Xe om (motorbike taxis) are a popular and inexpensive means of transportation used throughout the country. Drivers—usually men—perch atop their vehicles on street corners near public parks or in busy tourist areas, waiting to ferry passengers to their preferred destinations around town. As a foreigner, you’ll no doubt come into contact with at least a few of these two-wheeled vehicles and their drivers, as xe om drivers often call out to passing pedestrians in order to drum up business. Don’t be surprised if you hear a “YOU! Motorbiiiiike!” or “Xe om! Xe om!” as you approach a street corner, even if you’re not looking for a ride.
In a country so enamored of two-wheeled vehicles, xe om are a good way to experience the true pulse of major cities like Saigon or Hanoi.While xe om are an easy and affordable way to get around, most foreign visitors also find them to be a hair-raising experience. Xe om drivers, like Manhattan cabbies, move at their own pace, which is usually breakneck, and defy most of the laws of physics, not to mention traffic. In a country so enamored of two-wheeled vehicles, xe om are a good way to experience the true pulse of major cities like Saigon or Hanoi. However, if a xe om driver is racing down a one-way street in the wrong direction, voice your concern if you feel unsafe. While the “helmets” provided by xe om drivers would probably prove useless in an accident, it’s required by law to wear one. Even if you are advised otherwise, it’s important to insist upon some headgear, at least when in the city.
When taking a xe om, have the address of your destination written down, as not every driver speaks English, and always agree upon a price before you set off. Xe om fares are open to negotiation. Feel free to haggle, but once you’ve settled on the price stand firm. Drivers will sometimes continue to negotiate their fee once you’ve already hopped on. If you stand your ground and stick to the original agreement then your xe om driver will usually lay off.
With few qualifications required beyond a motorbike license and a full tank of gas, xe om drivers are a mixed bag: There are many honest, hardworking men who make a living this way, but, like any profession, there are also a few bad apples. For this reason, it is strongly recommended that you opt for taxis over xe om when traveling at night, as it’s not unheard of for passengers to be robbed or even thrown off a motorbike after dark, and the xe om driver is sometimes in on the deal. Be careful when heading back to your hotel after a night on the town, as it’s also possible that your xe om driver has had as much to drink as you have. Never hop on a motorbike with someone who appears to be intoxicated—the streets of Vietnam can be dangerous enough as it is.
Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Vietnam.