Motorbike Melee: Changes to the Xe Ôm Way of Life

Turner, S., and Ngô Thúy Hạnh, 2019. Contesting socialist state visions for modern mobilities: Informal motorbike taxi drivers’ struggles and strategies on Hanoi’s streets, Vietnam. International Development Planning Review, 41 (1), 43-61.

Vietnam’s transition into a rapidly developing country after the initiation of Đổi Mới (economic renovation) in the mid-1980s, resulted in a dramatic increase in motorbike use. While cyclos (trishaws) had formally been the main informal means of transportation for those needing to move around the city, the xe ôm overtook cyclos in the mid-1990s when city authorities banned cyclos (except for tourism in the city’s centre).

Now, in Vietnam’s capital Hanoi, the municipal government is considering banning motorbikes from downtown streets by 2030. This, in a city of about five million motorbikes and half a million cars. The government considers cars as the ultimate sign of modernity and mobility, while motorbikes are positioned as obstructing traffic flows, polluting, and inefficient. This revanchist vision will directly impact the livelihoods of thousands of informal transport providers, especially xe ôm. Already, this staple profession for rural-urban migrants is under pressure, as urban space use is increasingly restricted. Based on interviews and participant observation with xe ôm drivers, recent app-based competitors, and customers, this projects explores how this state imaginary stratifies the daily mobilities of Hanoi’s residents. Official access to streets and sidewalks (where xe ôm drivers wait for customers) is increasingly delineated according to factors such as economic and social positioning. Nonetheless, xe ôm drivers have their own everyday politics and tactics to reshape possible mobilities. This project thus investigates how mobility and everyday urbanism are framed, produced, and reworked in a post-socialist context undergoing profound socio-economic changes.

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‘Traditional’ xe ôm in Hanoi

The New Competitors

GrabBike Driver in Hanoi                                  UberMoto Driver in Hanoi

In recent years, xe ôm have witnessed an influx of private companies making a name for themselves in the xe ôm market. To date, the primary companies are GrabBike, UberMOTO (however GrabBike then bought out UberMoto in early 2017) and Xe Om Than Thein (Friendly Xe Om). Whereas the classic or traditional xe ôm is an informal worker, independent of any company, workers for these new competitors are linked to company brand names and financial systems. Moreover, GrabBike is similar to its car-counterpart in that customers request a ride through the company’s mobile app. While this is argued to increase security on both sides of the transaction, exclusion based on lack of ownership of a smart phone renders many traditional xe ôm drivers at a potential disadvantage.

What is GrabBike?

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GrabBike was founded in 2014 by Grab, a Malaysian company. This on-demand taxi company touts itself as “the first service of its kind ever in the world” and as the only service in Vietnam that offers the “freedom to explore every corner of the city” (Osborne, 2017; GrabBike, 2017). Drivers working for this company require a motorbike license, a bike, and a smartphone that facilitates customer-to-driver interaction through the company’s application. Today, Grab (not just GrabBike) is one of Southeast Asia’s most dominant, if not the biggest, ride-hailing services.

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