At the end of my trip khổng lồ Can Tho & the Mekong Delta, still smiling from that spectacular bun rieu soup, I took a long bus back to lớn Saigon, into Mien Tay, the Western bus station. Located about a đôi mươi minute drive from District 1, it is inconvenient for most travelers — so the bus companies have provided shuttles to take their passengers from the outer reaches of the city into District 10. Climbing out of my shuttle, I was met by a teeming mass of motorcycle taxi drivers, called xe pháo om in Vietnam.

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Hey you, you YOU!” one shouted, pushing & maneuvering through the knotted mass of people khổng lồ stand in my way, preventing me from stepping off the bus steps. “I take YOU.

Another gentleman knocked my first suitor out of the way và stood flush with the door. “You need moto taxi? I take YOU lớn hotel.”

Laughing, I twisted sideways & sprung out of the bus khổng lồ the right, temporarily out of reach. With only an overnight bag and a purse, I was more nimble than usual. To the dismay of the moto taxi drivers, I hopped into the bus company’s waiting room và office.

This practice has become my usual strategy when coming off a long bus or train ride in Southeast Asia or South America. One of the more overwhelming aspects of arriving in a new thành phố is the fact that you are greeted by a stunningly chaotic scene of transportation options, all wanting your attention. When that ride is a night bus or train it is even more intense, exhaustion eclipsing any patience, blotting it away. Making a beeline for an office or a store, even to lớn ask a ridiculous question, tends lớn scatter many of the drivers và leave you with the more determined & calmer lot upon your return.

In this case, I went to lớn the desk lớn ask for a schedule of the buses from Can Tho. Visibly confused — I did just get off the bus from Can Tho after all — the woman at the desk slowly handed over a schedule card and I thanked her, stared at it studiously for a few minutes, and then turned back khổng lồ my motorcycle taxi options. Stepping out of the office, the “I take YOU” guy leapt front và center và announced “I like you. I am handsome. I TAKE YOU!”

Uh, no thanks. Looks definitely weren’t a primary factor in picking a ride khổng lồ get me trang chủ safely. Scanning the crowd, I instead pointed at an older man standing to the right who was gazing at me with a mocking half-smile. “Hi, can you take me to Nguyen Thi đường minh khai and Mac Dinh Chi?” I asked, giving him the name of my street & cross street. He took at peek at me và gave me a price that was double what I wanted lớn pay. Shaking my head, I cut his number to lớn more than half, prompting chuckles from the other motorcycle drivers surrounding us.

Without a word, he turned on his heel và started crossing the street. Shrugging at the other drivers who were now watching me intently, I followed.

Saigon’s xe Om Drivers

Now, I’ve talked about Vietnam’s traffic và even posted a stop-motion đoạn phim in my Introduction lớn Vietnam post. But it bears reiterating here that the only way lớn cross the street unscathed is khổng lồ (1) just go; (2) not make any prolonged eye contact; & (3) proceed at a very slow and very even pace, with no jagged moves. I found myself crossing the street on this post-Can Tho adventure during rush hour, in the middle of a huge street filled with bus offices. The usual “thousands of motorbikes và a few cars” were actually “thousands of motorbikes, a few cars and, uh, there are also 20 buses whizzing by in both directions.” But my xe om guy was already halfway across the street, và I sure as hell wasn’t going lớn let him think I couldn’t make it across myself.

I aspire lớn these levels of nonchalance.

When I first arrived in Vietnam, I made a point of asking the price immediately upon walking up to lớn the xe om driver, anticipating a sudden price spike if I waited until the end. This practice remained important in touristy areas lượt thích Pham dở người Lao or around the main sights in the city, since the “tourist price” is prevalent there. My tactics were always the same: ask for the price, laugh at it lượt thích it was the funniest thing I’d ever heard, then, smiling, offer less than half. Cue faux anger, general angst and a lot of head-shaking from the xe om driver. But I’d just stand there smiling and waiting, & finally I’d say “ok, I’ll ask someone else.” Eventually, I’d get a gentle helmet foisted at my stomach, apparently my local equivalent of an agreement handshake for the ride. Inevitably, by the time I got off, the xe om driver was smiling; almost always I would be rewarded with a high-five after paying, to the confusion of the security guards outside wherever I ended up.

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Around my apartment, a small walk from the center of District 1, I took to forgoing the price first, và just getting on the bikes and seeing what happened at the end. The first time I took a xe om near my house was a few days after I had moved in, và I was late to meet a friend near the market. When we mix off I was confused — we were headed in the wrong direction, despite his acknowledgement that I needed khổng lồ head up to Tan Dinh market. Instead, he drove South khổng lồ drive by a group of other xe om drivers who were eating lunch at the side of the road. He came to a slow roll, honked twice và thrust his thumb back in my direction, in a “look what I found” kind of way. The drivers eating all cracked up, my own driver twisted toward me và giggled lượt thích a schoolgirl và then we wheeled around back to lớn where we came and he drove me where I wanted to lớn go.

Another time, I took a different driver và got off near the river, giving more than usual since it was nearing Tet (the lunar new year). Since much of pre-Tet madness involves paying off debts & making home improvements, I wanted lớn kick in a little extra. The driver didn’t see my second 10,000 Dong lưu ý and gave me a higher price, but still lower than what I had actually handed him. Laughing, I snatched one of the 10,000 Dong notes back and he cracked up, this beautiful belly laugh that echoed in the tiny alleyway where we were finalising the transaction. Realizing his mistake, he just shook his head. Of course I gave the additional amount back, & from then on whenever I saw him wandering the streets near my house, I got a high-five or a big wave, or a question about what I ate that day.

Many of the xe om near my apartment had quirks of their own. One driver I took often would keep his helmets in separate plastic bags, unwrapping them with a smile when you approached và throwing on his blue “taxi driver” vest for the ride. Another had thick reading glasses và would perch on his xe đạp with one foot crossed over the other, reading the paper and waiting for a client. On the diagonal corner from my favourite street bar, a sweet older driver would wave hello whenever I walked by. He always wore an FBI hat, but I never took him up on his offers of driving; he only had one eye.

I tell these stories because they made up so much of my days, tiny interactions building on more tiny interactions until my routine involved high-fiving or waving at the gentlemen on all four corners of the streets near my house who watched over everyone as they went about their days. As with many of the posts here, it’s the small things that lead to lớn the bigger things.

Public transportation remains a fixture in most traveler’s stories. I have a category called “Misadventures in Transportation” specifically for these quirky happenings that mix a place apart from elsewhere, from chicken buses khổng lồ ferries filled with water buffalo và more. In Vietnam, the bus rides deserve a separate entry in this category (peaceful they are not) but for a different take on a busy city, I’d also encourage travelers khổng lồ take at least one xe om during their days in town.

* * *

On the way back from that District 10 bus stop, my “cross the street & we’ll see” xe om driver ended up being a very fun ride. He pointed out some of the places he liked to frequent for meals, he laughed at other people when we were waiting at traffic lights & he purposely drove up next to lớn 18-wheelers and buses lớn point back at me — “I have a tourist!” — waiting for their reaction, which was usually a belly laugh & a thumbs up. He even let me stop the motorbike to hop off & take a look at a pork and rice streetside joint I had never seen before. As with any of the other xe om drivers, he was laid-back & smiling, loved watching the world as he drove và managed lớn maneuver through traffic — rush hour traffic at that — without getting us killed, maimed or even clipped by one of the thousands of bikes in the nearby chaos.

As I hopped off the bike I asked him for a portrait. I love how it turned out. Confident and happy, calm but with a sly smile, he exemplifies the many other xe om I met, laughed with và learned from during my months in Vietnam.

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Thanks for the food recommendations, random xe cộ om man!


* For more about Bangkok’s motosai, please see Claudio Sopranzetti’s interview with New Mandala about the politics of motorcycle taxis in Thailand.