Bicycles helped forge independence but melted away in boom times. Now rising fuel prices herald their return, with the e-bike

Two cyclists carry conical fish baskets in Hanoi. Photograph: Hemis /Alamy

It’s a warm summer’s evening in Hanoi, and Nguyen Chu Hoa and her beau are zipping through the capital’s tree-lined alleyways using Nguyen’s favourite pair of wheels: an electric bicycle.

“Do I love my electric bike? Yes,” exclaims the 21-year-old student. “It is clean. It is fast. It is so easy.”

Long fashionable in China but slower to take off across south-east Asia, electric bike sales have recently surged in Vietnam, thanks in part to higher fuel prices. At Asama, a central Hanoi bike shop where posters of pretty Vietnamese girls on “e-bikes” adorn the walls, sales have risen fourfold in five years, says shop assistant Nguyen Cat Nhat.

“Our clients are mostly students – people who don’t want to ride a bicycle or buy a car, or can’t,” he says. “If we sell 10 electric bikes, five are for students, three are for older people, and two are for commuters. You have to be 18 to get a licence for a motorbike, so an electric bicycle is the easiest way for high-school students to get to and from class.”

And yet, the e-bike still has a long way to go to oust the motorbike as Vietnam’s favoured form of two-wheeled transport. Research has shown that lack of government incentive, coupled with so-called “image problems” such as poor performance and low quality, have kept sales significantly lower than in China, which produced nearly 31m e-bikes last year and provides the bulk of e-bikes for sale in Vietnam.

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