Along for the ride

Motorbike taxi drivers seem to all fall into one particular category or another.

By HASHAM WALI on October 09,2019 02:18 PM

Along for the ride


Given the frequency with which I use these services, I have begun to notice that certain types of drivers keep reoccurring, each with their own set of characteristics, both good and bad.

I have something to get off my chest. Though a confession of this magnitude would normally be reserved for the ears of a man of the cloth, this seems as good a place as any to come clean.

The truth is - I have never driven a motorbike.

At no point in my numerous years here have I ever taken control of a Wave, Dream or even a Cub. I have never been at the helm of a vehicle weaving its way through rush hour traffic, skipping onto the pavement to avoid a gridlocked road and then blasting through a red light. However, that is not to say I have no experience of these feats of derring-do. On the contrary, I am exposed to them on a daily basis, but my role is relegated to one of mere observation, as I watch the chaos unfurl in front of my eyes from my position as paying passenger.

When I first arrived here, I was fortunate enough to find a lovely little flat just around the corner from my place of work, meaning that my daily commute involved little more than a five-minute stroll. If I was heading further afield, drinking was invariably going to be involved and, as such, I found there was no need for me to have my own set of wheels.

Fast forward to the present, and despite now working in every far-flung corner of the city, I am still without a two-wheeled machine to call my own. This decision would have been prohibitively expensive up until a few years ago, but the advent of ride-hailing services such as Grab and would-be usurpers to the throne like Go-Viet and Be has meant that going bike-free has become an entirely feasible option.

Given the frequency with which I use these services, I have begun to notice that certain types of drivers keep reoccurring, each with their own set of characteristics, both good and bad. In fact, it would not be hyperbole to say that nearly every single motorbike taxi driver in Hanoi falls into one of the categories I outline here.

The first flavor of driver you are likely to come across is the grizzled former “xe om” driver. These are the fellows, slightly more advanced in years, who used to wait on street corners, perched precariously on their motorbikes in a semi-conscious state, ready to spring into action when a prospective customer came by. They are usually characterized by their loose interpretation of what constitutes acceptable levels of personal hygiene and even looser grasp on drink driving laws. Often grumpy, perhaps due to the fact that their halcyon days of price gouging tourists and locals alike are now but a distant memory, they nevertheless have an excellent understanding of the roads and will navigate the narrowest of lanes and alleys to get the customer to their destination as quickly as humanly possible. If you can handle the odor and inflated blood alcohol level, these seasoned old hands are a safe bet, especially for those who are new to the city.

The next most common variety comes in the shape of the college student, freshly transplanted from the countryside. These young bucks are easy to identify, primarily because half of them do not look old enough to legally be able to drive, but also due to the fact that their helmet and uniform will invariably be several sizes too big for their skeletal frames. Due to their complete inexperience with the roads of Hanoi, they trust their satellite navigation on their phones blindly, even if it tells them to go in circles or into cul-de-sacs. However, given their youth, they are fairly malleable and will readily listen to the directions given by the punter, which makes them the ideal style of driver for seasoned expats who are adamant in their knowledge of the fastest possible routes across town.

Along for the ride

A relatively lesser spotted but still fairly frequently occurring variant is the boy racer. Always arriving on impeccably turned out bikes, the rules of the road are mere rumors to them. They are an absolute godsend when short on time as they have the uncanny ability to bend the laws of space and time at will, conveying you to your destination in what feels like an instant. The only downside with these speed freaks is the liberties they take with both their and your life. For someone accustomed to the idiosyncrasies of the Vietnamese road system this should come as no shock, but for the uninitiated it seems like certain death is around every corner, making for a white-knuckle experience that most people are not really looking for in a morning commute.

At the seldom seen end of the spectrum is where the female drivers reside. Very much in the minority in what is seen as a primarily male-dominated vocation in this country, they are among the best drivers out there. They tend to be hardy women, with a no-fuss attitude to their job, and go a long way to putting archaic stereotypes about their gender’s driving ability to rest. In my experience they are among the safest people to get a ride with, although that safety can make them a little slower than some of their more reckless male counterparts.

Finally, we come to the white whale, the Holy Grail, the Maltese Falcon of motorcycle taxi drivers. The driver that comes to the exact location you booked from without calling to ask first; the driver that has a pristine vehicle, clean passenger helmet, and spare raincoat; the driver that possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of the streets but is happy to go whichever way is suggested; the driver that is courteous but does not fling forth a barrage of personal questions as soon as the trip commences; the driver that considers both speed and safety to be equal priorities. Unfortunately, much like Captain Ahab, King Arthur and Sam Spade, the object of my desires still eludes me. However, there are many journeys yet to be taken and hope yet that the mythical perfect driver will one day honor me with his or her presence. Until that day I will make do with the motley crew of characters that form a key part of my daily life.

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