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Xe-Om Diaries

October 26, 2009

What happened when two westerners hit the streets to become xe om drivers for a day? They learned not to quit their day jobs.

Chilling with the competition

Chilling with the competition

As two western journalists do, we decided to research the public transportation industry in Saigon to find out employment opportunities for foreigners, how to get started and where to find potential clients to build up business.

I Am Will, Your Xe Om Driver

Ever since I’d arrived in Vietnam (a grand total of twelve months ago) I’d noticed a particular niche market. What would happen if a frail-looking white boy took to the streets offering rides to all the tourists walking around? It was a question that had nagged at me for a while, always rearing its ugly head each time I took a ride with the men in blue jackets.

Then came the day. My assignment – find out what it’s like to be a xe om driver and, if you can, try to make more money than Nathaniel “Chet” Liedl. So I started out the day scoping out the competition by taking a few rides myself (or, more truthfully, getting to work after having my own motorbike repossessed by the authorities).

Early impressions were that this would be easy. I speak better English than this guy, I thought, as he began to litter the streets with fluid from his mouth and nose. I’m maybe a little more presentable, too. So we’re off, out of the starting blocks and hitting the streets. My steed? A sleek silver Yamaha Nouvo. An upper-hand, how many xe om drivers have this?

Location Scouting

My competitor gets a ride

My competitor gets a ride

A spot is chosen opposite Allez Boo and my comments book (any good xe om must have one) is out in force. I have a single entry forged from the imagination of my editor. She writes: “He didn’t know where to go, but was patient enough to look at the map.”

With a comment as endearing as this, how could I fail?

Standing alongside my muscled brute of a competitor, I suddenly realised I’m going to have to hustle like there’s no tomorrow. A tourist bus rolls in from Phnom Penh, to which I welcome two newly arrived Americans with ferocious enthusiasm.

“Where you wanna go?” I scream, my voice retorting to a freakish caterwaul. “Nowhere with you,” they reply. That hurt.

Soon after, the freak show that had been congregating around us began to play out their sordid games. I’m fooled into taking a xe om driver masquerading as a customer to Ben Thanh Market only to have him scream at me to stop 15m down the road. Another person asks me where my blue jacket and insignia is to which I point hastily at my home-made label reading, “Hello, my name is Phuc, how can I help you today?” The first few hours go by without any takers.

Time for relocation opposite Go2. The sun’s beating down and the boredom’s excruciating. Suddenly the Sozo cookie lady walks by, I give her the old English charm and I’m in. I’ve got my first ride and I’m elated. I whisk her off and deliver her back at Sozo’s door. I’m beaming like the chivalrous knight who delivered his damsel two minutes down the road. I have VND5,000 in my pocket and I rub it in Chet’s face.

The rest of the day, however, plays out like time in purgatory. I take a rather plucky young English journalist out to Phu My Hung (for free as something to do), almost perishing in the path of an oncoming truck. Later I return to the same spot only to engage in long and tiresome conversations with shoe sellers, sunglasses salesmen and hookers. This gig isn’t so sweet. A seven-hour day and only VND5,000 to show for it. Then it’s home time and I’m left to reflect on the day and my loss to Saigon’s “premier English-speaking xe om” Chet. But not all is lost as a dream has finally been lived and it’s not the untapped goldmine I thought possible.

My final advice to any half-interested motorcycle entrepreneur? Trim your nails and don’t quit your day job. The boys in blue have it covered.

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