Say What? Xe Om!! Motorbike Taxis in Saigon
For first timers, catching a Xe Om (Say om) could be a little intimidating but once you get the hang of it you’ll have a convenient, cheap and reliable way of getting around town.
First let’s go over what a Xe Om is. Basically, it’s a motorbike taxi. The name actually means “Motorbike Hug”. Cute aye?. Don’t worry, you won’t have to get too up close and personal with the locals.
Xe Om’s are, usually, driven by a casually dressed older man. Occasionally you’ll find a younger guy and less commonly, a woman. Personally I choose the old guys or the women every time…you’ll see what I mean.
Xe Om’s can be found all over town. They’re the dudes sitting, and sometimes, lying on their scooters on most corners watching the world go by. And you just thought they were just hangin’ out with nothing better to do, didn’t you. Personally, I like to choose the old guys with old bikes. They’ve obviously been around a long time and their bikes probably aren’t capable of doing stupid speeds.
I find the best way to approach a XeOm driver is to walk towards him making a throttle type action. Practice this. Hold up both hands and pretend like you are using the throttle on a motorbike. Easy right? Unless he’s asleep, the driver will leap up, hand you a helmet and tell you to jump on. Don’t be so hasty though.First things first.You need to make him understand where you want to go and agree on a price. Believe me; whilst the starting price might be a little higher because you are a foreigner, the locals have to negotiate every time too. Here’s a few tips to make this interaction a whole lot easier and safer
NOTE: You probably should make sure your travel insurance covers you for riding motorbikes before choosing this mode of travel. IT is probably the most dangerous way of getting around and for a few $ extra you have some peace of mind.
Tips for taking Xe Om’s
Have small notes. Do not expect a Xe Om driver to be able to change anything greater than a 100 000 VND note. Even that might be a struggle sometimes.
If you don’t speak Vietnamese, or know exactly where you are going, its best to have your destination written down IN VIETNAMESE. The following methods should work.
1.Ask you hotel to write things down on a piece of paper in Vietnamese.
2. Take the business card of your hotel for returning home
3. Carry a map, or better still, a brochure, so you can clearly show where you want to go. This goes for other modes of transport too.
Once your potential driver has a clear idea of your destination start negotiating a price. Ask your hotel for estimates so you know a ball park figure. A short hop of a km or so should cost no more than 20 000 VND. A ride of about 6 km will be around 50 000 VND.Most rides around District 1 and 3 here the major sites are should be no more than 40 000 VND. Always bargain unless you are sure of the price. Here’s how I do it.
Make the universal sign of how much by rubbing your thumb against your index and middle fingers. They will typically show you the price in one of the following ways:
1. Pull out notes to the amount.
2. Indicate with their fingers – two fingers means 20 000 VND, three = 30 000 VND and so on.
3. Tell you in Vietnamese. If you don’t understand numbers get them to write it, either on a piece of paper or with their finger on their seat (imaginary writing…)
4. If they quote 50 say 30, If they quote 60 say 40…They’ll, usually, meet you in the middle. (If they quote 20 then, you’ve just found yourself an honest XE OM driver!) If they don’t go lower, walk away. You may just have established a floor in the price, but it’s worth checking. There are plenty more drivers around.
Once the price is negotiated, make sure you have been supplied with a helmet. Adjust it to sit firmly on your head if you can. Most of the helmets around aren’t exactly international standard but at least it’s something between you and the bitumen if you do come off.If it looks totally ineffective, walk away and find another driver.
Stay safe. Secure your valuables. If you are wearing a daypack or handbag, attach it firmly and put it in front of you. Backpacks should be worn on the front. Handbags over your body and adjusted so it is in your lap between you and the driver. Do not have anything hanging out of your back pockets.
Right, you should be ready to go. Try and balance without holding by firmly gripping the seat with your inner thighs. Try not to hold the driver or crush his ribs!!! Despite the fact you are now trying our a “Motorbike hug”, I’m betting you are not going to want to get too friendly. On many bikes, you can brace yourself by holding onto a bar on the back. I personally don’t do this unless I don’t have a bag with me.I like to keep hold of my personal effects as the motorbike mafia is alive and well in Saigon, slashing bag straps and causing havoc. No temptation, no trouble. With a little practice, you shouldn’t need to hold on.
Indicate to the driver that you have plenty of time. Do not, in any way, signify that you are in a hurry or you might be in for a white knuckle death ride. If you think he’s driving too fast, tap him on the shoulder and indicate you want him to slow down. Some drivers seem to want to give foreigners a bit of a scare. Do not put up with this behaviour, it could be deadly. If they don’t comply, get off at the next stoplights. (Be aware of the surrounding traffic if you go down this path). They’ll soon get the message.
Do not pull out your phone or camera to film your crazy adventure unless you are prepared to have it snatched from your hand. See above warning of Motorbike Mafia.
Try not to make sudden movements that might unbalance the bike. I know that the bus flying in from the right-hand side looks like it wants to make you roadkill. However, the driver will have a much greater chance of getting you safely to the end of your journey if you aren’t behaving like a startled rabbit. Stay calm and ZEN! Enjoy the experience of being in an arcade game.
When you get to your destination, keep the helmet on while you exchange money, especially if you need change. They are unlikely to speed off if you still have it. Be aware of other vehicles and your valuables at this point. Do not put them on the pavement or leave them swinging from your shoulder. There’s a high possibility they might disappear while you’re working through the transaction.
There. You’ve made it. That wasn’t so bad was it? In fact, it was a bit of a buzz, wasn’t it? I hope after reading this I haven’t scared you off taking a XE OM. It really is a fun way to get around town once you get a handle on the basics. Most drivers are honest and reasonably safe. They don’t last too long in the game if they’re not. I think it’s one of the quintessential parts of visiting Vietnam. Have fun!
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