Many drivers hit back as modern ride-hailing services like Grab have expanded into the traditional turf.

It’s 10 a.m. at My Dinh Bus Station, less than a kilometer away from the Hanoi office of ride-hailing company Grab.

A middle-aged security guard sprinted toward a crowd of Grab drivers, all in the now recognizable green uniforms.

“Go away!” he shouted, a bamboo pipe in his hand.

The crowds turned their head. The Grab drivers slowly dispersed.

But about ten minutes later, more Grab motorbikes came and formed even a bigger crowd, their eyes on the menacing guard and his primitive weapon.

The guard did not like this part of his job. “I’m sick of having to chase them away all the time,” he said loudly, as if he were yelling at the green colony of drivers. “They are like water ferns. You throw a stone and they break up for a while. Then they just come right back.”

The angry xe om drivers nearby would not use such an poetic allegory. Their motorbike taxi services had for a long time allowed them to have a fluctuating but stable source of income, despite the recent rise of taxi cabs. But ride-hailing firms started to move into their territory a couple of years ago and quickly make inroads.

As the trepidation of losing their turf to the younger, mobile phone-wielding rivals grows, so does the disdain.

“They are mostly students, young and strong, why don’t they get another job?” a middle-aged xe om driver said, surrounded by four others.

In the media, the man and his self-employed peers would be referred to as “traditional” drivers, as opposed to the new army of presumably tech-savvy drivers.

That morning, they did not state what their preferred title was. They only insisted anonymity due to the complexity of the issues.

To call it complex would be an understatement.

The situation at My Dinh Bus Station, and across the city, felt like a stalemate, but a potentially violent one. A cold war on the verge of becoming a real war.

Every day from early morning to midnight, the security guards, the xe om drivers, the Grab motorbikes play the same three-way tug-of-war: the guards run and shout in vain, which riles up the restive xe om drivers, who watch their GrabBike rivals check their phones and pick up passengers from a reasonable distance.

The station doesn’t allow Grab drivers to enter and pick up their passengers, unlike the traditional xe om drivers who pay a monthly fee of $50-100.

“Their company hasn’t talked to us, so we can’t let them into the station or park here on the street,” a security guard said.

Even the police are cautious in this gray area. Chu Van Binh, a police officer overseeing the station, said illegal parking would be punished by a fine up to $50. But he said there’s some leeway for motorbike taxi drivers, including Grab crew, because they “are only trying to make a living.”

Around Southeast Asia, tension and confusion are palpable.

In March 2016, an estimated 10,000 members of Indonesian Land Transportation Drivers Associated protested against ride-hailing apps, with demonstrators blocking major roads and highways and attacking other taxis that were not taking part. The authorities, nevertheless, rejected calls to ban ride-hailing apps, saying they were part of Indonesia’s growing digital economy.

Meanwhile, Thailand banned GrabBike in May for fear of creating unfair competition and jeopardizing security, safety and local transport systems. The Philippines refuses to let UberMOTO or GrabBike operate as bikes and motorcycles are illegal mode of public transportation.

Officials in Vietnam, while supporting technology-based services, have blamed Grab and Uber for choking up Saigon’s streets. In June, the Ministry of Transport stopped licensing new ride-hailing services, for fear of their pressure on traffic infrastructure.

There’s also proof suggesting the rivalry between different camps of drivers may have already come to a head in Vietnam.

Recent social media accounts and online videos have turned the public attention to several heated clashes between them.

This June, gun shots were heard in an incident at the Western Region Bus Station in Ho Chi Minh City. A group of GrabBike drivers protested because they were not allowed to enter the bus station, sparking a fight. Police had to fire shots to end the violence and investigated four drivers.

When asked about conflicts like these, Nguyen Thu An, director of communications at Grab Vietnam, said the company is reaching out to the authorities for a solution.

Since entering the Vietnamese market, Grab has focused on resolving the enduring conflicts by converting traditional drivers to join its network, but "not every driver agrees," An said in an email.

There have been over 100 assault cases reported to Grab Vietnam since 2014 and nearly 50 cases within the first six months of 2017.

Grab Vietnam says its drivers are covered by accident insurance with a compensation payout of up to $4,400, in addition to unspecified “financial and mental support.” It doesn’t disclose any recorded claims.

It also urges its drivers to report to authority, and most tellingly, participate in the company's self-defense classes.

In the meantime, Grab drivers try everything they can to minimize the risk of a clash. At least three Grab drivers who talked to VnExpress International confirmed that they did not feel safe wearing the green jackets with the logo.

Some Grab drivers stick together outside bus station, saying they feel more confident in a group. “I have some bros so if there’s any bullying, they’ll be there for me,” said a 50-year-old Grab driver at My Dinh, who asked not to be named.

Just across the right side of the bus station, an isolated group seemed to have the best of both worlds. Hai, in the uniform of a xe om collective named Truong Sa and the helmet of GrabBike, which could be bought easily online, appeared more at ease than most. “I work for both sides,” he said with a smile, even though a safety whistle on his necklace somewhat belied his calm tone.

Hai, a motorbike taxi driver of Truong Sa, talking to his colleague, who also works for a collective named 'Friendly Xe Om'.

Other drivers chose to completely stay away from the chaos.

“I won’t go near the entrance,” says Thang, a 29-year-old Grab driver who works around seven hours a day. “That’s not our territory. The security guard may just tell us to beat it, but the xe oms will hit us.”

Yet these tales are not stopping new recruits. One morning at Grab Hanoi’s office, a fresh batch of drivers were eager to complete their paperwork. It only took 45 minutes, a driver’s license, motorbike registration and insurance to join team Grab.

Grab Vietnam, unlike its main rival Uber, was legally recognized quite early in the game. While it has not disclosed its market share, its representative Lim Yen Hock has said it is the market leader in the motorbike segment, beating its rival Uber who now has over 20,000 drivers. Both companies also provide car services.

On its website, Grab Vietnam says a motorbike driver may earn around $350-440 per month, if they work 48 hours per week.

However, social media accounts and several drivers, including Thang, said they are earning less and less, now that they have to compete with their own peers in the same network.

Thang said these days he usually earns only $6-10, using the Grab app alone. His solution: he also moonlights as a self-employed driver who picks up random passengers on the street, a practice banned in Grab’s policy.  

“If there’s a passenger on the street, why shouldn’t I pick them?” Thang said, acknowledging that this extra work means risks of getting sacked by Grab and clashing with xe om drivers.

An, the spokesperson for Grab Vietnam, has strongly opposed the practice, threatening punishment. “The demand for app-based ride-hailing service is increasing and enough to guarantee an income for our driving partners.”

Such promises of high income have not worked on many xe om drivers.

“The rates they can offer are too low and we can’t accept them,” a middle-aged xe om driver at My Dinh explained why he’s not joining Grab. It is believed that many other old drivers have also been discouraged by technical requirements.

Several of VnExpress readers, amid the growing concerns, have defended the app-based services for their cheap prices.

“I’m a customer. I pick the service that doesn’t overcharge and bully its drivers,” reads a comment from Hoang Tuan Kiet, among dozens of similar ones.

“Gradually, Grab will replace traditional xe om drivers," Kiet wrote in a comment upvoted by many readers.

Oliver Massmann, partner at Duane Morris and a respected expert in commercial law in Vietnam, has been watching the ride-hailing market closely.

“For Grab, I understand that they create more jobs, provide cheaper services to customers, so there is no such thing called 'unfair' competition here.” Massmann wrote in an email.

The expert said the country needs “a more 'open' legal framework so that it can adapt with daily changes of technology and science.”

“The chance for GrabBike and UberMOTO to be halted in Vietnam is quite small,” he said. “But if Grab or Uber cannot manage their drivers and incidents like robbing, overcharging, traffic... are still increasing, we cannot say anything for sure.”


Quynh Trang

By Trang Bui