Bikes of war (I)

P1070400Bicycle history is very rich in Vietnam. Until motorbikes expanded everywhere a few years ago, bicycles were the main transportation. And in a  country that has been haunted by so many wars in the last two centuries, it is not surprising that they played an important role in some of them. One of the most remembered battles in Vietnam history is the one in Dien Bien Phu, where general Giap earned worldwide respect for his military talent after defeating the French Army. Not that we want to diminish general Giap’s merits, but according to some historians, that victory would not have been possible without the help of bicycles.

According to researcher Dong Xuan Dong in an article published in the may-june issue of the magazine Vietnam Heritage, over 21,000 bicycles were mobilized during that battle. The bikes were used for logistics and most of the time the pushers couldn’t even ride them, since they were packed with goods for the fighters. At the beginning they could ‘only’ carry 80 kg, but they reinforced the frames and made it possible to carry between 200 and 300 kg. The official record was held by Mr Ma Van Than, who loaded his bike with 352 kg.

The Pack Bicycle Force, as it was called, was operating on more than 1,500 km of forest and rural paths where they could easily hide from the French troops. Each town had its caravan of Pack Bicycle Force, which were divided in smaller platoons of 30 to 40 bikes each. We can imagine how difficult it was to push them, but it made sense, since a single bike could bear at least five times the weight a man could carry, it could go in rough paths easily compared to motorized vehicles, they are not noisy, and they don’t consume fuel. They always carried spare parts and tools with them and at least one member of the platoon knew how to repair and weld the bikes.

No matter how hard the French tried to cut the supply routes with bombings, they never managed to stop those sturdy bikes and their brave pushers. As French journalist Jules Roy wrote in his book about the battle of Dien Bien Phu: “General Navarre (the French Commander in Indochina) was defeated by no one but the pack-bike pushers, who carried 200 to 320 kg each, who never had enough to eat, and who slept on a piece of nylon spread on the roadside”. After reading this, any ride with an unloaded bike in peaceful Vietnam should feel like a walk in the park.

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