A life with bikes: from Vietnam to Canberra with Kim Huynh

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Kim Huynh is a lecturer of international relations at the ANU, a culture columnist for The RiotACT and hosts Drive on ABC Radio Canberra every second Friday. In 2016 he ran as an Independent in the ACT Election, and in March he participated in the Big Canberra Ride Ride. Here he reflects on the role bicycles have played in his life. 

I write this having just completed the 68km version of the Big Canberra Bike Ride. The weather was fair, winds were gentle, cars were few and I made a friend – Brody Buckland (left, with the author after the ride) – who was stronger than me and kind enough to take a few extra turns up front.

But it’s a ride not a race, so neither of us was concerned with time or inclined to suffer.

This meant that as we made our way around the Uriarra loop, I could think about how important bicycles have been to my life and to my understanding of the world.

Parkes Way was closed for the event; there was even a band of drums at the mouth of the Acton tunnel to help us get going. After passing by the arboretum we made our way up William Hovell Drive where six months ago, I had erected my first ACT election sign: “Think Belco – Go Kimbo”.

That same week my campaign as an independent was launched when I pulled the seat post out of my son’s tagalong bike and replaced it with a 2.5 metre flag: “Vote 1 Kim Huynh”.

At that time the only thing that I was sure about was that I would ride. I would ride every weekday morning dragging that damn flag through the north-western suburbs of Canberra. And in the late afternoon I would set up my squeaky stationary trainer at a busy intersection and shine a series of lights into the darkness.

On many occasions, I dreaded the thought of getting back in the saddle. But I almost never regretted it. It was a chance to see and experience the streets of my home town as if I was tourist or anthropologist. I got to know almost every street, parkland, tavern and sports field. I became reacquainted with old friends and met new ones. The encouraging hoots and beeps from strangers far surpassed the taunts and jeers.

There were even times over that unforgettable two months and thousands of kilometres when I got into a steady cadence and forgot about everything that was going on around me, particularly the election.

By the end, I had pushed my body, mind and constitution to new limits. I don’t know how many votes I won on the bike, but am sure that my cycling strategy worked for me.

GoKimbo’s campaign bicycle

GoKimbo’s campaign bicycle

After skirting around Belconnen, the Big Canberra Bike Ride peloton dipped into and out of Coppin’s Crossing before entering the new suburbs of the Molongo Valley.

It was then that I remembered a story that my Mum told me long ago about the coming of bicycles to Vietnam. Apparently the first imperial envoy to Europe was astounded by the bicycles that Westerners rode in the street. Upon his return, the envoy explained what he saw to the emperor with great gusto, but was dumbfounded when he was asked to explain how it was that French people could balance on only two wheels. The emperor concluded that the envoy was either trying to trick him or incompetent, and ordered that he be executed.

Not long afterwards when bicycles were introduced to Indochina they were referred to as “xe may” (motorised vehicles) because it was thought that an engine was required to keep bikes upright and moving at such great speed. As bicycles became popular and Vietnamese learnt about the gyroscopic effect, they were rebadged as “xe dap” (pedal vehicles) with motorbikes inheriting the title of “motorised vehicles”.

The bunch of cyclists that I had set out with on the Big Canberra Bike Ride started to break up as we sped westward past the Three Sisters and crossed the Murrumbidgee River before facing that formidable climb and back stretch of Uriarra Road.

Again, I thought of my birthplace, my family and bicycles. In 1954 my father was training to become a revolutionary soldier and was willing to sacrifice everything to drive the French colonists out of Vietnam. He was twelve years old.

Not far to his north tens of thousands of Vietnamese men, women and children had adapted their bicycles with bamboo sticks so that they could transport up to 300 kilograms of supplies at a time to the Dien Bien Phu valley. This “brigade of iron horses” proved critical to the final set piece battle of the First Indochinese War and to Vietnam’s independence.

Bicycles headed towards Dien Bien Phu in 1954

Bicycles headed towards Dien Bien Phu in 1954

After the Second Indochinese War ended and the Americans had long gone, my father found himself on a bike, riding through the streets of Saigon which had been renamed “Ho Chi Minh City”. It was 1977 and I was an infant. As my father pedalled, my mother sat on a rear wheel rack cradling me while my brother was perched near the front handlebars.

Dad was tired. He was tired of waiting for rations. He had had enough of listening to communist propaganda. No longer could he live in fear of having all his possessions confiscated and being sent to the hinterlands. My father was certain that there was no future for his family in Vietnam. Everything was going backwards and slipping away. He missed his scooter. He was tired of riding that bike and dreaded all that it symbolised.

Eventually, we left that bike and everything behind and took our chances on the high seas.

One of the first things that was donated to us by the Ainslie Church of Christ when we finally arrived in Australia was an old green bicycle. During our first winter of 1980 Dad rode it from our house in Ainslie to Jamison Trash ‘n’ Treasure every Sunday morning to search for bargains. The ride was by no means easy, but he was happy because his family was warm, home and free.

Brody Buckland and I decided not to stop for refreshments at Uriarra Village, eager to get to that winding descent along Brindabella Road that passes the Cotter Dam. We chatted for the first time as we sped along with hardly any strain in our legs or burden on our minds.

I recounted to him the exhilaration that I felt when I first learnt to ride along the Western edge of Lake Ginninderra. My father had dedicated half a day to get me off my training wheels. At first, he put one hand on my bars and another on my shoulder. I was afraid of him letting go. Then he did. And I remember not knowing how to stop. Crashing. Trying again. Crashing again. But it wasn’t long before I had no desire to slow down or stop. Go Kimbo! Go!

A painting of Thiet Huynh and family circa 1977 with thanks to artist Don Traynor

A painting of Thiet Huynh and family circa 1977 with thanks to artist Don Traynor

Only six or so years later, after an astonishing growth spurt, I got my first full size bike at the post-Christmas sales: A red Malvern Star. Again, there was that mix of fear and liberation. I asked my parents where I could go and for how long. They responded that I need only stay safe and be back well before sunset. Often, I set out several times a day, starting in Giralang and making my way around the entirety of Lake Ginninderra or up along Ginninderra Creek and back. Helmets were not yet compulsory and I adored feeling the wind rush through my hair, which there was more of back then.

I started working at the family bakery in Florey a year or two after that. And I got a new bike, my first racer. I liked it very much, but my rides were less frequent and rarely recreational. On the weekends, I commuted to and from work and in the spring was terrorised by magpies.

As we made our way up Mount MacDonald I started to feel the pinch in both my quads and one calf. There was a headwind along Cotter Road and Adelaide Avenue. I asked Brody Buckland to drag me around Parliament House and down Kings Avenue to Rond Terrace, which he did. I think we came first and second, although the reward was in the ride and not the result.

At the finish line, I thought about my four-year-old who only a week earlier had ridden his two-wheeler for the first time. Now it was me – the father – with one hand on the front bars and the other acting as a steadying presence on my boy’s shoulder. I was far more afraid than he was.

‘Daddy, Daddy. Let go! No don’t! Now, let go. I’m doing it Daddy. I’m doing it. I’m riding!’

That was the happiest moment of my life with bikes.



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