While taxis are fairly cheap in Vietnam, they’ll add up quickly if you rely on them too often – especially for solo travelers. If you want to get around like a local, you need to learn how to ride a xe ôm. Here are some tips and tricks to keep you safe and on budget.
Literally translated, the phrase “xe ôm” means motorbike hug, but most people just say “motorbike taxi.” They’ve been the go-to mode of cheap transportation on Vietnam’s busy streets for many decades, and many drivers have been sitting in the exact same spot for decades. Sometimes they have a sign that says “xe ôm” hanging off their bike, but even if they don’t, you’ll know who they are because they’ll call out to you: “My friend! Xe ôm?”
Xe ôm drivers have seen the ebb and flow of change in Vietnam from a ground level view, so they know all the best routes, plus the major hotels and tourist destinations. Unfortunately however, they also know how to scam tourists, often driving foreigners around in confusing circles and then demanding more money upon arrival. Not all xe ôm drivers are cheats, but the bad ones tend to hang around touristy areas. Here are some tips and tricks to keep you out of trouble.
This is by far the most important rule. Always agree on a price before you get on the motorbike. A loose rule of thumb is 10,000–15,000 VND ($0.50–0.70 USD) per kilometer, so try to know in advance how far you’re going. If you’re a foreigner and can’t speak any Vietnamese, they’ll likely start with a price that’s at least double what a local would pay. You should expect to pay more – many call it the Foreigner Tax – but still barter as hard as you can. You’ll save a lot of money in Vietnam if you can master the art of bartering. For newbies, the trick is to always be ready to walk away. Then you’ll quickly find out what their time is actually worth.
Many drivers will lie and say they know your hotel/restaurant/destination, when in fact they only have a vague idea at best. What often happens is the driver will start asking other drivers as soon as you’re on the road. Xe ôm drivers pride themselves on knowing their area, so if they don’t know where to go, they’ll just lie and try to figure it out en route – and some will even try to charge you more because they got lost. Have a map with you just in case, and always make sure they agree on a price beforehand.
Ride-hailing apps have revolutionized the xe ôm business in Vietnam. While there are some who still rely on the old-fashioned method of waiting in a spot where people will need them, most drivers use apps these days – and Grab is the undisputed champion. Even if you’ll only be staying in Vietnam for a couple of days, we highly recommend you download their app. The benefits are definitely worth it: You can report your driver if anything goes wrong; the price is quoted before your trip; they pick you up wherever you are; and they’re less likely to get lost, because the app shows them the best route to take. Locals all use ride-hailing apps, and so should you.
Trust us, we know how amazing a nighttime motorbike ride is in Vietnam – the cool air, the quiet streets – but that’s also when the creepiest drivers come out to work their scams. We won’t go into all the horrible details, but just know that some xe ôm drivers have taken advantage of their intoxicated passengers late at night. Taxis aren’t blameless either, but they’re a bit safer. The safest way, however, is you use a ride-hailing app. That’s what we use when we go out.