When Mekong Plus was created in the mid-1990s to combat poverty in Vietnam and Cambodia, founding director Bernard Kervyn and team mainly focused on improving infrastructure, agricultural practices and accessibility of education as the building blocks for positive change.
The non-profit organisation then began another initiative in the early 2000s, forming Mekong Quilts, a sister social enterprise that strives to create sustainable employment for underprivileged women in the form of quilting work.
The current diversity of Mekong Quilts’ products keeps more than 100 locals employed and has grown beyond bed quilts and now covers a wide range of handicrafts such as artsy tote bags, water hyacinth crafts, eco-friendly cushions and south-east Asia’s first line of bamboo bicycles.
Eco-friendly bicycles made with Vietnam’s best bamboo
After more than 22 failed attempts, Mekong Quilts launched its first bamboo bicycle in 2014. Apart from tires, rims and joints reinforced with hemp fibre and epoxy, the bicycles feature a highly-durable frame made with tầm vông bamboo from Tánh Linh District in Vietnam’s coastal Bình Thuận province.
“Bamboo is abundant in Vietnam and we wanted to create a purpose-driven product using it,” Bernard explained.
Mekong Quilts has since sold more than 2000 bamboo bicycles since 2014, employing more than 20 locals during peak production.
Beyond mechanical and battery-powered bamboo bicycles for both adults and children, Mekong Quilts’ bamboo workshops also make bamboo Christmas trees and bamboo cycling peripherals such as helmets and bottle holders.
Spreading the good word through bicycle tours
Ultimately, the goal of making bamboo bicycles is two-fold, thanks to regular cycling tours to the hometowns of Mekong Plus beneficiaries where foreigners and locals experience the life of the less privileged in the Mekong Delta and the coastal south of Vietnam.
In Long Mỹ District of the Delta’s Hậu Giang province, space is limited owing to a vast system of water channels that form the basic routes of transportation for its inhabitants, and participants of Mekong Plus’s bicycle tours get to experience initiatives that seek to maximise local’s use of space to nourish their families.
Beyond growing straw mushrooms, paddy eels and rearing ducks for eggs, participants will visit Mekong Quilts’ workshops where elaborate quilts are sewn by nimble-handled ladies. The water hyacinth, an infamous invasive species that obscures light and reduces the oxygen content in rivers and kills dozens of local aquatic species and clogs waterways, is given a new life as its leaves are processed by female artisans into rattan and made into bags of all shapes and sizes.
Along Vietnam’s beautiful Central Coast, bamboo bicycle tours take participants to Ninh Thuận province, home to Vietnam’s Chăm ethnic group and culture.
Beyond cycling through vast straight roads and enjoying other adventure-filled activities such as rafting and trekking at Núi Chúa and Phước Bình National Park, participants will discover how leaves from the region’s native orange trees are used sustainably to feed goats—a hardy livestock important to the local Muslim Cham people.
Agricultural may be challenging due to arid and dry conditions, but volunteers at Mekong Plus are hard at work to teach locals how to enrich the soil through cow dung and vermicomposting—the region’s wine grape vines produce fruits with high sugar content when employing compost made from earthworms.
Bringing Bamboo Bicycle Tours back to Europe
Since the end of the pandemic, Mekong Plus has also restarted bamboo bicycle tours in Europe.
During spring, the bicycles visit Geneva and Wallon Brabant in Belgium’s French-speaking region of Belgium where people residing in Europe join Bernard and the Mekong Plus team on a 20-kilometre cycling trip.
The mild exercise then concludes with a picnic and a sharing session about Mekong Plus and its social impact in Indochina and how people from developed countries can create positive change in south-east Asia. These sessions in Europe also provide an opportunity for Europeans to experience Mekong Quilts products in person and ask questions about its projects that seek to improve the lives of underprivileged women and their families.
Oxfam International, a confederation of charity organisations across the globe, has worked with Mekong Quilts to distribute its products in Europe at Oxfam Bookstores for years.
Help locals by joining Bicycle Tours
With the world becoming connected internationally once again, Mekong Plus and Mekong Quilts are hard at work, organising regular bamboo bicycle tours in Vietnam, Cambodia and even Europe.
To find out more about how you can join these life-changing bicycle tours, follow the Mekong Plus Facebook page, visit its website, or email Mekong Plus about your private tour request at firstname.lastname@example.org.