Provided the driver understands where you are going – never a given here even if you show them a name card of the establishment – you can guarantee getting there in one piece in air conditioned comfort.
But what fun is there in that?!
Which is why I’ve started to use motorcycle taxis more and more frequently…
Unlike Bangkok where motorcycle taxis are an official, organised method of public transport and the drivers wear a uniform of sorts and run rosters on the street corners on which they congregate playing cards or board games between fares, it’s all a lot less formal here.
Actually, there is no formality whatsoever.
If you’re new to the city and off the main tourist strips, you may not even notice their existence until one greets you with a smile and mimes holding handle bars. The best way to spot them, is to look out for a guy reclining on his bike with his feet up browsing a newspaper or dozing; the telltale sign he might be a taxi driver is the presence of two helmets hanging from the bike rather than one.
Or he might be staring into his motorcycle’s mirror picking detritus from between his teeth (Isn’t it curious how men will stare into mirrors picking their teeth and women will stare into mirrors searching for blackheads…?)
As the weeks passed after my arrival in Ho Chi Minh and I got more confident about knowing where I was headed I started using motorcycle taxis more and more. They’re not really any cheaper than taxis and the quality of some of the bikes is – to put it politely – mediocre. But the majority of the drivers seem well seasoned to the challenges of negotiating Ho Chi Minh’s manic traffic and the seeming absence of any order or road rules.
In other words they’re old.
One regular driver I use – who now greets me like a long lost friend and shakes my hand smiling broadly before passing me a helmet – has only one eye. Yes, folks, I brave the chaos of Ho Chi Minh’s streets on the back of a bike driven by an old man with one eye. But I assure you it’s a very functional eye and this guy is no slouch – I swear I have been on bikes overtaken by others at a rate in excess of one a second and wondering if everyone else around me will have got to their destination, run their errands and returned home again before the smooth warmth of a hot Latte touch my lips!
One day, One Eye was nowhere to be seen so I continued another 20 metres down Ton Dan St to the corner where another driver was dozing. A friend sipping green tea and watching the world go by barked a wake-up call and the driver leapt to his feet and proffered a helmet.
I negotiated the price as usual. This is always essential before climbing on the back… foreigners are traditionally charged far more than locals, which is not really a problem when you’re talking of a fare difference calculated in one dollar if not mere cents, but it’s best to save that extra dollar up front, even if only to protect your fellow expatriates by setting new fare thresholds.
A trip to the city is usually 30,000 dong (about $2.30). Most drivers who don’t know you will start at 50,000, some are even braver (especially in the notorious backpacker district of Pham Ngu Lao; on a visit a year ago I foolishly agreed to 100,000 to travel from one bar to another, which turned out to be a distance of about one kilometre – you can get to the airport for less on a good day in an air conditioned taxi. But after half a bottle of red and a couple of beers $4.50 seems perfectly reasonable…)
Anyway, back to the corner of Ton Dan. I climbed on the back and off we went. Figuratively speaking. This guy’s motorcycle was as sleepy as its driver. One block down the street we slowed to a stop and he turns into a service station. We need petrol. I climb off and wait while 50,000 dong of fuel is poured into the tank – about two litres.
Back on and alas the extra fuel has made no difference to the motorbike’s performance. We struggle along, slowing even more when we come to the bridge over the canal splitting District 4 from District 1 and downtown. For a moment, I feared I might have to climb off and help push!
Downhill was marginally better and the momentum seemed to last until we reached a trio of xich lo drivers waiting by the riverside to dupe foreign tourists into an expensive circuit of the CBD. When we stopped dead. Now what?
Turns out the stop was intentional. My driver had no idea where I wanted to go! Vincom Centre is pronounced the same in English as in Vietnamese but this guy had never heard of the CBD’s largest shopping centre. After much waving of arms, slow phonetic pronunciations, spirited debates and a mysterious exchange of cigarettes and dong we were back on our way.
Thank god these guys aren’t on a meter!
Downtown motorcycle taxi drivers are another breed altogether. These guys – and the occasional women – are far craftier, but their mission seems more intent on extracting money from foreigners and commissions from various not-so-legal entities they carry business to.
When I first arrived I found them very aggressive. Every time you walked down the street someone was calling out “Sir, sir? Where you go? What you looking for?”. If that failed to draw a response the next line was always “You want lady?”. “Massage. Boom boom. Young lady. Very good. I know good place. I take you.”
It was a while before I learned a very simple way of sending them packing. At first I tried shaking my head, smiling in embarrassment. Or just smiling. Then I tired a loud “no thank you”, later “No, no.” Nothing seemed to work. These guys are thick skinned and they don’t derive an income from taking no for an answer.
One woman drive I have met a couple of times is no different. One afternoon in broad daylight she called to me: “Motorcycle?”.
I smiled politely. “No thanks.”
Then one day I came up with the most effective response of all. Born by sheer accident, or perhaps frustration: “No thanks. I live here. Not tourist.”
It was as if I’d sprayed an aerosol which instantly incapacitated vocal chords! He simply vanished. Like the beautiful woman standing outside restaurants here encouraging you inside who vanish the moment you walk through the entrance.
So there’s the trick folks! If the motorcycle taxi drivers of downtown won’t leave you alone, tell them you’re local.
Just one of the many benefits of being a local in Asia’s most fascinating city!
Footnote: Apologies for the slow posting of late – blame it on a lingering dose of flu, overwhelming amount of work and four days in Bangkok. More to come soon, including Part 3 of Motorcycle Diaries….