In Saigon, where few people own cars or trucks and there isn't a subway, locals have mastered the art of riding motorbikes to do everything—not just to commute to work or school, but also to deliver enormous loads of fruit or toys or live chickens. After living in the city for several years, photographer Hans Kemp started documenting some of the most interesting delivery bikes.
Kemp hired a motorbike taxi and cruised around Vietnam whenever he had free time. "When we saw a bike covered in what looked like a hundred live and quacking ducks we would do a U-turn, catch up with the bike and I would try to photograph it while driving parallel at high speed," he says. "And so we went on, zig-zagging throughout the city, following whatever amazing load we could. This went on for days, weeks, months. I spent hundreds of hours on the back of the little Honda Supercub."
It wasn't the easiest way to take photographs, since Kemp was balancing on the back of the bike as it weaved through traffic. "Motorbike taxis in Vietnamese are called Xe Om—this literally means vehicle hugging," Kemp says. "You had to hang on to the driver, hug him, hold on for dear life if you had a guy with Grand Prix aspirations." Still, he managed to find a safe driver, and it was the only way to get the shots. "Standing on a street corner was not an option," he says.
Kemp wanted to capture a specific part of Vietnamese culture before it changes; since he first started photographing the bikes about a decade ago, roads have widened, making it easier to drive, and more people have the disposable income to buy cars. More families can also afford refrigerators, so it’s slowly becoming less common to buy ultra-fresh food that farmers have to deliver each morning.
While the bikes will still be likely be used for personal transportation for some time—the first subway line won’t come to Saigon until 2017 at the earliest, and roads are too crowded and slow to handle cars—Kemp thinks there’s a possibility delivery bikes will eventually disappear.
But there are still 37 million motorbikes on Vietnam roads for now. After first publishing his collection of photos in a book called Bikes of Burden in 2005, Kemp recently revisited the project and saw that the scenes hadn’t changed much over the intervening decade.
"Seeing this unique species alive and kicking, swirling through Vietnam’s traffic, still vigorous and proud after so many years made me realize that they could very well be there to stay," he says.
The drivers are an interesting inspiration for anyone who has ever wondered if they can balance a few groceries on the back of a bike. "Maybe we should whine a little less when we are faced with difficult tasks and the notion pops up that something is impossible," Kemp says.