A company in Ho Chi Minh City provides motorbike taxis with metered pricing, as well as female drivers. By Lien Hoang. Photos by Fred Wissink.
Here’s how the standard xe om transaction works: A motorbike driver rouses from his nap and, with an upward turn of his finger, flags down a pedestrian on the street. They pin down a destination, haggle, and then zip off.
Here’s how the next generation of xe om has been operating for the past few months: A customer calls Thien Khach company, an employee there consults a live map to locate the nearest xe om, and the driver picks up the client on a metered bike.
The new company, based in Tan Phu District, challenges the entire xe om paradigm. An automated device, not quibbling, sets the price of a trip. Drivers wear vests and are held accountable for safe passage. And women — not just men — sit at the helm.
A rare sight in this motorbike-obsessed city, female xe om could help turn the service into a more palatable option for local and foreign passengers alike. Safe to say women drivers are much less unsavoury and much less likely to hit on their customers. They also tend not to have a need for speed.
The change contributes to an overall facelift for xe om and customer service, two phrases that rarely go well together. In the business name, thien means heaven and khach (nguoi khach) means customer, a sort of homage to the maxim that customer is king.
“Nguoi khach la number one,” Pham Phu Tai says after I interrupt to tell him to turn left at Nguyen Thi Minh Khai Street.
The driver is giving me a glimpse of how the model works. Probably the coolest part of the process is hopping onto the back of the seat, where a sensor detects my weight and triggers a meter that begins calculating the fare. Company founder Doan Huu Phat bought them from old cabs and converted the machines, after a few attempts, to work for the much less powerful motorbikes. He also equipped the vehicles with insurance, GPS to track each employee, and light-up advertising signs similar to those seen on cabs.
A sign on the tail of the bike lists prices: VND 10,000 for the first kilometre, VND 6,000 for the second, and VND 3,100 for the 11th onward. I took a normal xe om to Thien Khach for VND 50,000, while the company would have charged VND 70,000 for the trip back.
Tai, 37, drives me out of the alley. As I scribble notes from the back of the bike, he explains that he quit driving cabs after three years because the oversupply meant he and a few other cabbies were always racing to one client. By way of comparison, he also points out that motorbike taxis spend much less time in traffic than their four-wheel cousins.
Tai is from Dong Nai province, where he says he once drove a passenger to and from a wedding without charging for the wait time. If they want to pay, that’s OK, he says, and if not, that’s OK, too.
He has transported expats from Italy, Korea, Taiwan, and other countries — even though, like everyone else at the company, Tai doesn’t speak English and the foreigners don’t speak Vietnamese. “They don’t know the language but we understand their meaning,” he says.
Back at headquarters in Tan Phu, Phat says he might learn English because in a few months he wants to expand operations to downtown and other districts frequented by foreigners. Currently, Thien Khach runs in districts Tan Phu, Tan Binh, 3 and 10, though xe om have taken clients elsewhere, too, of course. Phat, who in the past started other business ventures and gave automobile driving lessons, would like to colour code each district through the vests his workers wear, so customers can identify them if they need to contact the company. Stacks of vests and matching helmets adorn his office, all of them orange for now, an idea Phat got after seeing how the motorbike taxi drivers in Bangkok dress.
At least one foreigner is a regular after a Vietnamese friend connected her with Thien Khach, but most of the demand comes from Vietnamese, including students.
“The male customers didn’t like going with women, so we changed it to have women drive students,” Phat says. “They [the male customers] say they’re scared. Well, being a man having a woman drive, they’re hesitant already.”
Men think women are weak drivers, Phat says. Women could be uncomfortable, too, with strangers of the opposite sex huddled on their backs.
Fourteen male and three female drivers clock in at Thien Khach. One of them, Le Thi Thuy Trang, is a 43-year-old mother of two who used to clean houses.
“We don’t drive the same,” she says. “Men do know the streets better. We don’t have as much experience.”
Still, it’s hard to a imagine a woman swerving drunkenly through Ho Chi Minh City, a scene common enough to anyone who takes the common xe om. Expat Anthony Deepak Joyson says xe om is his favourite form of transit because it’s cheap and easy. But one drunk driver brought him a split second away from a crash, while another drove him in circles for a half hour and then charged VND 150,000. So Joyson, a 28-year-old waiter from India, says he’d like to try Thien Khach.
“They’re not street guys, they’re a company,” he says, “and people always trust the company.”