The Vietcetera team recently had the chance to ride bamboo bikes in Ho Chi Minh City. We met with Tri Pham, founder of Viet Bamboo Bike, who conceptualized the bamboo bike product a couple of years ago, while working in Germany for Mercedes-Benz. We tour his company’s showroom to understand his journey of designing and manufacturing a bamboo bike in Vietnam.
How did the idea of making bamboo bike frames come to you?
It came to me in Berlin. I was studying in Germany five years ago. I attended a workshop to learn the basics of making a bike out of bamboo. At the end of my study, I was working in the automobile industry for Mercedes-Benz in Stuttgart, but I always kept in mind this workshop and the idea of making my own bamboo bikes.
At Mercedes-Benz, I learned how to use simulation and design programs. I utilized that knowledge to start designing a bamboo frame. To optimize it, its weight, its connections. In the meantime, I researched and found out that only a couple of people were doing that at that time. I tried to gather more information about it but access to this information was very limited.
Tell us about the path from the concept and idea you created in Germany to execution and operating a business in Vietnam?
As I wanted to start something by myself, I quit my job in Germany and came back to Vietnam. It’s way easier to start a company here. Moreover, I had the ambition to work in the automobile industry. As I couldn’t find anything in this sector I finally found a job as project manager in renewable energy (wind).
Alongside this job, I spend my free time working on making bamboo frames. It’s been a very long process to arrive at the final version of the frame. I needed to make a lot of prototypes, finding suppliers for the bamboo and other materials.
I still have my first prototype. When I look at it now I find it very ugly. But I can remember that I liked it very much back then. Before, I showed it to my friends, and they told me that I’d never be able to sell it. Then I worked day and night to design the final bike design. It took me three years.
Now I have six persons working with me, mainly in the production process. That gives me more time for making tests, improvements, new designs…
What are the technical characteristics of your frames?
We’re using only one variety of bamboo. This variety comes from South Vietnam in the border with Cambodia. We made a lot of tests and did a lot of research to find the perfect one. We had to test the mechanical characteristics and I even created my own machine to test the bamboo.
Thanks to that we have a bamboo product that can absorb vibrations and shocks to deliver more comfort for the biker. Plus, bamboo is long-lasting. You can easily go up to 15 years or more with the bamboo frame with no maintenance. The only thing you might have to do is renew the lacquer, but that is very easy to do. You can do it by yourself.
Viet Bamboo Bike is perfect for average users and for daily life. While it’s good for common use professionals are not yet ready to use it. Carbon frames are too competitive with a weight around 800 to 1,000g. Bamboo frames can go down to a weight of around 1,600g.
In terms of design, we try to bring always new colors to the frames and junctions. The junctions are either made of natural fibers (mostly hemp) or carbon. But making a frame requires experience (assembling bamboo and making the junctions), so I need to train my staff. Today one frame takes 20 hours to be complete.
What are your customer demographics?
We sell 95% of the company’s products overseas and 80% in Europe. We are mainly in the business-to-business market. Most of our clients in Europe are resellers that put their branding on my frames. My products target high and middle-income earning customers from Western countries and Europe.
Concerning Vietnam, it represents only 5% of the company’s sales as pricing remains very high compared to local shops. We still try to develop this book of business. We are currently working with travel agencies specialized in eco-tourism to make a partnership where travelers can rent Viet Bamboo Bikes. Another example is a partnership we did with the MTV Series in Vietnam.
By selling your frames with other brand logos, aren’t you afraid to lose control over your product?
Unfortunately, we don’t have any other choice. We don’t have the marketing and advertising power to be visible worldwide. So, for the moment that’s what we can do. But thanks to those partnerships, people are aware of the existence of such bikes.
Of course, in the future, we want to sell worldwide under our own brand. And then, we’ll create new designs to make the difference in the international stage.
Is there a lot of competition in this industry?
When I heard about bamboo bikes for the first time – five years ago – there was almost no one. But today it’s more and more common. There are around 100 competitors worldwide, four are in Vietnam.
Out of those 100 companies, maybe 80 of them are resellers. Only 20 of them are manufacturers. One of the biggest manufacturers comes from Uganda, Africa. That’s where the pioneer of the bamboo bike, an American, set up his company. But his company hasn’t improved its design for some time. And that’s where we try to make the difference.
What’s the most challenging part of your adventure as an entrepreneur?
The biggest challenge is balancing my job as a project manager at my full-time job and my entrepreneurial work at Viet Bamboo Bikes. Since I’m working in the countryside on weekdays, I can only focus on the company during the weekend. Hopefully it’ll be easier now that I have a team of six employees, it’ll help the company expand production for more bikes.
The other challenge for me is marketing and communication. We didn’t set up any strategy for the moment and that’s what we miss. Reaching our clientele is, for us, very difficult. That will be our focus over the next few months.
Where can we find your bamboo frames and bikes?
You can have a look at my website: vietbamboobike.com. I also opened a showroom two years ago where you can see and try my bamboo bikes.
Here is the address: 273/41 To Hien Thanh street, Ward 13, District 10, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Please contact us before you come to the showroom.
What’s next? Do you want to widen your range of bamboo products?
Skateboards, long boards, sunglasses, phone cases. Who knows!