Operating at night, motorbike taxi drivers risk lives to survive

By Long Nguyen   August 19, 2020 | 05:00 am PT
Working in the wee hours to earn extra cash, motorbike taxi drivers find themselves under persistent threat of attack.

Nguyen Van Quyet, a Grab rider from northern Yen Bai Province, dropped a passenger in Hanoi’s Gia Lam District at around 2 a.m. on July 19. Stabbed and robbed by two assailants, the trip proved to be his last for the company.

"You can take whatever you want! Don’t kill me. I have a wife, two kids and old parents," Quyet told his perpetrators, who knifed him six times.

In tremendous pain, a shocked Quyet only regained consciousness after two days spent in a coma.

The 36-year-old is not alone in his plight.

In the last few years, dozens of motorbike taxi, or xe om drivers have been attacked or robbed late at night or in the early morning while plying their trade.

Grab drivers in Hanois Hoan Kiem District. Photo by Shutterstock/Julie Mayfeng.

Grab drivers in Hanoi's Hoan Kiem District. Photo by Shutterstock/Julie Mayfeng.

Many have faced severe attack, or have been killed while transporting nocturnal passengers, who turned evil in the blink of an eye.

One of the most formidable cases involved the death of 18-year-old driver Nguyen Cao Sang in Hanoi’s Bac Tu Liem District in September 2019. The poor student, hoping to support his family, was stabbed several times by two passengers who refused to pay for their ride.

In a Facebook group for Grab drivers in Hanoi, including 110,000 members, many have expressed their distress and anxiety over Sang’s story.

"Working at night means many customers could be either partygoers or drunks. Some are ill-behaved and refuse to pay," according to Nguyen Van Thanh, a Grab driver in Hanoi’s Long Bien District.

Last month, Thanh took a man from Gia Lam Bus Station to Cau Giay District. After the 16-kilometer ride, the customer revealed he had no money.

"He even yelled at me, so I had no choice but to accept the situation. He could have beaten me since we were in a quiet area in the middle of the night. Life comes first," Thanh recalled.

Remain on guard or quit

Amid fear and anxiety, drivers remain on constant alert to avoid tragedy.

An ideal coping mechanism is to refuse fares that are far-flung or in deserted areas.

Le Hoang Thanh Nghia, residing in Saigon’s District 11, said he always says no to night trips to suburban areas since "they could be a trap."

"I once took a drunk to Binh Tan District. He took my phone and fled down an alley. Lesson learnt," Nghia added.

In several Facebook groups for motorbike taxi drivers in Saigon and Hanoi, members update each other on risky locations to stay clear of and tips to identify a criminal.

"Based on my experience, in Hanoi, we should avoid areas under Vinh Tuy Bridge, the end of Lac Long Quan Street, Pham Hung Street, etc," Hanoian driver Nguyen Van Toan wrote, adding "the most dangerous hours are from 11 p.m. to 4 a.m."

Normally, canceling a trip hurts their acceptance ratings, which could help drivers earn extra and be prioritized by passengers.

"But a rating is nothing compared to my life," Toan said, adding he earns up to VND500,000 ($21.68) per night.

A driver waits for passengers in Hanoi. Photo by Shutterstock/Miroslaw Gierczyk.

A driver waits for passengers at night in Hanoi. Photo by Shutterstock/Miroslaw Gierczyk.

Many drivers do not want to take the risk and hurt their ratings, saying no to small hour custom.

"I used to work at night because it gave me an extra source of income, but after cases of violence were reported I no longer dare. I do not want to be robbed or murdered," said driver Nguyen Thanh Trung, 43, residing in Hanoi’s Hoang Mai District and working for Be, a domestic ride-sharing firm.

Trung, starting work at 3 p.m. and turning off the application at around 8 p.m., admitted he has earned less since he stopped taking night rides, "but safety comes first."

Hobson’s choice

Many drivers have little time or choice to be picky when it comes to work.

Nghia, a student at Ho Chi Minh City University of Technology, only has time for his part-time job in the evening, which earns him around VND400,000 ($17.34) per night.

"I feel sorry for drivers who were robbed and attacked. But I cannot stop working at night because I have no time to do anything else," he said.

With the Covid-19 pandemic having hit many local businesses, many unemployed workers have resorted to becoming motorbike taxi drivers.

"In this time, earning more money is a blessing, so I am okay with night rides, as long as I don’t venture to suspect areas," said Toan, a former employee at a paper-making firm fired in May due to Covid-19.

When the scorching summer hit Hanoi, many drivers avoided daytime trips with heavy traffic and opted for night time equivalents.

"It grew too hot during the day, so I stopped working from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Now I work from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. instead, which means no more baking sun," said Nguyen Van Dong, 49.

"The death of night drivers make me nervous, but this is my livelihood," he added.

Some ride-sharing firms have stepped up to protect employees by providing self-defense training classes.

But these firms see their drivers as partners, which means the companies do not have to pay their social and medical insurance.

Some provide an insurance package covering accidents during trips, which means if drivers are attacked after pressing the "finish" button on their phones, firms could refuse to pay out.

Vietnam’s ride-hailing market was the fourth largest in Southeast Asia last year behind Indonesia, Singapore and Thailand, according to a report by Google, Singaporean sovereign fund Temasek and U.S. management consultancy Bain.

ABI Research estimated the market at $1.1 billion last year and said it could rise to $4 billion by 2025.

But Quyet, after two weeks in the hospital, has decided to give up on his job.

"My husband is still obsessed by the attack, he will return to our hometown and find another job, and stop being a motorbike taxi driver," his partner said after her husband got discharged.

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