David Mann gives us a crash course in buying an electric bike (excuse the pun). Popular in Hanoi and spreading further afield, are they the answer to a country increasingly struggling with exhaust fumes? Photos by Andy Crompton
You’d have to be living under a rock not to notice the rising number of electric bicycles now zipping their way around Vietnam’s bustling streets, particularly in Hanoi. With the post-Tet buying stampede now in full flow, bike dealers are lining the pavements with the latest imports from around Asia. What follows is the inside word on the e-bike craze.
1) Cheap to Run
While your weekly trip to Petrolimex will wind up costing you around VND100,000, electric bikes will smugly glide their way around town for a couple of VND10,000 charges per week, depending on how aggressively you use them.
A conservative cost-benefit analysis shows that electricity for e-bikes costs less than VND80,000 per month — riders can budget for annual fuel costs well under VND1 million.
Hoang from Nghia Hai Electric Bikes says e-bike riders are not only insulated from volatile petrol prices, but they also bypass the hefty registration, license and maintenance costs incurred by their gas-guzzling equivalents.
“Expenses really add up,” he says. “Those savings are probably the largest reason why people are looking at e-bikes.”
But this shouldn’t just be about protecting your hip pocket. In fact, buyers opting for e-bikes are helping to trim the number of motorbikes belching carbon dioxide into Vietnam’s already hazy atmosphere.
With motorbike exhaust fumes the top contributor to air pollution in Vietnam, environmentalists are optimistic that the shift to battery-powered bikes may help reduce emissions.
3) Easy to Use
Pham Hong, who runs Thanh Tung Bikes on Hanoi’s Ba Trieu, pins the popularity of e-bikes down to their ease of use.
“The seats are lower and so is the centre of gravity on most electric bikes, such as the Giant M133 (VND12.5 million),” he explains. “This makes them far easier for beginners to learn.”
This also might be a plus for the older or vertically privileged customers considering taking the plunge.
4) The Cool Factor
Turn the clock back two years and you’d be hard pressed to find anyone over 16 riding e-bikes around the city. Fast-forward to 2014 and in Hanoi everyone, from office workers to the elderly, are joining the morning commute on shiny-coloured e-bikes, albeit without the streamers and gaudy attachments you may find in school parking lots.
The demand for e-bikes has exploded in the past three years, according to Hoang, with electric bikes even outselling non-electric models in his shop.
“They’re perfect for the average commute around the city, which is around 1km to 3km,” he says. “More adults, including myself, are using them to get to work because they are so convenient.”
1) Kinda Uncool
Although there are no official statistics on e-bike riders, anecdotally it is clear that school-aged kids still account for the vast majority of the market.
And with prices starting from as low as VND8.5 million for a Honda Cool, it’s little wonder that thousands of parents are opting for electric bikes in a bid to keep their children away from motorbikes.
Sure, more adults are gliding through Vietnam’s thoroughfares on e-bikes, but they’re having to deal with hordes of teenage girls holding up traffic in their three-bike-wide processions.
This image problem might explain why plenty of adults (particularly the image-conscious Gen Y-ers) remain hesitant to jump behind the hybrid handlebars.
“They also don’t look as cool as a motorbike, which is more powerful, expensive and can go faster,” says Trang Nguyen, a student at Hanoi University.
She adds: “If they run out of battery you can look a bit silly pushing them home.”
2) The Weight
Considering Vietnam’s temperamental climate, the idea of pushing a bike home doesn’t sound appealing to anyone — let alone when some bikes can weigh up to 50kg.
That’s the typical weight of popular e-bike models like the Nijia Mau Cam (VND12.5 million) or the Honda Hurricane (VND10.5 million).
Shoppers will find reprieve in high-end brands, although these can still be double the weight of a normal bicycle. The Nishiki 26 (VND12.5 million), for example, is disguised as a traditional pedal-powered bike with a lithium battery under the saddle — but it still weighs upwards of 25kg.
As e-bike owner Bup Be Quy says, “If you’re going long distances and it runs out of electricity, you have to push it on foot and it is very heavy. If you have an e-bike with pedals, it’s still far heavier than normal bicycles. It’s like being at the gym!”
3) The Sound of Silence
In China, electric bikes have a nickname — ‘silent death’. The quiet running electric motors on e-bikes come with the chilling reality that few people on the road can actually hear you coming. Motorbikes, cars and pedestrians included.
The added perception of e-bikes as ‘slow’, despite reaching speeds of up to 40km/h, also means people are less inclined to wear helmets.
Manufacturers including Honda, Yamaha and Giant have catered for this by adding lights, horns and more engine noise to give e-bikes a stronger presence on the roads.
4) Not so ‘Green’
While newer and more expensive models will offer greenies satisfaction in being environmentally friendly, e-bikes at the bottom of the price bracket aren’t exactly guilt-free.
A recent statement by the Vietnam Association for the Conservation of Nature and the Environment shows that lead acid batteries, most commonly found in cheaper e-bikes under VND 10 million, are difficult to dispose of and pose indirect impacts on the environment.
On the other hand, lithium-ion batteries have a longer battery life, require less time to recharge and can be recycled, leaving a better environmental footprint.
The Final Word
With plenty of options to suit a wide range of budgets, e-bikes are a nifty, efficient and cost-effective way to make daily commutes around Vietnam’s major cities. Just look at the capital. Here they’re driven in droves.
Here are our top tips for buyers looking to enter the e-bike market:
1) Consider pedal-battery powered hybrids that won’t leave you stranded on the highway
2) Lithium-ion batteries usually require less time charging and will run longer distances — sometimes up to 80km per charge
3) If you’re tall, opt for a model with a longer platform and bigger wheels to help with balance, like the Yamaha Metis X (VND12 million) or the Bridgestone QLI (VND13.1 million)
4) With top speeds reaching up to 40km/h, wear a helmet and add horns and lights to make your presence known
5) Go to reputable and certified distributors to avoid inflated prices and counterfeit bikes
6) Look at the weight capacity of different bikes if you’re ferrying passengers. This ranges from 70kg to 130kg