It takes not only courage, great skills and commitment, but also a big heart for daring xe om (motorbike taxi) drivers to traverse extreme mountainous terrain across the Phuoc Son ‘gold hub’ in central Quang Nam province.
They are called ‘chivalrous xe om drivers’ by locals, as they not only make a living out of this task but are also willing to help others.
Driving a bike every day through treacherous, extreme terrain is a high risk, life-threatening job.
However, these drivers remain undaunted.
At the Dinh Tien Hoang T-junction in Kham Duc Town, around 20 drivers can be spotted at almost any time waiting for clients, most of whom are gold miners, their visitors and even their dead bodies.
The driving force grows especially large right before the Tet holiday as gold miners and traders flock home after a year of arduous work.
There is almost no scrambling or fighting over clients among the drivers, as they take turns and strictly stick to a schedule.
The paths, which are rocky, bumpy and tortuous, are even more treacherous during the rainy season and fatal during flashfloods as the area’s roads, especially those along crevasses, are extremely slippery, muddy and messy.
Charges vary depending on the distance to the gold mines, ranging from VND1.5 million (US$72) to over VND2 million one way.
“Only those whose driving skills are excellent like me dare to drive in such conditions,” said Vu, a driver who has taken clients all over the area over the past 20 years. He pointed to dozens of fresh bruises running from his thighs to ankles from last week’s cross-mountain drive, and countless old scars crisscrossing his body.
“Once we receive our clients’ money, we are determined to brave all kinds of terrain and weather, and their safety is our responsibility,” Vu stressed.
Hung ‘chain’, who hails from the Central Highlands province of Lam Dong and worked as a xe om driver in the area before passing away last year, is a household name to all the drivers there.
He was credited with creating a revolutionary ‘invention’ of attaching chains to the bike’s rear wheel to maximize friction and its ability to cross difficult terrain.
“Without Hung, we all would have quit our job long ago,” said seasoned driver De, who is considered the leader of the drivers.
Many garages in town now collect chains from old machinery and attach them to the bikes’ rear wheels.
According to Vu, it takes the best drivers one day to cover a distance of only 60 kilometers from the town center to the most remote gold mine during the rainy season.
Several stone slabs which are worn out from years of bike tires form treacherous narrow paths with mountains and crevasses on each side.
Vu recalled that during the last year’s rainy season, before the construction of Nuoc Vin Bridge had been completed, hundreds of fully-loaded xe om bikes would cross a makeshift bridge every day.
Vu added that in such conditions they sometimes couldn’t cover even five kilometers in one day.
It was creepy when he carried the dead bodies of ill-fated miners who were ‘hugging’ him from behind as night fell.
All the drivers are superb mechanics and they always bring bike gear with them. Even when they have a flat tire with no replacement, they ingeniously stuff leaves into the tires and drive on.
Vu revealed that to cross such extreme terrain, all of the bikes need a considerable overhaul, such as decreasing the number of cogs in the pinion from 16 to 10, while increasing the cogs of the front chain wheel from 36 to 42.
‘Robin Hood’ of the jungle
De, in his 40s, is respected by the drivers as their leader for both his superb driving skills and his kind-heartedness and chivalrous lifestyle.
He said his worn-out Minsk has carried nearly 20 dead bodies.
“I really can’t stand seeing them lying in the jungle for good,” De confided.
He recalled that once, as soon as he learned that a young gold miner had died and no relatives came to claim him, he drove his Minsk in the early hours across the forests and mountains to pick him up.
He then used wine to soften the young man’s stiff 80-kg body and shaped it into that of a living person and strapped it behind him while he drove to the commune’s Kham Duc airport.
He then used wine again to return the man’s body to its original position so that his relatives could take him back home for burial.
De added that several times his bike broke down midway, so he shivered in the cold next to the dead bodies through the night until the next morning.
Out of their compassion for the dead sadly buried in shallow graves in the forests, every year the Kham Duc xe om drivers, led by De, donate money to pay visits to and tend to their graves.