Nearly all the xe dap tho (bicycle taxi and delivery) drivers in Hue City, which is Vietnam’s imperial capital tucked away in the central province of Thua Thien-Hue, have switched to other jobs, except for a select few.
To many visitors, particularly foreigners, the sight of the elderly men riding worn-out bicycles with a passenger or a load of goods in the back seat is imbued with memories.
The drivers, often seen waiting for passengers at the city’s hallmarks including Dong Ba Market and Truong Tien Bridge, are a perfect match for the tranquil and cozy ambience for which the touristic town is famous.
Seated behind the drivers, passengers can relish an air of nostalgia away from the hustle and bustle while admiring the scenery around the town.
Taxing yet rewarding job
Among the reminiscent, daily fixtures is Ton That Tam, who has been on the job for 40 years.
Seated on his worn-out bicycle on the path leading to Trang Tien Bridge, the 70-year-old is quick to respond to any potential hailer, signaling to offer his service at a nod.
Next to him is his old-fashioned bike, his long-time companion that cost quite a fortune when it was new.
In the guise of a tourist, I asked the old man to drive him around the town for VND200,000 (US$8.6).
Tam pushed his bike for momentum for a while before briskly mounting the saddle.
Despite his old age, he pedaled almost effortlessly around, except for uphill climbs when he asked the passenger to travel on foot instead.
The bubbly, talkative man did not mind lending a personal touch to his ride, treating his customer to all kinds of tidbits, including why he has stuck to this century-old trade.
He claimed direct descent from the Nguyen Dynasty, Vietnam’s last monarchy who reigned during the 19th and early 20th centuries. His tie seems more persuasive with his full and middle names, which are typical of those carried by the royal family members.
Tam shared he has gone through ups and downs during the 40 years working gig after gig on the bike.
There were times when he even doubted he could survive.
In a struggle to make ends meet, he borrowed money to buy a bicycle and work as a driver, he recalled.
“The classy Thong Nhat bike was quite a fortune back then. Getting around town on a bike taxi was once the favorite of passengers,” he wistfully recalled, referring to the brand of his bicycle.
“Doing the xe dap tho job could mean easy cash, with money constantly rolling in at the time.”
The veteran driver also revealed multiple occasions when he received several times as much as the ride fares from generous passengers.
On one such instance, he was hailed by a heavily-built Western man and received VND200,000, a handsome sum then, in remuneration for a short-distance ride.
What is special is that the foreign visitor, not Tam, was the driver.
It all began when the senior driver struggled in vain to get his bike moving with his burly customer seated behind.
The customer signaled Tam to move to the back seat and quickly pedaled to the destination.
“Life is full of unexpected things. The bike may look plain, but it never ceases to amaze many,” the seasoned driver noted, adding the pluses of getting around on a bike taxi include refreshing draughts of air and reminiscent experiences of the olden days.
Past its prime
According to stories from drivers and locals, the xe dap tho trade saw its heyday decades ago.
Back in the 1980s, when traffic remained light and people relied on xe lam (three-wheeled taxis) and xich lo (cyclos), xe dap tho was the form of bike taxi most prevalent amongst local commuters.
Nguyen Van Khai, Tam’s colleague who mostly operates at Dong Ba Market, revealed earnings for diligent bikers would allow them to buy half a mace (about two grams) of gold at that time.
“One was able to purchase a plot of land with a few maces of gold,” Khai reminiscently recounted.
“The job offered us the stability of decent income compared to others.”
The popularity of the job began to wane as more residents owned a bicycle.
As the cycle of poverty was broken and lives improved, local residents bought motorbikes which quickly began to make deep inroads into the community.
As their incomes plummet, only Tam and Khai and a dozen of their colleagues grind on with the job for a living.
Handsome remuneration and tips from generous hailers are getting much harder to come by these days.
Phan Van Vui, 68, another xe dap tho driver operating mostly at Dong Ba Market, almost jumped with excitement at a job offer from a stall owner.
He eagerly nodded at the stall owner’s VND8,000 ($0.3) bargain for him to deliver a container of confectionery to a market nearby — his first ride in the whole morning.
In no time, the old man hit the road and returned to the same spot a few minutes later.
“I can’t afford a motorbike,” Vui explained when asked why he does not buy a motorbike for taxi services.
“I’m paid a mere VND3,000-10,000 [$0.1- 0.4] for each short ride, and receive VND15,000-20,000 [$0.6-0.9] for occasional longer rides.
“I’m an old man now.
“If I take out loans, I don’t know when I’m able to pay back.”
Despite their own daily grind, the silver-haired drivers encourage themselves to stick up through adversities and are ready to help the ones in need.
According to Nguyen Van Dan, a local xe om (motorbike taxi) driver, more than 10 people still work as xe dap tho drivers.
The drivers currently operate under Hue City’s Cyclo, Bike, and Taxi Association, aiming to bring the best services to domestic and international passengers, said Dan, who is on the organization’s steering board.
“No matter what their mode of travel is, all the member drivers hold on together and abide by the association rules,” he said.
“If a motorbike taxi driver gets a short-distance ride offer, he will refer it to his bicycle taxi counterpart.
“On the other way around, a bicycle taxi driver is willing to pass on a longer-distance ride to his motorbike taxi fellow member.”