The humble motorbike taxi has been an iconic part of Vietnamese society since Doi Moi opened the floodgates for motorbike imports in 1986. Cyclos began to take a back seat as the xe om became a recognised staple in everyday public transport.
Today, Vietnam’s motorbike taxi service is facing another big shift. Traditional xe om drivers are losing clients — and losing patience — as multinational corporations take over the industry, standardising business interactions and lowering market prices.
The End of an Era
GrabBike was launched in November 2014 by Malaysian on-demand taxi company Grab. “It was the first service of its kind ever in the world,” says GrabBike Manager Anh. “We launched in Vietnam and after that we put it into Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines.”
Although Uber had been operating taxis in the country since 2014, it did not invest in Vietnam’s motorbike taxi industry until 2016, when it brought UberMOTO to Thailand and other parts of Southeast Asia.
Now, GrabBike and UberMOTO are the leading corporate-controlled motorbike taxi services in Vietnam. Both operate in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City and cater to an ever-growing demand for safer and cheaper public transport.
Grab Bike. You see them everywhere these days
A Hundred Thousand Bees
A lot of this safety comes from careful monitoring, standardised rules and bringing modern technology to the venerable motorbike taxi.
“We have very strict requirements for drivers and we provide the driver and passenger with insurance,” says Anh. “Our platform allows you to rate the drivers after every trip, and then we assess their average rating.”
One of these drivers, Phuc, started working with GrabBike after he finished his university thesis in February this year. “I drive at night, in my free time and when I feel good. The time is flexible for a Grab driver,” he says.
Now a structural engineer, Phuc fits his taxi work around his full-time job. “After work I quickly go home to have my dinner, and then I go Grab driving,” he says. “I work from 6pm to midnight, but I won’t do more than 10 trips. On the weekend we have a lot more customers so I often drive until 2am.”
According to GrabBike manager Anh, many GrabBike drivers work like this.
“It’s an alternative source of income for them,” he says. “They earn about US$200 [VND4.5 million] extra per month which is a lot to them, and our full-time workers take at least double that amount.”
UberMOTO drivers work in a similar way — driver Khoa works five to six hours per day with no fixed schedule.
“I don’t have to set a timetable for it, I just turn the app on and work,” he says. “I fit my work around my other commitments.”
As well as allowing flexible hours, both Uber and Grab keep their intake requirements fairly accessible so that a wide range of people can apply for work.
“We get hundreds of new applicants every day,” says Anh. “Obviously they have to have a license, some national ID and some kind of paperwork to show where they stay to keep them accountable.”
Both Grab and Uber have a set standard for their drivers’ motorbikes. “Your bike must be a model after 2010 or if it’s older it needs to be well kept and have original parts,” says Khoa.
One of the reasons why Grab and Uber keep their requirements flexible is to appeal to the xe om community, but while many xe om drivers have started working with them, many more refuse to do so.
“A lot of xe oms live hand to mouth so they can’t save money to buy a smartphone,” says Phuc. “And xe oms don’t want anyone to control them. They don’t want to buy and wear a uniform, follow a GPS or use a fixed price.”
According to GrabBike manager Anh, some xe oms are also work-shy. “They don’t want to join because they will have to work much harder,” he says. “With us, they will have to do at least 10 drives per day to earn as much as they would driving only two rides a day as a traditional xe om.”
But perhaps the most significant reason why xe om drivers choose not to work with Grab or Uber is purely political — to the majority of xe oms, these companies are the enemy.
Bay has been making his living as a xe om driver for two decades
This Means War
“I’ve been driving for 20 years,” says xe om driver Bay. “I like the lifestyle — driving people around, meeting them, chatting with them. But now, most of my customers have started using Uber or Grab instead.”
When asked if he would ever join Grab or Uber, Bay replies with a firm and solemn “No.”
“I hate them, they are taking all my customers, their main purpose is to destroy the xe om industry in Vietnam.”
Before these two corporate giants came to Vietnam, Bay could earn up to VND600,000 per day. Most of his customers were foreigners, and he learnt all his English from taking them to see the sites. “I would take customers around the city or on a tour to Cu Chi for VND500,000 per round-trip,” he says. “But now all the hotels are working with Grab and Uber.”
To GrabBike manager Anh, this is a sad but undeniable truth. “Basically, the traditional xe oms think that we are taking jobs away from them, which is true,” he says. “I won’t deny that we provide a better and more convenient service, [and] safer options.”
But according to Bay, GrabBike and UberMOTO are not always necessarily the cheapest and most convenient options. “If you go to Cu Chi with GrabBike you will pay more — VND700,000 — because they use a flat rate per kilometre,” he says. “I just figure out a price per drive.”
Bay is also a member of a labour association. “Drivers from this association are safe and respected,” he says. “We drive safely, and if you leave something on the bike you can always get it back.”
Grab and Uber drivers are only supposed to pick up customers who've booked using the app. But they don't always follow this rule
Without being able to access the Grab or Uber company leaders, xe om drivers often choose to hit back on a street level. “Last week, one of my friends was hit by a knife from a xe om,” says Phuc.
Although he has never met with this kind of confrontation himself, Phuc is nervous every time he drives for Grab. “I was really scared when I heard that news and I tried to stay far away from where he was hurt,” he says. “But really, he was in the centre of the city and nowhere near the places where xe oms often hang out. You just can’t control it.”
One of the biggest sources of conflict between xe om and GrabBike or UberMOTO drivers is where the corporate drivers get their customers from. “I let other Grab or Uber drivers wait in my area but they must only take clients via their app,” says Bay. “If customers walk up and ask for a ride, they must send them to the xe oms.” According to Phuc, this is also GrabBike company policy, but some drivers take customers outside the app so that they can pocket the cash.
Aware of the danger they are in, both GrabBike and UberMOTO drivers take measures to keep safe while working. “If I recognise any danger I cancel drives before we leave,” says Phuc. “If I find myself in serious danger I use an SOS group on Zalo to call for help.”
There are several SOS groups on Zalo, all set up by GrabBike drivers in a bid to protect themselves. “If we have a problem we send a voice recording, yelling for help,” he says. “There are always GrabBike drivers around, they come fast.”
GrabBike and Uber also have safety measures in place to protect their drivers. “We work with the police,” says Anh. “Together we try to prevent confrontations, and if there is a problem we identify who the culprit is and then we deal with it.”
But for many GrabBike and UberMOTO drivers, the risk of confrontation is still very real and to Phuc, the future lies in cooperation. “Grab drivers must only take customers from their app, and xe oms must lower their prices,” he says. “We need to help each other.”
Cooperation aside, one thing is for sure — GrabBike and UberMOTO are here to stay. As their services evolve and they expand their reach, perhaps these two companies will find a happy medium with Vietnam’s more traditional xe om drivers. The question is, how.
Photos by Mike Palumbo