|When in Hanoi hug a motorbike driver (xe-om )….|
Words by Sean David Usher
When first arriving in a large Vietnamese city you will notice the traffic, mostly consisting out of regiments of motorbikes and scooters. Loaded on to backs of these will be commuters, teenagers, families (yes, whole families) and if you look carefully, scared looking individuals clinging on for dear life as a means of public transport - Vietnam style.
Ever been to a funfair and noticed the ride on which you will "Never ever go!”, but on which you end up having the most fun? Well, it’s very much the same type of experience when it comes to getting around Hanoi via xe-om, the ubiquitous motorbike taxis, a sight not uncommon in Bangkok, Phnom Penh and even London (Virgin Atlantic offering its first class passengers a similar service).
Hanoi is a big city and traffic can make it feel a lot bigger. Places that look close on a map might take hours to reach by regular taxi or bus. Travelling from the northern end of the Old Quarter to the south can take 40 minutes on foot, 30 minutes by bus or 10 minutes by xe-om, the drivers knowing just how to cut through the fray.
Motorbikes and scooters offer both a problem and solution to traffic. It is said that Hanoi has around 2 million motorbikes and scooters servicing its 5 million residents. With the airport being 35km north of the city centre and the main bus station (My Dinh) 12 km to the west, a xe-om is often the most appropriate option for soloists travelling light.
Xe-ôm translates into 'hug vehicle’; justifiable by the way passengers often grab hold of the drivers.
While Europeans and Americans may cringe at the thought of getting on the back of a motorbike or scooter (less so in Spain or Italy perhaps where scooters are more common) and hugging the driver while they speed through unknown streets, it is a thrilling experience to say the least. Having taking countless xe-om rides over the years, I still remember my first time in HCMC. It cost me $1 and took 15 minutes, a journey that would have taken a taxi or bus 30-40 minutes. Every time I hail a motorbike, locals always eye me with a mix of curiosity and bemusement seeing as tourists seldom look quite at home on a xe-om. Not to try would be foolish however. All you need to do is smile, nod or give them the thumbs up. Tell the driver where you need to be (always keep your map at hand), haggle a little over the price, watch as the driver consults with his colleagues over said route and price combo and you’re off, whizzing through the crowded streets of Hanoi at 30-40km/hour! After some time you might even end up with your own preferred haggle-free xe-ôm driver. So take the leap, grab a xe-ôm and chuc may man!
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