An emergency ride to work. A blood pressure-raising city tour. Sofa-delivery service. The infallible xe om (literally: motorbike hug) is one of the great enduring symbols of Vietnamese city transport.
Ferrying families back from supermarkets, taking businesswomen side-saddle to meetings, or more often than not, just sleeping by the side of the road. Xe om motorbike taxis can be found on almost every major street of every major Vietnamese city.
They make the job look so easy, especially when they’re reclined on their bike seat after an hour of smoking thuoc lao and drinking tea. However, with the face of transport changing so quickly, expedited by the arrival of Uber, Grab and the BRT, the xe om drivers can’t afford to continue with such complacency.
In order to find out what a xe om working day would entail if all the naps and smoking breaks were removed, I decided to spend a day working as a xe om driver.
Bright and Early
Most xe oms get started at the crack of dawn. This is an alien and hostile time of day for me, but I made the effort for this one-time experience.
Not expecting most tourists to rise for a while, I decided to test the bravery of some locals.
“Em muon xe om Tay khong?” I called out to a young guy who had just finished at a street-side café.
Looking perplexed, he shook his head and waved his hands in apology, before speeding away from the fat foreigner who may or may not have just accidentally propositioned him with poor Vietnamese language skills.
The pattern continued in a similar way for the next hour. Even hanging a rather fetching cardboard “xe om Tay” sign on the front of my motorbike didn’t help; although it did increase the rate of photographs being taken by bemused locals.
A Little Momentum
I advertised my service on Facebook in advance, to ensure a few bookings would punctuate my hours of cruising around shouting at strangers.
At 10am, I arrived to pick up my first fare of the day; a brave soul called Jean who needed a ride to the airport.
Around 20 dusty kilometres and VND200,000 later, I was back in the city, reinvigorated by the success of my first customer.
I drove to the Vietnam Military History Museum, and immediately found luck with a solo British traveller who paid me the handsome fee of VND50,000 for a trip to the Water Puppet Theatre.
I stopped for a quick bowl of bun cha, before heading back out to slowly stalk around Hoan Kiem Lake in search of lost or tired tourists. I avoided loitering, as I heard infringing on the territorial local xe oms might result in a slight case of hospitalisation.
“Hello, excuse me,” I called out to an elderly Western woman browsing a guide book. “Are you looking for anywhere in particular?”
She looked surprised to see a chubby white face join the queue of Vietnamese book sellers, cyclo drivers and candyfloss hawkers trying to get her attention.
After a bit of back-and-forth, I got VND20,000 from her for a quick ride over to Hoa Lu prison, where I struck gold again and immediately found a Welsh backpacker trying to hail a taxi.
He needed a ride back to his hotel near Truc Bach Lake, which I provided for VND60,000.
Job Well Done
A tiring afternoon, which I will remember more for the pain in my backside than anything else, saw me pick up four more booked customers, with enough time to take two more tourists before dinner.
With just one break for lunch and a very slow start, I still made VND520,000. Not bad for a beginner. However, unless I adopted the more typical xe om approach (wait for the customer to come to you), it’s not a job I could do on a daily basis without hiring a full-time physiotherapist.