Saigon’s Xe Om: Motorcyle Taxi Drivers that Made Me Smile

At the end of my trip to Can Tho and the Mekong Delta, still smiling from that spectacular bun rieu soup, I took a long bus back to Saigon, into Mien Tay, the Western bus station. Located about a 20 minute drive from District 1, it is inconvenient for most travelers  — so the bus companies have provided shuttles to take their passengers from the outer reaches of the city into District 10. Climbing out of my shuttle, I was met by a teeming mass of motorcycle taxi drivers, called xe om in Vietnam.

Hey you, you YOU!” one shouted, pushing and maneuvering through the knotted mass of people to stand in my way, preventing me from stepping off the bus steps. “I take YOU.

Another gentleman knocked my first suitor out of the way and stood flush with the door. “You need moto taxi? I take YOU to hotel.”

Laughing, I twisted sideways and sprung out of the bus to the right, temporarily out of reach. With only an overnight bag and a purse, I was more nimble than usual. To the dismay of the moto taxi drivers, I hopped into the bus company’s waiting room and office.

This practice has become my usual strategy when coming off a long bus or train ride in Southeast Asia or South America. One of the more overwhelming aspects of arriving in a new city is the fact that you are greeted by a stunningly chaotic scene of transportation options, all wanting your attention. When that ride is a night bus or train it is even more intense, exhaustion eclipsing any patience, blotting it away. Making a beeline for an office or a store, even to ask a ridiculous question, tends to scatter many of the drivers and leave you with the more determined and calmer lot upon your return.

In this case, I went to the desk to ask for a schedule of the buses from Can Tho. Visibly confused — I did just get off the bus from Can Tho after all — the woman at the desk slowly handed over a schedule card and I thanked her, stared at it studiously for a few minutes, and then turned back to my motorcycle taxi options. Stepping out of the office, the “I take YOU” guy leapt front and center and announced “I like you. I am handsome. I TAKE YOU!”

Uh, no thanks. Looks definitely weren’t a primary factor in picking a ride to get me home safely. Scanning the crowd, I instead pointed at an older man standing to the right who was gazing at me with a mocking half-smile. “Hi, can you take me to Nguyen Thi Minh Khai and Mac Dinh Chi?” I asked, giving him the name of my street and cross street. He took at peek at me and gave me a price that was double what I wanted to pay. Shaking my head, I cut his number to more than half, prompting chuckles from the other motorcycle drivers surrounding us.

Without a word, he turned on his heel and started crossing the street. Shrugging at the other drivers who were now watching me intently, I followed.

Now, I’ve talked about Vietnam’s traffic and even posted a stop-motion video in my Introduction to Vietnam post. But it bears reiterating here that the only way to cross the street unscathed is to (1) just go; (2) not make any prolonged eye contact; and (3) proceed at a very slow and very even pace, with no jagged moves. I found myself crossing the street on this post-Can Tho adventure during rush hour, in the middle of a huge street filled with bus offices. The usual “thousands of motorbikes and a few cars” were actually “thousands of motorbikes, a few cars and, uh, there are also 20 buses whizzing by in both directions.” But my xe om guy was already halfway across the street, and I sure as hell wasn’t going to let him think I couldn’t make it across myself.

Traffic Vietnam

Not actually rush hour – this is from earlier in the week near my house.

Inching across slowly, the sea of motorbikes magically parting around me and the buses honking — probably half mocking, half warning — I kept a consistent rhythm and made it to the other side of the road in one piece. My xe om driver was waiting for me, standing on the sidewalk next to a soup vendor,  head cocked to the side contemplatively and a motorbike helmet in hand. When I stepped onto the sidewalk, he thrust the helmet at me and said “ok, you pass test. I give you your price.

Only in Vietnam would negotiating a taxi fare include a road test.

* * *

“To ride in a car would be madness — limiting your mobility to a crawl, preventing you from even venturing down half the narrow streets and alleys where the good stuff is to be found. To be separated from what’s around you by a pane of glass would be to miss — everything. Here, the joy of riding on the back of a scooter or motorbike is to be part of the throng, just one more tiny element in an organic thing, a constantly moving, ever-changing process rushing, mixing, swirling and diverting through the city’s veins, arteries and capillaries.”
- Anthony Bourdain,
Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook

I loved taking motorbike taxis around town. Weaving in between cars, whirring around crazed intersections, taking me to far-flung Districts with plenty to see along the way, I found myself looking forward to any opportunity to grab a xe om.  For those visiting town, it’s a “city tour” in and of itself. Just pick a restaurant or market in another District and watch the city change as you make your way there. And yes, driving a motorbike is itself a fun challenge, but you’re so busy trying not to get yourself killed that you can’t focus on the scenery.  Rather, you can focus on the scenery but it would be patently unwise to do so. On the back of a bike, however, you can take everything in – the noise, the quirky outfits depending on the season, the regular-sized motorbikes that somehow fit six instead of two.

Much like Bangkok’s version of the taxi motorbike, the motosai, Saigon’s xe om drivers seemed profoundly untouchable and full of a subtle badassery that I couldn’t help but admire.* In between clients, they would swing their bikes back on the two-pronged stands and lie back against the handlebars, hands behind their heads, gazing at their kingdom.

Xe Om Driver in Saigon by Jodi Ettenberg

I aspire to these levels of nonchalance.

When I first arrived in Vietnam, I made a point of asking the price immediately upon walking up to the xe om driver, anticipating a sudden price spike if I waited until the end. This practice remained important in touristy areas like Pham Ngu Lao or around the main sights in the city, since the “tourist price” is prevalent there.  My tactics were always the same: ask for the price, laugh at it like it was the funniest thing I’d ever heard, then, smiling, offer less than half. Cue faux anger, general angst and a lot of head-shaking from the xe om driver. But  I’d just stand there smiling and waiting, and finally I’d say “ok, I’ll ask someone else.” Eventually, I’d get a gentle helmet foisted at my stomach, apparently my local equivalent of an agreement handshake for the ride. Inevitably, by the time I got off, the xe om driver was smiling; almost always I would be rewarded with a high-five after paying, to the confusion of the security guards outside wherever I ended up.

Around my apartment, a small walk from the center of District 1, I took to forgoing the price first, and just getting on the bikes and seeing what happened at the end. The first time I took a xe om near my house was a few days after I had moved in, and I was late to meet a friend near the market. When we set off I was confused — we were headed in the wrong direction, despite his acknowledgement that I needed to head up to Tan Dinh market. Instead, he drove South to drive by a group of other xe om drivers who were eating lunch at the side of the road. He came to a slow roll, honked twice and thrust his thumb back in my direction, in a “look what I found” kind of way. The drivers eating all cracked up, my own driver twisted toward me and giggled like a schoolgirl and then we wheeled around back to where we came and he drove me where I wanted to go.

Another time, I took a different driver and got off near the river, giving more than usual since it was nearing Tet (the lunar new year). Since much of pre-Tet madness involves paying off debts and making home improvements, I wanted to kick in a little extra. The driver didn’t see my second 10,000 Dong note and gave me a higher price, but still lower than what I had actually handed him. Laughing, I snatched one of the 10,000 Dong notes back and he cracked up, this beautiful belly laugh that echoed in the tiny alleyway where we were finalising the transaction.  Realizing his mistake, he just shook his head. Of course I gave the additional amount back, and from then on whenever I saw him wandering the streets near my house, I got a high-five or a big wave, or a question about what I ate that day.

Many of the xe om near my apartment had quirks of their own. One driver I took often would keep his helmets in separate plastic bags, unwrapping them with a smile when you approached and throwing on his blue “taxi driver” vest for the ride. Another had thick reading glasses and would perch on his bike with one foot crossed over the other, reading the paper and waiting for a client.  On the diagonal corner from my favourite street bar, a sweet older driver would wave hello whenever I walked by. He always wore an FBI hat, but I never took him up on his offers of driving; he only had one eye.

I tell these stories because they made up so much of my days, tiny interactions building on more tiny interactions until my routine involved high-fiving or waving at the gentlemen on all four corners of the streets near my house who watched over everyone as they went about their days. As with many of the posts here, it’s the small things that lead to the bigger things.

Public transportation remains a fixture in most traveler’s stories. I have a category called “Misadventures in Transportation” specifically for these quirky happenings that set a place apart from elsewhere, from chicken buses to ferries filled with water buffalo and more. In Vietnam, the bus rides deserve a separate entry in this category (peaceful they are not) but for a different take on a busy city, I’d also encourage travelers to take at least one xe om during their days in town.

* * *

On the way back from that District 10 bus stop, my “cross the street and we’ll see” xe om driver ended up being a very fun ride. He pointed out some of the places he liked to frequent for meals, he laughed at other people when we were waiting at traffic lights and he purposely drove up next to 18-wheelers and buses to point back at me — “I have a tourist!” — waiting for their reaction, which was usually a belly laugh and a thumbs up. He even let me stop the motorbike to hop off and take a look at a pork and rice streetside joint I had never seen before. As with any of the other xe om drivers, he was laid-back and smiling, loved watching the world as he drove and managed to maneuver through traffic — rush hour traffic at that — without getting us killed, maimed or even clipped by one of the thousands of bikes in the nearby chaos.

As I hopped off the bike I asked him for a portrait. I love how it turned out. Confident and happy, calm but with a sly smile, he exemplifies the many other xe om I met, laughed with and learned from during my months in Vietnam.

Xe Om Driver in Saigon by Jodi Ettenberg

Thanks for the food recommendations, random xe om man!

-Jodi

* For more about Bangkok’s motosai, please see Claudio Sopranzetti’s interview with New Mandala about the politics of motorcycle taxis in Thailand.