But exorbitant overheads in recent times have left them fearing for their job as never before.

Facing relentless competition from ride-hailing firms, traditional motorbike taxi drivers have grappled to maintain their customer base as the apps have been local residents’ first choice for transportation over recent years.

Many conventional motorbike taxi drivers have had an even particularly harder time securing customers and found it increasingly difficult to make a livable wage in recent months due to exorbitant fees and expenses.

Their rivals, tech-based motorbike taxi drivers, however, have not fared much better, with many working extra hard and with extended hours to boost the family income.

For the past several months, they have found themselves fixated on the apps for signals of new rides and scooting along the tree-lined boulevards and winding alleys of the city for up to 15 hours each day from the usual 10.

Shaky finance is a grim reality that now casts its shadow on traditional and tech-based drivers alike.

The tech-based drivers’ presence can be felt immediately in urban areas throughout Hanoi, where public landscapes are filled with motorbike riders in brightly-colored uniforms that represent the brand they are working for.

As observed by Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper reporters, however, a few drivers were spotted these days along the sidewalks on Tay Son Street, Dong Da District, one of the capital city’s driver hotspots.

Nguyen Van Bang, one of the few ride-hailing drivers spotted on site, already had his share of a shrinking customer base and fiercer competition as a new wave of motorbike cabbies have moved onto the scene, higher tax rates, and greater stress with the job he has taken for four years.

“I waited here for hours with no new ride requests,” he said over a drained glass of iced tea while still fixing his eyes on his smartphone.

By 4:30 pm that day, the cabbie, who left his hometown and now lives in a studio in Thanh Tri District in Hanoi, managed to secure only two rides as he started late.

He earned a total of VND51,781 (US$2.2) after deducting an operational fee of VND18,818 ($0.8) for the platform owner.

Bang shared when he first joined a few years ago, the job provided him with a good earning thanks to a steadier stream of customers and lower app-use fees and tax rates imposed by the ride-hailing firm.

“I had the app on for only eight to 10 hours each day and treated myself to one day off each week then, and didn’t have to wait this long for new gigs to pop up,” he said.

Nguyen Van Bang, in the uniform of multi-service platform Grab, expresses concerns about his livelihood as a motorbike taxi driver operating in Hanoi, Vietnam. Photo: Tam Le/ Tuoi Tre.

Nguyen Van Bang, in the uniform of multi-service platform Grab, expresses concerns about his livelihood as a motorbike taxi driver operating in Hanoi, Vietnam. Photo: Tam Le / Tuoi Tre

Bang is by no means an isolated case.

Nguyen Van Manh, from the north-central province of Nghe An, approximately 330 kilometers from Hanoi, was lying on top of his motorbike while waiting for a new ride-hailing gig.

Two years ago, he quit his teaching job due to meager pay before switching to app-based motorbike driving.

According to Manh, things took a turn for the worse with intermittent novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreaks in Vietnam that began in March.

As the hour-long wait ended up fruitless, he even scooted around with an eye for passengers.

For his latest ride, out of the VND13,000 ($0.6) he received from the passenger, the fare accounted for VND12,000 ($0.5), with the platform fee being VND1,000 ($0.04) and app-use fee and tax rate VND3,273 ($0.1).  

His daily bills include around VND100,000 ($4.3) for food and another VND70,000 ($3) for gas.

Manh said he would go home empty-handed on days when he has a flat tire or falls prey to nail droppers.

Other overheads include regular lubricant change and maintenance that may run up to VND2 million ($86) every six months, and a couple of million dong (VND1 million is around $43) in monthly studio rent.  

“I managed to send my wife back home VND9-10 million [$389-432] each month some years ago, but can now scrape up only VND5-7 million [$216-302] a month at best,” Manh said with a sigh.

The man talked about how his day-to-day routine is very different now from the past, currently working up to around 15 hours a day, from 8:00 am to 11:00 pm instead of the usual 12-hour workdays.

Around 10:00 pm the same day, Le Xuan Quan, hailing from the north-central province of Thanh Hoa, was spotted waiting patiently for new app-based gigs.

He quit his job at an electronic firm over few orders before starting to work as a driver for a tech-based ride-hailing company more than two years ago to provide for his wife and young children at home. 

Quan thinks one important factor is the company’s support for its partners’ welfare.

“Faced with relentless competition, we drivers deserve support from the company,” he said, adding he has turned off the app for two days to voice his protest against the recent hike in fees and tax rates.

Nguyen Minh Hang, Quan’s wife, shared she quit her sewing job to stay home and look after their baby, relying entirely on her husband’s pay to cover grocery bills, tuition, and milk for their two kids.

The concerns were also shared by Quan’s colleagues in Ho Chi Minh City, who said they have no choice but to work harder to offset the extra costs.  

Tuan, who insists on going by his first name only, said that in contrast to public opinion, tech-based motorbike taxi drivers are earning money at the cost of their health.

“Honestly speaking, we don’t make any profits or even suffer losses for certain gigs given traffic congestion and vehicle damage,” he revealed.

‘Lonely,’ independent xe om – conventional motorbike taxi drivers – are even in more serious financial troubles over fierce competition with their tech-based counterparts for customers.

“There are often in disputes and confrontations. We’re in trouble and they’re also struggling,” said Tran Van Chi, a xe om driver who usually waits for passengers on a section of Truong Chinh Street near An Suong Intersection in District 12, Ho Chi Minh City.

The 56-year-old wistfully recounted the well-paid rides during his 20-year long career as an independent xe om driver.

“There’re days when we find no customers, many of us are plunged into debts,” Chi shared.

“Tech-based cabbies, mostly made up of young go-getters, can exert themselves to the limit, while old traditional drivers like us are just trying to get by without any hope of changing jobs.”

Damage-prone bikes

Both traditional and tech-based drivers complain their bikes, which vary from VND25 million ($1,081) to VND40 million ($1,729) apiece for new purchases, get run-down quickly.

As passengers tend to ride with drivers whose bikes boast a moderately classy look, riders must make sure their bikes – their ‘fishing rod’ – are kept in good condition.

While an average bike’s lifespan can reach 10 to 15 years, bikes used for ferrying passengers put on a dilapidated look after only three or four years in use.

“Many xe om drivers cannot even afford a new bike. It’s like we are grilling ourselves with our own fat,” Tran Van Chi noted.

Constant exposure to weather and arduous work also take a heavy toll on the drivers’ health.

“We cabbies tend to get sick after taking up the job for three or four years. The most common ailments are those related to air pollution, including respiratory and eye diseases,” Nguyen Van Thao, a traditional xe om driver, sadly shared.

“Road accidents? We keep reminding ourselves that we just had an extremely bad day.”

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