“Xe Oms” have a heart too

Xe Om in HanoiAsk any foreigner what their least favourite aspect of  Vietnam is and the list will undoubtedly include Xe Om (motorbike taxi) drivers. They are annoying at best. Pushy, smelly, rude and downright dangerous at worst.

But they are unavoidable. Thinking back to before I arrived in Hanoi, after hearing of the fabled Xe Om from weary travellers, I worried how and where I would find one. How will he know where to take me? How much will it be? Bargain!? How the hell do I do that? However, after only a few weeks in Vietnam hearing ‘Xe Om, moto!’, or even the more polite ‘Hallo sir, moto?’ instantly received a look of disdain from me.  I said no, I avoided them, I ignored them. But my crippling inability to balance, and thus my complete inability to ride a motorbike, has left me completely reliant on these two-wheeled street dwellers.

My reliance has meant I have built up quite a roster of acquainted and trusted Xe Oms – my Xe Om’s. And of course, they are not all that bad.

I met Giang the Xe Om about two weeks into my stay. I was walking along my street to the corner where I knew they would be plentiful, when he popped out of nowhere – ‘Moto?’, ‘Vung’, I replied. I unfurled a piece of paper on which a Vietnamese friend had written what I thought said ‘Vietnam Military Museum’ in Vietnamese. He gave the nod. When we arrived I was surprised to find that I wasn’t presented with the tank and airplane which I was told graced the entrance car park, and the Lenin monument was certainly not over the road. I remonstrated (in classic English-abroad English), but he was adamant. Finally he pointed to the sign which matched perfectly with what was written on my piece of paper, I realised mine and my friend’s mistake and quite happily went to the Vietnam Museum of Revolution for the morning instead. He had calmly and politely put up with my rudeness and we laughed it off. That was good enough for me, and ever since he has been my No.1 guy.

Xe Om in HanoiHowever, that was long ago. The prices we agreed for our regular trips started to seem very expensive and I had lapsed into cynically accepting that every transaction I made included an added ‘Tay’-tax (the curious, if somewhat warranted, hardship of being charged more for being Western). I tried, admittedly, in ropey Vietnamese, to lower our agreed prices. He seemed annoyed and bluntly refused, and I felt cheated that my loyalty to him had not earned me a small discount. For a few days I adulterously travelled with other Xe Om drivers but none matched the reliability Giang had previously treated me with. I went back, and after our usual round trip to and from work he handed me a two page letter. He quickly sped off, as if embarrassed, before I could say anything. I got it translated and I was equally embarrassed by what he had said.

He explained that he was not charging me high prices because I am a Westerner. Instead, he said, the price may seem high because for the past few months he had waited outside my place of work for me to finish, therefore losing out on plenty of other fares. He ended his letter by saying he considered me a friend and that he felt deeply saddened at my misguided attempts to call his bluff on the added ‘Tay’-tax.

I had always called him five minutes before I leave work, allowing him ample time, along with my slow walk down six flights of stairs, to arrive. Little did I know that he was waiting there all along, happily and loyally waiting to honour our agreement.

I had taken for granted this quite wonderful service.

Ask yourself – is there any other place in the world that boasts such a convenient, cheap and ever-available (if haphazard) transport system?

In particular, I had taken for granted my Xe Om’s service. Punctual, friendly and ever-reliable, Giang has made my life in the city so easy. I can call him and he will be there, no questions asked. He will drive me (safely) to my destination, pointing out some of the more interesting sites as we go. He has even invited me into his home almost every week, when his hospitality shows no bounds. After hearing about this article he has even asked me to spend National Day (September 2) with him and his family.

So next time you hear ‘Moto!’ take him up on the offer. Haggle – but not too hard – sit back, enjoy the ride and appreciate what this disorganised band of brothers do for this crazy city. Xe Oms have a heart too.

Paul Wilson