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How the Bicycle Won the Vietnam War

by Wesley Cheney

In the wake of World War II, the militaries of the West left bicycles behind for the automobile and the armored personnel carrier. Bicycle infantry units in the German army were disbanded alongside the rest of the defeated forces. The Allied armies demobilized, disbanding the vast majority of their troops, including all of the relatively few bicycle units. The sole European holdout was Switzerland, where the Bicycle Grenadiers still played a vital role. But more on them later.

In Eastern Asia, it was a different story. The bicycle continued to be used by the Red Chinese army for guerrilla attacks on the Nationalist forces. Truck convoys would be attacked by small groups of partisans. The ubiquity of the bicycle in China made it easy for partisans to blend in, before and after their attacks on Chiang Kai Sheks fleets of American trucks. And the bicycle was to become the key to the Vietnamese defeat of their French overlords at Dien Bien Phu.

Chinese partisans on the move.

Chinese partisans on the move.

During the opening stages of World War II, the Japanese had overrun the Western colonies in East Asia, often on bicycles. But after the Japanese defeat and surrender, Dutch Sumatra, British Malaya, French Vietnam, and the American Philippines were all returned to their respective European masters. Needless to say, the natives were restless and demanded freedom. The Allied armies that had fought for freedom from German tyranny in Europe now fought to deny the independence of the colonies that they could not protect from the Japanese. The irony was palpable.

As in their newly reinstated colony of Algeria, the French were brutally fighting a native insurrection in Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh had initially appealed to President Truman for recognition and support after the Japanese defeat. And even though a Vietnamese Declaration of Independence had been proclaimed that was almost a word for word copy of the American Declaration, he had been rebuffed. It was only then that Ho turned red, and sought the support of the Soviet Union, setting the stage for a conflict that would define the Cold War.

While Chinese guerrillas used bicycles and camouflage and even bayonets, it's doubtful that they ever did so concurrently.

Artistic license taken for propaganda purposes: While Chinese guerrillas used bicycles and camouflage and even bayonets, it’s doubtful that they ever did so concurrently, and certainly not while wearing red(!) shirts.

Vietnamese General Vo Nguyen Giap chose to fight asymmetrically, using ambushes and roadside bombs to demoralize and deplete the French army. By 1953 the French had suffered 74,000 casualties amongst an army of 190,000, and French General Henri Navarre realized that he could not defeat the Vietnamese in a war of occupation. Navarre chose instead to occupy the crossroads of Northern Vietnam with 19,000 troops at Dien Bien Phu. His hope was to simultaneously block the flow of Chinese supplies into Vietnam and lure Giap into a battle that the French could win, and thereby open the way for a negotiated settlement: a peace with honor, to use Kissingers phrase.

Giap took the bait, but not in the way that Navarre expected, and it would prove to be the shining moment for the bicycle as a tool of logistics, if not warfare. The French had unchallenged air superiority over the Vietnamese and could bomb any road or convoy at will. Giap chose to bypass easily targeted roads in favor of inconspicuous trails. He moved hundreds of thousands of tons of materiel into the hills ringing the valley of Dien Bien Phu using Peugeot bicycles sold to the Vietnamese by their French colonial overlords, and thereby turned Mercantilism on its head.

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A “steel horse,” or ngua thep, being pushed by its porter.

Giap patiently assembled hundreds of artillery piece, millions of rounds of ammunition, and tons of food around Dien Bien Phu before laying siege to the French, who dismissed the capability of the Vietnamese to move anything of consequence by bicycle through the jungle on piddling trails. After a seven-week siege, the French surrendered and Vietnamese independence was won.

While a bicycle by itself can carry little more than half its riders weight in cargo safely, it can become a true beast of burden when pushed. The Vietnamese transformed pedestrian Peugeots into xe tho, or pack bikes. The wheels were reinforced, the frame buttressed, the handlebars extended, and cargo racks added everywhere. A Vietnamese pack bike could transport 200 kilograms (400+ pounds) of cargo, or more. After a decade of refinement, the steel horse pack bikes on the Ho Chi Minh Trail could carry twice as much, nearly 1,000 pounds. The heaviest pack bikes required two porters to push them. In total, there were over 200,000 bike porters.

The cargo capacity of a pack bike could not interfere with its functionality. Porters were assigned to specific sections of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. They would push their bikes south, transfer the cargo to another bike, and then ride back north for their next load.

The cargo capacity of a pack bike could not interfere with its functionality. Porters were assigned to specific sections of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. They would push their bikes south, transfer the cargo to another bike, and then ride back north for their next load.

While the Soviets supplied the North Vietnamese with over 600 heavy trucks, the bulk of the cargo traveled on over 64,000 pack bikes. The trucks were easy targets for American bombers. Bicycles, on the other hand, were much harder to hit. Whereas a two-and-a-half ton truck would be stuck at a crater in the middle of a road, a porter could simply push his bike around the edge. Or, if worse came to worse, unload his bike and carry it and the cargo across the crater. Porters would camouflage their bikes during the day, and move at night in order to avoid detection.

On October 13, 1967, Jack Salisbury, a New York Times reporter, testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, saying, I literally believe that without bikes theyd have to get out of the war. He had seen first hand in North Vietnam how both the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army relied upon the bicycle to supply their troops. Senator Fulbright responded, Why dont we concentrate on bombing their bicycles instead of the bridges? Does the Pentagon know about this? According to reports, the room erupted in laughter at the idea of American bombers hunting bicycles.

In fact, the Pentagon did know about the Vietnamese pack bikes and had commissioned a study in 1965. The study’s author, Colonel B.F. Hardaway, concluded that, Interest in the employment of bicycle troops is emerging once again, this time in Southeast Asia, where the road network is inadequate for motorized transportation, but where paths and dikes may provide an acceptable avenue for bicycle movement. Hardaway’s study was dismissed by his superiors, who were confident that hi-tech bombs and planes could overcome something so simple as a bicycle.

In a final, ironic twist, the Vietnamese people have embraced the Ho Chi Minh Trail for purposes of tourism. While there was no single trail, but rather a network, and while the trail was never known to the Vietnamese as the Ho Chi Minh Trail (that was an American moniker), there are now dozens of companies that will lead Western tourists down the trail by bus, car, motorcycle, and yes, bicycle.

A Western tourist explores the Ho Chi Minh Trail. (Agent Orange and landmine exposure not included).

A Western tourist explores the Ho Chi Minh Trail. (Agent Orange and landmine exposure not included).

Like the bike wheel itself, all things come ’round again.

Wesley Cheney bikes for family, fun, profit and necessity in Norfolk, Virginia. He writes about bikes and kilts at Foto by Wes and (re)builds bamboo bikes and bamboo kayaks at 757 Makerspace. When he is not delivering sandwiches for Jimmy Johns on his bicycle, he aspires to earn (another) Bachelors in Music Education at his alma mater, Old Dominion University. Wesley loves leather saddles, full fenders, helmet-mounted lights and mirrors, platform pedals, front racks, double kickstands, and vintage friction Suntour Command shifters. He warbles on a flugelhorn, sings bass in the choir of Christ and Saint Lukes Church, and studies ukulele under the amazing Skye Zentz.

 
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5 Responses to “How the Bicycle Won the Vietnam War”

  1. BluesCat says:

    Wesley,

    I need to take issue with one statement you made: that it was only when President Truman rebuffed Ho Chi Minh that Uncle “Ho turned red, and sought the support of the Soviet Union.” Ho traveled to Russia in 1923, where he worked for Comintern (an international group advocating world communism). While living in Canton, China in 1925-1926, Ho organized socialist “education classes” and taught the young Vietnamese people who would lead the pro-communist revolution years later.

    If you were to describe the man in one sentence: he was an extremely charismatic, nationalistic fellow who simply parroted the words of democracy and would even turn on his friends if they didn’t tow his party line.

    Kinda like a recently elected world figure with orange hair.

    • Wesley Cheney says:

      Thanks, for the correction. I wasn’t aware of Ho’s ’23 visit to Russia. There are times when I have to parse my words for the sake of brevity (trust me, I’d write A LOT more if I didn’t have editorial guidelines), and in the interest of telling a story about bikes, I did simplify the narrative. But I think that the Vietnamese Declaration of Independence reflects that there was a willingness to seek Western aid. I suspect that Ho, like many Nationalists of his time, was opportunistic when it came to choosing between Capitalism and Communism. And ultimately, his goal was an independent, autonomous Vietnam, regardless of political persuasion.

      “He was a bastard. But he was THEIR bastard.” -What Nixon might’ve said about Ho…

  2. Hatuxka says:

    Thanks for nice essay on how the bicycle helped Vietnam win its independence from 80 years of servitude to France and potential domination by the US. Blues Cat gets one thing right and knows nothing about everything else about the man Ho Chi Minh. This is typical of people who have absorbed all the mythology imparted by western media and an educational system that creates such ultranationalism that rejects the notion of anything but inherent evil from opponents of the masters of their country’s political system. Ho sought support for Vietnam’s independence from colonialism and recognition of its sovereignty. He initially wanted US support for this simple aspiration. Communism as an ideology had anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism as a cardinal principle. That is why they won the war against the French and the US. The inherent evil trope whereby someone like Ho supposedly betrayed “even his friends” is nonsense on its face. No one who does that ever succeeds, especially with the array of forces against him and his people they faced.

  3. BluesCat says:

    Hatuxka,

    Trying to paint me as some nationalistic, flag-waving, America-first robot is quite amusing, since everyone who has read even one of my posts or articles here on the Bike Shop Blog (formerly Commute by Bike) knows immediately that I lean so hard left I’ve actually been accused of being a Communist.

    I’m also not a product of a prejudiced, pro-western, ultra-ANYTHING education, but am happy to be able to include a rich selection of studies in anthropology, sociology and Eastern philosophy in my college transcript.

    By necessity, the nature of my degree and of my non-academic interests mean I am a student of history. I can say it is naive nonsense to contend a dictator like Uncle Ho could not have survived if he betrayed his friends. History is full of despots who violently purged those who disagreed with them and yet died old, rich and still in power (look up Mao Zedong, Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il). Look up the number of confirmed political assassinations committed by Ho’s Viet Minh if you think he doesn’t fit in perfectly with this club; and, please, do not try to minimize Ho’s association with, and leadership of, this group.

    Two things we westerners can learn from Communism: (1) charisma and money are the most effective tools of tyrants, and (2) socialist systems which seek to pry money and power from the rich provide the greatest benefit for the citizenry.

  4. BluesCat says:

    Hatuxka,

    Oh! One other thing: you suggested that I viewed as “inherent evil” any view not aligned with my political bent. Here’s a fact which should immediately dispel any notion whatsoever that there is a single drop of Republican blood running through my veins:

    I’m a freethinker.

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