Bikes Of Burden

The Motorcycle Delivery Riders Of Vietnam Are Loaded Out Of Their Minds!

The scene is nothing short of surreal. Food (living and dead), industrial materials and entire families drone by in a ceaseless flow. On the streets of Vietnam each morning, life rolls by. Not in cars and trucks, but on two wheels. The mind-bending variety is frightening and fascinating-and the subject of a book called Bikes of Burden by Dutch photographer Hans Kemp.

A motorcyclist out of necessity in crowded Vietnam, Hans was intrigued by the vast amount of commerce that's carried on with lightweight motorcycles. Bikes do the same jobs that cars and light trucks do here in the West. They're also the rolling lifeline for a vast amount of light industry and day-to-day commerce. Not out of choice, but out of necessity.

With few Vietnamese able to afford the luxury of a refrigerator, shopping is a daily ritual. Buying in bulk is not a viable option without a way to store food at home. Fresh food markets are scattered throughout the cities, in large part restocked early each morning by hoards of small motorcycles. With narrow streets and heavy traffic, a truck takes far longer to get to market than does a well-ridden Honda Cub. And the smaller loads carried by motorcycles suit the needs-and the scale-of local fresh food markets. The payloads these little bikes carry is only limited by Newtonian physics and outlandish ingenuity.

To illustrate his book, Kemp prowled the streets on the back of a hired motorbike taxi, leaving his hands free to concentrate on his Nikon. His favorite taxi pilot turned out to be a Mr. Minh, whose smooth riding allowed Hans to compose his shots without having to fear being thrown to the ground in the path of an oncoming load of blowfish. His photo subjects were for the most part oblivious to him-concerned more about getting their loads to market and getting on with business than avoiding the produce paparazzi.

After a year of early mornings, Hans had his photos, and left the motorcycle transports of Vietnam to go about their business unharassed. But it's a business that's in transition. In the few years that have passed since Kemp took these pictures, Vietnam has adopted a helmet law, so skid lids have replaced the baseball caps and jaunty headwear you see in these photos. And increasing affluence in Vietnam means that there are more refrigerators, wider roads and less fresh market shopping going on every day. Cars and trucks are becoming more common, and the motorcycle as do-it-all delivery vehicle is destined to gradually fade out. The change should make life a little safer on the streets of Vietnam-but a lot less interesting to watch.

This testament to creative loading conceals the host vehicle about as completely as a Rose Parade float.
If it's for sale, there's a good chance it got to market on a motorcycle. And you thought you were pretty cool that time you balanced a bag of groceries on the fuel tank...
Who wants ribs?! Hopefully he won't be picking up a date on that thing later on...
In a delightful marriage of heavy industry and two-wheeled transport, our sandal-shod hero keeps the wheels of industry spinning.
Live ducklings list queasily to port on their first-and probably last-ride.
Whisking 60 freshly plucked ducks off to market is all in a morning's work. In fact, it's a great opportunity to relax, one-hand it and enjoy a well-earned cigarette.
Some cargo practically loads itself. And yes, those hoops do make him look fat.
Mixed among the delivery traffic are families heading off to work and school. In America, a family of five would feel cramped and inconvenienced piling into an Escalade. Whiners.
Cornering clearance takes a holiday on this handsome potted-plant transport rig.
In a culture where electric refrigerators are comparatively rare, block ice gets the express treatment.
A couple hundred feet of PVC pipe ranks as one of the sleeker loads on the streets of Saigon.
Personal safety ranks well below practical utility. Cargo first, people second, sandals third.
With a few hundred pounds of cloth onboard, evasive maneuvering isn't really an option. Riders read the flow of traffic like currents in a river to make good time with a minimum of mayhem.
Bikes of Burden, 160 pages with 148 color photographs, is available through or from U.S. bookstores. For more on the photography of Hans Kemp, visit and