The other morning I waited at the end of my alley at my regular time for ten minutes thinking maybe my xe om driver doesn't "do" rain. I have developed a loyalty to him so I stayed put, trying not to be too conspicuous. I didn't want to attract the attention of the other local xe om drivers who hang out up and down the street. I almost caused a feeding frenzy earlier this week when my driver didn't show up and I was obviously in need of a lift.
Xe om literally means "hug vehicle" because you hop on the back of the moto and hang on. The name is not meant to be taken literally; such behaviour would definitely raise a few eyebrows. If necessary I reach behind and hold on to the bar behind the seat. Negotiation is the name of the game. It's always wise to get clear on the price before you climb aboard. The price is initially seriously inflated, especially if I am in the Old Quarter because they assume I am merely another tourist. This begins to change when I give them my address (what tourist would ever request to go there?) and start my negotations in Vietnamese. I generally know what it should cost and I can be stubborn!
The drivers are earthy characters. I won't say they are always sympathetic, but always human. However hard the bargaining is, the deal is sealed with an amused chuckle and a smile that acknowledges the game it ultimately is.
On Sunday night I had to use a new driver to get to my dinner destination. To avoid misunderstanding I showed him the address on Nguyen Thai Hoc. His chosen route seemed unorthodox to me, but I gave him the benefit of the doubt given that he's the local not me. Eventually though I realized we were indeed heading somewhere I did not intend to go. I pulled out the address again, waved it in his face and pointed in the other direction. Yeah, yeah he says, the University, on Nguyen Trai.
Okay, so my Vietnamese pronunciation isn't great and the street names sound similar, but it also appears that all the local xe om drivers know where the resident cash cow Tay (Westerner) lives and works. If I am not absolutely clear on my destination (and its pronunciation), chances are they will go on automatic pilot and take me to work - even if I have never met the driver before.
We went through a whole charade of asking for directions, me getting off the bike and threatening to jump ship, etc. Oi troi oi! Eventually I messaged my colleagues to tell them I was trapped on a stray xe om somewhere in Hanoi. I was saved when my Vietnamese colleague called and I stuck my phone to his ear for exact directions. As I hopped off the bike he tried to suggest (with a smile) that our agreed upon price was unfair given how long it took. Right!
The next morning I appeared at the end of my alleyway and my usual trustworthy driver was nowhere to be seen. Instead who showed up but the clueless one from the previous evening? I shook my head and my finger at him and he just grinned back at me. When it was clear I wasn't going to climb aboard again, two or three more xe om drivers pulled up. I had never seen them before but they were all saying the address of my university and my regular rate. It seems all of Vo Thi Sau knows my business. I would not give up my regular guy and tried to tell them as much. The scene got more complex when a woman emerged from a tea shop, crossed the street and started to scold the xe om drivers. It seems she was some kind of local merchant. I had never laid eyes on, but she knew the whole story. I guess she has been watching me every morning. The streets have eyes.
Just when I feeling the drama was getting a bit much, I saw my regular driver crossing the street to my rescue.
It's a weird relationship I have with him. I don't know his name and have never really talked to him. I just call him "anh", older brother. The price has long ago been negotiated so I don't have to go through this whole game every morning. I think I may be slightly overpaying him, but only slightly, and by a margin that is trivial by our standards. What I gain is relative safety (a very cool and cautious driver), and a wordless sympatico. Is it a mutual respect, or just opportunity and convenience? I don't really know and I suppose it doesn't matter, but I like to think my show of loyalty is worth something.
It turns out he does "do" rain and he pulls up after a couple minutes in his usual worn white cap and faint smile. I hop on and without a word we begins the long weave through the traffic to the university.
P.S. This week I learned his name is Binh. He and his family live down the alleyway directly behind my house.