“Hey, my baby, you wan’ moto’bike?”
Hanoians don’t like to walk and I can hardly blame them as the humidity is stifling and the sidewalks are less for pedestrians than for parking motorbikes. The public transportation isn’t great; it consists of crowded buses full of people smoking, although they only cost 3,000 to 5,000 VND (about .10 to .25 USD). But why ride a bus when you could ride a motorbike? It’s much more fun to take a xeom, which fortunately gather about every ten feet.
A xeom is a motorbike taxi. The word xeom means ‘hug’ because you sit pretty cozily, especially if you and your friend decide to take the same one. (Despite the affection indicated in the name, don’t actually hold onto the guy. It would be totally inappropriate and weird). My first payday is Monday and I’ll be celebrating later in the week by signing a long-term rental contract with Mr. Nguyen for a Honda Wave. In my month of xeom-commuting, however, I’ve learned a lot. Here are the essentials:
The xeom driver has probably been driving motorbikes his whole life. You may be huffing petrol, and that might eventually kill you, but you are not going to get in an accident. Don’t be alarmed if the driver decides that going up on the sidewalk is faster and easier than waiting in traffic and expect that he’ll casually turn into oncoming traffic. Everyone else does it too. Remember that if you get hurt, the driver probably also gets hurt. Pretend that the crappy eggshell helmet with the Manchester United logo he gives you will cushion your cranium so effectively that you’ll never notice your head hitting the pavement in the event that it does (the reality is quite different but don’t think about that). Slouch down a little bit to help center your weight, balance on your seatbones and put your hands on your knees or hold onto the back of the bike. If you still can’t relax, look up at the buildings, not at the traffic.
2. Put on a performance.
We bargain for almost everything here, including xeoms. Bargaining is a game, involving theatrics. According to my housemate, I shouldn’t ever pay more than 20,000 VND, which is true, but most foreigners seem to find it nearly impossible to get one for less than 30,000 VND. As I build up more vocabulary and become more comfortable saying numbers, I aim for lower and lower prices. I’ve found that if I entertain the xeom driver during the bargaining session, I’m more successful in naming the winning price. It helps to have an audience; usually there are between two and five xeoms gathered on a corner so while you’re bargaining with one guy, the others chime in and make fun of you, approving or disapproving of the price he eventually accepts. (He will only accept a price of which they approve).
Mr. Xeom:Moto’bike, Madame?
Me: (trying not to look too committed to the purchase) Vang. Yes. Toi muon di 176 Thai Ha. Bao nhieu? I need to go to 176 Thai Ha. How much?
Mr. Xeom:Nam muoi. Fifty.
Me: (Looking scandalized and throwing my hands up) Oi gioi oi! Oh my goodness!
Mr. Xeom and Other Xeoms: (Mimicking a girly voice and laughing) Oi gioi oi! Oi gioi oi!
Me:Hai muoi nam. Twenty-five.
Mr. Xeom: (Frowning with disgust. Other Xeoms chuckling) Hai muoi nam! Khong. Twenty-five! No. Bon muoi. Forty.
Me:Dat qua. Ba muoi. Too expensive. Thirty.
Mr. Xeom:Oi! Khong!
Me: (Starting to walk away). Khong. (Shrugging).
Mr. Xeom: (Beckoning with his hand, palm down). Madame! Madame! Ba muoi. Thirty.
3. Make friends with the driver.
Once you find one or two drivers you like and communicate with, you have to exchange phone numbers. I tried a couple of guys, who I decided I didn’t like very much, before I found Tien who conveniently lives near my new house. The first time I hired him, he talked the whole time in Vietnamese. I didn’t have a clue what he was saying so I’d say, “Vang. Ah, vang? Okay. Yes. Ah, yes? Okay” (which written out looks more like the transcript from an orgasm than a conversation). He seemed really nice and I’d rather have a chatty xeom, even if I don’t know what he’s saying, than a surly one. Over the past few weeks, my Vietnamese vocabulary has grown considerably, largely thanks to Tien. I’ve even managed to progress from pointing to motorbikes and saying, “xe may” to saying, “Toi thich xe may. I like motorbikes. Ban co thich xe may? Do you like motorbikes?” Actually, we’ve discussed my sisters, the weather, food, how many hospitals there are in my neighborhood, flowers and cows recently. Now, before you get carried away thinking that all xeoms are like this, keep in mind that Tien is the one who took me out for snails so my free Vietnamese lessons may stem more from the flirtation than the fact that he’s a xeom. Whatever. He’s darling and the crush part of the transaction makes him exceptionally reliable. Plus, I’m learning Vietnamese.
4. Get a mask and a helmet.
If you’re doing this a lot, it’s worth it to have your own helmet because the ones the xeoms have are pretty thin and useless. Vietnam recently decided that helmets were compulsory but they don’t regulate helmet safety. (Also, kids don’t wear helmets but adults do). Also, a motorcycle mask makes a world of difference if you’re riding in the traffic everyday, especially during rush hour.
*Usually the xeoms beckon you with their palms down, waving their hands toward them, saying, “Motorbike?” or “Xeom?” or “Madame, motorbike?” Once, however, I was walking along in the most touristy section of the Old Quarter and a young guy sitting on his bike reached out touched my arm and said, “Hey, my baby, you wan’ moto’bike?” It was probably the extent of his English, likely picked up from an American movie, but I thought is was hilarious. Unfortunately for him, his baby did not want to be charged an exorbitant price to take a xeom from the most touristy part of the city.