cycling throughout the quiet streets of An Phú Đông.
Mekong Quilts’ offer several sizes and styles of bamboo bicycle, including a recently upgraded battery powered variant that offers 80-kilometres of riding distance per charge. For enthusiasts, one of Mekong Quilts’ best selling bamboo bicycles happens to be the bamboo fatbike – the ultimate comfort-of-ride in its class of organic material.
One of the bamboo bikes of Mekong Quilts
Beyond just quilts and utility: A 20 year old mission
The group stopped for a quick coffee and coconut juice break at a local community coffee shop along the shore, where Bernard shared the social enterprises’ goals with the tour’s participants. Ultimately, producing quilts and bicycles serves a far bigger reason; creating sustainable employment for underprivileged locals and hopefully changing the lives of their children in the process.
Everyone stops for well deserved refreshment on the bank of the river.
“Beyond bicycle outings in District 12 and Bình Quới (another relatively untouched part of Saigon), we [also] host weekend tours to the Mekong Delta for participants to experience the entire project!” Bernard reminded us enthusiastically.
Such trips include accommodation and two-way transportation to the heart of Mekong Quilts’ operations in the Delta, where participants will cycle nearly 55-kilometres over the course of two days, visiting quilting workshops and other cottage industries which include handicrafts and eel farms developed through collaboration between local authorities and Mekong Plus (Mekong Quilts’ sister organisation that focuses on rural development).
The group then began cycling back towards Mekong Quilts’ bamboo bicycles workshop, albeit with a little more hustle and bustle of the city as noon approached. An Phú Đông may still be a hidden oasis of green surrounded by Ho Chi Minh City’s dense suburban areas, but the comfort of newly-built tarmac roads on the way back was certainly a reminder about Vietnam’s accelerated growth.
The team is cycling back to Mekong Quilts’ office in Thu Duc.
“10 years ago, there was nothing here except fishing along the shores,” Bernard laughed.
After a quick change of clothes and well-deserved dehydration, the cyclists networked and exchanged laughter over lunch at a local vegetarian restaurant.
“We hope that cycling tours like these offer participants a different perspective of both Vietnam and Mekong Quilts,” Bernard added.
Without doubt, the venture into constructing bamboo bicycles started with an identical mindset and vision as Mekong Quilts first namesake line of fabric-based products; creating quality artisanal work for locals to change their lives.