As hardly any locals actually walk to get from place to place, the main modes of transportation in Vietnam are two-wheeled. Bicycles, called xe dap (vehicle which you pedal) or xe hai banh (vehicle with two wheels), are still commonly used, but today’s preferred means of transportation is motorbikes, referred to by the old crowd as xe honda (Honda vehicle, from back in the day when all the bikes were made by Honda) or by others as xe may (vehicle with an engine). In 2007 the Vietnamese government passed a law requiring all motorbike riders and passengers to wear helmets. Since then, trying to navigate very densely populated cities such as Ho Chi Minh has been like wading through a sea of shiny bobbing plastic spheres.
Besides an abundance of taxis for the wealthier crowd, those without motorbikes of their own get around by motorbike taxis, or xe om (hugging vehicle). “Om,” “to hug,” refers to the fact that while riding on the back of someone’s motorbike, it is wise to hug their waist for safety as they take you where you need to go. In cities like Ho Chi Minh all one needs to do to get a xe om is walk to any street corner, approach a man who seems like he is chilling on his parked motorbike, and stand idly by his side. He will be ready to service you immediately, especially if you are or seem foreign. (This tactic can prove problematic, especially when men are actually just chilling on street corners.) In smaller cities often the only way to find a xe om is by walking the length of a block and looking mildly curious at idle men, who will sometimes, whether actual xe om drivers or not, ask you if you’re looking for a motorbike, and take you where you need to go. The locals are attuned to the regular hangout cafes and street corners of xe om drivers, so asking around is also helpful, though hugely inefficient because everyone has a different go-to guy.
For a socialist republic, Vietnam’s public transportation system is a surprisingly capitalist enterprise. A very apparent Westerner will not be cut any slack in Ho Chi Minh. For a local, a fifteen minute xe om ride from one part of downtown to another costs between 10,000 and 15,000 Vietnamese dong (roughly 60 cents to 1 USD); it costs a foreigner anywhere from 30,000 VDN to100,000. Tourism has reached such great heights in Ho Chi Minh that everyone is out to exploit the foreigners. The popular metered taxi company in Vietnam is Mai Linh Taxi. On their meter, a ride from the Ho Chi Minh airport to the center city between Districts 1 and 3 in early July was around 50,000 VDN. My older sister, unaware of the perils of taxi tourist traps, came to visit me this summer while I was in Ho Chi Minh and received a ride from a random man driving a beat-up, unmetered “taxi.” She paid five times that amount.
Despite the convenience of taking metered taxis, no one can deny the exhilarating feeling of riding on the back of a motorbike on a hot day, helmet stuck to hair and arms burnt from the beating sun. The feeling is simply incomparable. One of the truly amazing things about xe om, and motorbikes in general, is the shit people can carry. On my last night in Da Nang, a city in central Vietnam, I was meant to catch a plane back to Ho Chi Minh, and my taxi was nowhere in sight. Da Nang taxis, I had been told, were notoriously inefficient and sometimes simply would never arrive. The latter seemed to be the case in my particular situation. Two friends of mine, third year students at the Polytechnic University, told me not to worry; we would manage. After a significant amount of juggling and rearranging, a four-person caravan bearing me, another friend, and four pieces of my luggage, set off on the road to Da Nang Airport. Vu, a twenty year-old friend of a friend, who I had only met twice, giddily rode with one hand resting behind him on my luggage and one hand on the gas. I could barely see him from behind the piles of stuff I was carrying on my personal “xe om” but as we made our way to my send-off, I could always feel him hovering somewhere at the back of our entourage, chilling, smiling, sailing along.