The rise of tech-based bike-hailing apps has shifted the mindsets of people in Ho Chi Minh City, lifting traditional ‘xe om’ drivers out of favor
Tech-based transportation services have made deep inroads into the Ho Chi Minh City market and signified the end of a conventional mode of travel once the favorite of passengers: 'xe om.'
The term ‘xe om’ literally translates as ‘hugging bike’ and refers to a form of motorbike taxi prevalent amongst Ho Chi Minh City passengers for the past five decades or so.
But the job is going to the dogs as city people are turning to bike-calling mobile applications.
‘Xe om’ made debut in Saigon, the former name of the city still favored now, around the 1960s.
According to anecdotal evidence from a U.S.-based Vietnamese expat, it originally served to get American troops around town.
In no time, it had won the hearts of the locals, but violent clashes with the well-established taxis and cyclos broke out.
Cyclos, now banned except some for city tours operated by licensed firms, are three-wheeled pedal-powered passenger carts with drivers behind.
Now the clashes are back, but this time amongst people using the same means of transport: conventional ‘xe om’ drivers vs. Uber motorcyclists and Grab bikers.
The popularity of ‘xe om’
Why in the first place, then, has the motorbike taxi been such a popular option for citizens of the southern metropolis?
To the passenger, it is a door-to-door service, and a very fast one at that.
In the maze of alleys the width of which only bikes can slither through, ‘xe om’ drivers gain the upper hand over taxis and cyclos.
They can maneuver their way in the winding ‘hem,’ the local word for an alley, picking up and dropping off people right at their doorsteps.
Also, ‘xe om’ can be much faster for those in a hurry or stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic.
Motorcyclists have the advantage of flexible movement, for they may well trespass on sidewalks and easily scramble their way forward, switching lanes at will and running the lights with flying colors.
To the driver, doing the ‘xe om’ job can mean easy cash. Drivers often operate around markets, hospitals, schools, bus and train stations, and busy crossroads.
Seated watchfully on their vehicles, they are quick to raise an index finger at any potential hailer, signaling to offer their service at a nod.
To ‘join the business,’ it takes nothing but a bike, a good sense of bearings, and a mental map of the city. Earnings for diligent ‘hugging bikers’ can amount to US$25 per day.
Charges in fact vary by weather conditions, times of day, and most often by the drivers themselves. They tend to overcharge, but are still open to persistent bargaining.
Small-scale ward-level attempts to standardize pricing and service have been made in District 1.
A number of ‘xe om’ drivers here operate in self-established groups, aiming to bring the best services to domestic and international passengers.
Clearly, it has always been at the back of passengers’ minds that ‘xe om’ drivers have been let loose for too long, but it never came to a head. Not until GrabBike came along.
The rise of a formidable rival
Three years ago, giant Malaysia-based Grab and U.S.-based Uber vehicle-calling apps penetrated the Vietnamese market. In Ho Chi Minh City, the initial charges for customers were basically next to nothing.
A female university lecturer based in District 6 only had to pay less than 50 cents for an 11km GrabBike ride to work. Sharing her story with colleagues, she sparked curiosity, and an eagerness to put the rock-bottom service to the test.
The trend grew, and such services exploded like an atomic bomb, taking the whole city by storm. The local mindset clearly was ready for a big change.
Such features that Grab and Uber offer as fare estimates and low rates have instilled in Ho Chi Minh City residents a sense of being in control, and have raised their eyebrows over the financial validity of long-standing ‘xe om’ services.
One thing to note, though, is that the need for a GrabBiker is not one of pure transportation purposes. The premium line of fancy riders dressed up in smart outfits and riding elite scooters have been primarily catering for choosy party-going female passengers in dire need of high-class chauffeurs.
On their part, GrabBikers and Uber motorcyclists have been enjoying the flexibility of work hours and the stability of decent income that no ‘xe om’ drivers have seen.
Even college students are doing the job in their spare hours, with some earning as much as $20 on a daily basis, quite enough to cover their living expenses.
More importantly, the so-called ‘hi-tech xe om drivers’ are not subject to the passiveness by which their stand-their-post counterparts are bound.
With apps connecting hailers and drivers, they can be constantly on the move, with money constantly rolling in.
With tens of thousands of contracted drivers, Uber and Grab definitely are redefining the way the motorbike taxi is perceived.
A savage blow to the ‘bowl of rice’
In Vietnamese, ‘chen com,’ or a ‘bowl of rice,’ refers to the earnings people make. ‘Kicking one’s bowl of rice’ thus means stealing their income, for example by luring their customers away.
‘Xe om’ drivers are both frustrated and outraged to see their regular passengers now ignoring their index finger, but fixated instead on their tiny phone screens trying to match the license number there with the right one among the dozens of green coated GrabBikers.
At the end of their tether, some conventional ‘xe om’ riders have resorted to violence. A team of ‘xe om’ drivers at the An Suong bus station in suburban Ho Chi Minh City ganged up against a lone GrabBiker late September this year.
There were previous reports of violent confrontations at other bus stations and Tan Son Nhat International Airport, and 65 filed cases of fighting ignited by ‘xe om’ drivers in 2016, according to Grab Vietnam’s representatives.
Others have taken a more peaceful, almost pathetic, approach by begging people to ‘support them’ and promising to charge lower than the apps.
But factual figures tell the fullest story.
For a 6.7 km ride from the Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon in District 1 to Tan Son Nhat International Airport, the fares for UberMOTO, GrabBike, and GrabBike Premium are $1.59, $1.33 and $2.30.
A ‘xe om’ driver opposite the grand church asked for $ 3.54-4.43 when your correspondent approached.
The customer is always right. And smart
The tech-savvy and well-informed generations of the city cherish the security brought about by transparent pricing and professional attitudes.
While some may keep using the service of ‘xe om’ out of compassion, the majority might recoil at the thought of paying through the nose for a trip worth only half the price.
Ride-hailing apps have drastically altered the city’s perception of motorbike taxis.
The image of old and shabby-clothed ‘xe om’ drivers heavily tanned by perpetual exposure to sunshine is being replaced with the concept of youthful and uniformed, sometimes shiny and elegant, bikers.
If they refuse to renew themselves, ‘hugging bike’ riders might lose their ‘huggers’ for good.