HANOI, May 14, 2008 (AFP) - An exotic and colourful new urban species has invaded Vietnam's crowded city streets, turning heads, slowing traffic and making a lot of noise - the feather-boa bicycle bandit.
No one is quite sure where, how or why the fashion craze started, but for the past few months, youths in the capital Hanoi have turned their bicycles into mobile works of art, the more extravagant the better.
Teens have beautified small two-wheelers with glitter and plastic flowers, giant silk butterflies and teddy bears, Christmas tinsel and paper parasols and, yes, feather boas, in an anything-goes creative arms race.
Youngsters have rigged blinking lights, MP3 players and batteries to the frames to blast techno and hip-hop down previously tranquil tree-lined streets, earning them both amused smiles and reproachful looks from their elders.
Motor-scooters and luxury cars may increasingly choke up the streets of Vietnam's newly affluent cities, but the children of the boom have rediscovered the bicycle and are happily weaving and dodging through the traffic jams.
They travel in packs, a pillion passenger usually standing on the back of each bike, zooming past baffled adults who are left to ponder tail signs with messages like "Cool boy," "Baby cute," "Thanks, mom" and "Don't ask".
Their parents may have grown up in far tougher times, wearing anonymous office attire and olive army shirts, but for this generation, Korean hairstyles and earrings are as normal as multi-player video games.
"I don't know where this fashion comes from," shrugged Nguyen Van Thanh, 17, sitting on his bike outside an Internet parlour while his friends unloaded on virtual terrorists and read online Japanese manga cartoons.
"My friends like these bikes, so I bought one for fun."
Thanh said he spent about 75 dollars on the bike, and another 50 dollars on decorations, including hundreds of purple ribbons which he painstakingly glued to the frame one recent day while skipping afternoon school classes.
"The most important thing is how you decorate it," he explained. "It shows your personal style."
Thanh said he bought a fake Chinese-made iPod, a battery and loudspeakers to underline his colourful street look with a robust audio presence, an ironic nod to bicycle salesmen's recorded pitches for ice cream or mouse traps.
"It's really cool when we have dozens of bikes and hang out and turn up the music," he said. "We cruise around the city lakes. Everyone on the street looks at us. It's fun. It's cool. It's fashion."
Many foreigners agree, even as they struggle to interpret the new trend.
"It reminds me of rococo decorative architecture - but mobile and with a rockin' sound system," said resident Californian artist Bradford Edwards.
"I've seen lots of kitsch in Vietnam, but what I like about this is that it's young, home-grown and wholesome. It's third-generation kitsch, handed down from grandpa to dad to the kids, who've taken it and blended it with Western street culture, but with this heavy-glitter Vietnamese thing."
Police in the communist country, somewhat slower to embrace the new fashion, have already thinned out the roving armies of bicycle bandits.
"One evening I was stopped by four police," said one of Thanh's friends.
"They broke my loudspeakers. It was bad. I had to install new ones. Now when we see police, we turn off the music and turn around. Then we turn it on again." -AFP