How to take a motorbike taxi and pay the right price without getting ripped off
As a tourist or expat living in Vietnam you'll get used to hearing "xe om" (motorbike taxi) guys call for you - by yelling "You!" - at every street corner offering to take you places you probably don't want to go and otherwise offering you drugs and/or prostitutes. And if you're here alone while in Vietnam then it will often make sense (financially) for you to take a xe om instead of a regular tax. If you're with at least two other friends then it makes sense to take a regular taxi instead.
Most people in Vietnam nowadays have their own motorbike so they don't need to take a taxi, whether two- or four-wheeled, but when they do they - even they! - have to haggle with the xe om driver over the price.
How to get a sense of how much it costs to ride a xe om / motorbike taxi?
When trying to figure out a price for a motorbike taxi, keep in mind at least two things. The first is that it should cost about half as much as a regular taxi. The motorbike is not air conditioned and you don't have comfortable seats even though a xe om can slip through traffic quicker (OTOH a taxi will go faster on a clear straightaway). If a regular taxi cost around 12,000 VND/km then a motorbike taxi should be about half that or around 5000 or 6000 VND per kilometer. The glaring difference of course is that a taxi has a meter (if it doesn't, get out immediately!) so you know exactly how far you're traveling whereas the motor bike taxi does not have a meter so you have to kind of gas how far you're traveling and so does he.
Next, to know how much half of the taxi fare is, take a taxi first! You can take the same route by regular taxi once so you know how much that would cost and the halve it. Amazing.
Another thing to keep in mind is if you're a fat Westerner then you probably weigh three times as much as a normal Vietnamese person and even though xe oms don't charge by weight don't be surprised if they take this into account when calculating a price for your journey.
- Make sure the price is clearly agreed upon before you get on the bike. Otherwise there will be an argument when you reach the destination.
- Befriend a local driver near your house and get his mobile phone number (because they all have cell phones). And then anytime you need a trusty driver you can call him up and he will take you home. If you're too drunk to find your way home this can be helpful.
- Another thing to know ahead of time is that often people in Vietnam don't use maps. Instead they will ask around to get the general direction and then when they get closer they will ask again and eventually they will find the place. But they may get lost a few times on the way and hopefully it's not further than they thought in which case they'll bug you for more money. Not that it's your fault.
- Have Google Maps on your smartphone and show them exactly where you want to go because they won't understand your Vietnamese pronunciation of street names. They are much more likely to recognize the street name by seeing it written down rather than hearing you try to pronounce it. This applies to regular taxis as well though. One day we'll all have Androids and this will no longer be an issue.
- If you don't have a map you can also try writing down the name even without the accent marks (called diacritics). It's not your fault that Vietnamese is hard to pronounce at first. P.S. Learning Vietnamese, while difficult compared to learning Spanish, is definitely possible.
- As always when haggling on prices, be prepared to refuse and walk away. This means you should keep in mind the locations of a few other motor bike taxi drivers in case this one says no. So you might walk past the first one you see and not start bartering until the next one you see. Often times they won't agree to take your price until you turn your back to them. Practice showing people your back side a few times.
At the end of the day, though, a lot of xe om drivers outside the touristy areas are trying to earn a meek living and aren't just scheming to rip you off. Know what the approximate going rate is, be prepared to pay it, and don't get upset if he (and sometimes, though very rarely, she) tries to charge a 20% premium for having to make sense of the noises coming out of your mouth or to carry your bonus hundred pounds of weight. Just so long as you're not paying what it would cost to take a taxi.
And there's always the bus. For only 4000 VND you can cross the city in style.