For visitors to the frenetic urban jungles of Vietnam, part of the excitement of traveling in Vietnam’s cities is simply getting from point A to B. After all, there are an estimated 2 million motorbikes in the municipality, and the controlled chaos of rush hour traffic is as much a tourist attraction as anything you’ll find in a guidebook.
For particularly audacious tourists, the motorized masses are a perfect opportunity to experience Saigon at its most energetic, by braving the roads like the locals do — on the back of a motorbike!
One of the city’s most popular modes of transportation for tourists is the xe om (pronounced ‘say ohm’) which means “machine hug”. Thankfully, no public displays of affection are required and many refer to them simply as motorbike taxis.
Unlike their automobile counterparts, these two-wheeled cabbies are able to move with the flow of traffic and are almost always a quicker journey. But despite their convenience, there are a few important things to know before jumping into the motorbike saddle and taking off.
Know Your Location
There’s certainly no shortage of xe om drivers in Vietnam’s cities, but finding a safe option is a bit trickier than flagging down the nearest two-wheeler. Most reputable xe om drivers operate from a specific location, and continue returning to this home base after fares. These locations are usually on major street corners, along with other drivers who are often lounging across their bikes for afternoon naps.
Unlike nomadic xe om drivers who travel throughout the city in search of potential fares, these drivers are easy to track down after a journey should there be a problem. Stick with these stationed xe om to avoid a negative experience.
Finding a Bargain
The adventure when taking a xe om starts before you ever strap on a helmet. When taking a xe om, bargaining is a prerequisite, since there is no set amount for cross-city journeys. Almost all drivers operate independently from any kind of company, so the rates they set are always up for debate.
Depending on your bargaining skills, most xe om journeys cost no more than VND80,000 (US$ 4) within Saigon and VND60,000 (US$ 3) in Hanoi. It’s important to agree on a price with your driver before you set off, which you can do either by using hand signals or by writing it down. The latter allows you to verify how much you agreed on if there’s any disagreement after the journey — make sure you include the letters VND when writing prices to avoid confusion with US dollars.
It’s law in Vietnam that anyone on a motorbike must wear a helmet. Consequently, all xe om drivers will have spare helmets for their passengers. Since these are short-term use helmets, they’re often of fairly low quality and wouldn’t prove very effective in an accident.
For travelers that are planning to take xe om journeys many times throughout their visit to Vietnam, investing in a higher quality helmet is a worthwhile option. Helmets are available at nearly every street corner, but finding a shop with quality helmets requires a bit more forward planning. Andes brand helmets are the most popular, and offer a wide range of ¾ face and full-face helmets for reasonable prices. There are many Andes shops throughout both Saigon and Hanoi, and a simple search will turn up one within walking or short driving distance.
Make a Connection
Many xe om drivers only get a few fares a day, and often have to travel long distances to return to their bases after journeys. Consequently, xe om drivers prefer having a consistent customer or two, and will often be less inclined to over-charge if they see the potential for gaining a consistent client.
For travelers that plan to take many xe om journeys within the city over a few consecutive days or weeks — and have a working Vietnamese phone number — connecting with a xe om driver for many journeys is beneficial for both the traveler and the driver. If you find a driver that you like, simply pull out your phone and ask for their number. So long as you are able to send addresses, there’s not much need for English fluency on the drivers’ part. Some will still charge per journey, but it is possible to coordinate a set daily amount.
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