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Hanoi, Saigon taxi drivers face precarious future as ridership shows little rebound

Hanoi, Saigon taxi drivers face precarious future as ridership shows little rebound

Wednesday, June 10, 2020, 12:00 GMT+7
Hanoi, Saigon taxi drivers face precarious future as ridership shows little rebound
Vu Van Anh rests inside his car in Hanoi, Vietnam. Photo: Vu Tuan / Tuoi Tre

Though the social distancing rules have been phased out, charter, rideshare-app and taxi drivers are still suffering from a prolonged slump in riders with no visible sign of demand picking back up.

Vu Van Anh, a driver from Cau Giay District of Ha Noi, is seen cleaning his car all by himself before putting it in the parking lot. 

During the halt of all taxi services because of social distancing, Anh still had to aerate the car by leaving its door open at the nearby Cau Giay Park. 

As the pandemic waned and social activities were reintroduced, he found the demand for taxis stayed lower than pre-COVID.

Days of radio silence

Anh revealed that he bought his car with his accumulated savings from many years working as a taxi driver. 

According to Anh, if the car used is his own asset, he only has to pay the taxi company VND1.8 million (US$77) per month for the ‘radio’ fee — referring to the taxi call center, who sends drivers to passengers through mobile radio calls. 

The fee would be jacked up to VND8 million ($343) if he uses a company-owned car. 

Before COVID-19, he collected around VND800,000 ($34) of fare per day. During rainy days or when he got longer fares, he could make up to VND1.5 million ($64).

He even had to turn off the radio from time to time to take a break from the overwhelming drove of bookings. 

Since the end of the pandemic, Anh has yet to feel that hectic feeling that comes with busy roads and scores of fares.

Nguyen Van Xuan, another veteran taxi driver, has spent 13 years in the sector. 

Lately, he had been cruising around Ha Noi looking for passengers. His daily route starts from his home at Xuan Mai Town in Chuong My District to suburban Hoai Duc District and then back to the downtown of the capital city. 

Xuan said he used to drive long-distance journeys for some regular customers. Two years ago, he changed his car using a bank loan to join the rideshare-app drivers. 

The loan requires Xuan to pay VND7 million ($300) of interest a month. While he could easily make enough to make the payments on his loan prior to the pandemic, these days Xuan has been struggling to balance everything when he can only collect around VND600,000 ($26) in daily fares, which leaves him with VND200,000 ($8.50) after deducting costs.

“If I make only VND9 million [$386] per month, that means I’m in red since that is just enough to cover meals and fuel, save for other costs and asset depreciation. I contemplated selling my car and quitting this job, but the negotiated price was not at all favorable. Plus, how can I pay off the loan if I quit?” Xuan said. 

Meanwhile, in Ho Chi Minh City, drivers are still reminiscing about the last Tet (Lunar New Year) holiday, when demands went through the roof. Right after that, the pandemic and nationwide social distancing time put all taxi affairs to a sudden halt.

“Hardly anyone was as delighted as us drivers when social distancing rules were eased. We are glad to be able to hit the street and make money again after a period of financial ruin,” Tran Van Linh, a 39-year-old for-hire driver in Tan Binh District of Ho Chi Minh City, recounted.

A street in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam is empty of cars in this file photo. Photo: Manh Dung / Tuoi Tre
A street in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam is empty of cars in this file photo. Photo: Manh Dung / Tuoi Tre

The false hope 

According to Linh, the driver’s guild came out of social distancing with a fervor of excitement to “grind to redeem the slack days.” That excitement was short-lived as ridership numbers dropped to a staggering low.

In this time of the previous years, Linh usually signed heaps of long-distance transport contracts with pagoda-goers heading to neighboring Binh Duong or even Tay Ninh, An Giang, and Binh Thuan Provinces.

As the pagoda touring season this year unfortunately overlapped with the social distancing days, it seems highly unlikely that the frequent customers will return to Linh with a deal.

“Some customers I know said that they would wait till the pandemic is gone. Now that all activities have resumed, they still turned me down after I reached out,” Linh lamented.

Long-distance services are not the only thing falling out of grace, as drivers running short trips around the city are also facing hardship in picking up customers.

Nguyen Hoang Son, a ride-hail driver working with a 7-seater Isuzu in Binh Tan District, complained that his income took a nosedive: So far, his bookings this June are only half of what they were during the same period last year.

“I used to make around VND700,000-800,000 [$30-34] a day, some days it’s easily more than VND1 million [$43]. This year, I waited all day long, yet no customers appeared,” he disclosed.

The drastic change can be seen through his phone. This time last year, it was buzzing frantically to the consecutive booking notifications, yet the sound is barely heard now. 

During the interview, Son had waited until 9:00 am but had not yet received any booking for the day.

The outlook is even grimmer for drivers who are on installment plans to pay for their car, one of whom is Tran Van Linh from Tan Binh District.

He made the decision to ditch his corporate job and became a taxi driver after seeing his friends raking in money with the hustle. 

He spent VND400 milion ($17,150), his life savings, as a down payment for a 7-seater that costs VND900 million ($38,680).

The installment that Linh is tied to requires a VND14 million ($600) payment per month, an amount that already calls for hard work from the driver. 

“Yet from Tet holiday to now, I can’t even work hard as there are no customers to work for,” Linh said.

Though the social distancing order has been lifted for quite a while, he still couldn’t afford to pay off the installments as scheduled. 

Though, Linh said he was still on the luckier side for being able to keep his car: Some of his fellow drivers on installment plans are panicking and are forced to sell their cars to pay off the loan.

“They lost money big time on these ventures. Yet if they don’t sell fast, they would lose harder,” Linh explained.

“The rainy season in Saigon is approaching, so I hope the demand for car rides will pick up,” Linh confesses his hope for the future, referring to the former name of Ho Chi Minh City.

Hanoi drivers are sharing the same sentiment as severe heat waves infiltrate the city. 

A surge in ridership is pivotal to the survival of many independent taxi drivers in major cities of Vietnam at the moment. Whether or not the riders come, remains to be seen.

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Xuan Tung - Manh Dung - Vu Tuan / Tuoi Tre News


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