HANOI, Vietnam (AP) – Nguyen Kim Lan made a decent living commuting with customers around town on his Honda motorcycle. But its customer base has shrunk as tech-savvy young Vietnamese increasingly use ridesharing apps like Uber and Grab to call cheaper and safer motorcycle taxis.
The expansion of limousine services across Southeast Asia is disrupting traditional motorcycle taxi services which are a key source of informal work for people like Lan. In some cases, the drivers of the Xe Om, or motorcycle taxi, express their anger by attacking new competitors.
Lan is just frustrated. He says his income has fallen to just 20% to 30% of what it used to be.
“Today my frequent customers have all booked Grab and Uber so they don’t come here anymore,” said Lan, 62, as he waited for customers at an intersection in downtown Hanoi.
“Before, office workers used to come here after work. Now they just sit in their desks and get picked up at the door,” he said.
As elsewhere in the region, motorcycles are Vietnam’s main form of transportation, especially in the capital Hanoi and the southern commercial center of Ho Chi Minh City. They can maneuver the narrow, crowded city streets more easily than cars and are cheaper to buy and use.
After invading the conventional taxi market, running apps like Malaysia-based Uber and Grab are now pushing the Xe Om aside with their UberMoto and GrabBike services.
Vietnam, a communist-ruled country of 93 million people, has around 45 million motorcycles, the highest per capita motorization rate in Southeast Asia. Some 3.1 million new motorcycles were sold last year.
Most everyone has a cell phone, and cheap internet access has enabled most Vietnamese city dwellers to get online.
Nguyen Tuan Anh, president of Grab Vietnam, said the number of GrabBike riders has grown from 100 when they launched in late 2014 to more than 50,000, with hundreds every day.
The growth in passenger numbers is “explosive”, he said.
Many Vietnamese now prefer to use ridesharing apps, seeing their services as safer and cheaper, said Tuan Anh. “GrabBike brings transparency and that’s why customers love it. They know they won’t be fooled by the riders.”
But Tuan Anh said he is aware of more than 100 cases where GrabBike riders have been attacked in the past year, often by Xe Om riders worried about losing customers.
Bus stations, hospitals and schools are hotbeds of conflict. In one case, a GrabBike driver was stabbed in the lung. In another, police fired warning shots to disperse crowds of Xe Om and GrabBike drivers who were fighting near a bus station in Ho Chi Minh City.
Similar problems have been reported in Thailand and Indonesia.
Tuan Anh said GrabBike is telling its drivers to be careful and to seek help from the police.
Many Vietnamese seem eager to use such services despite the potential for conflict.
Tran Thuc Anh, a 21-year-old video game designer, says she switched to using GrabBike to get from bus stations to her office about six months ago.
It costs her half as much as using Xe Om, she says.
“I just need to be online to reserve a bike without looking for a traditional Xe Om, so it’s very convenient,” Thuc Anh said.
Many GrabBike riders originally worked under the Xe Om name, but not all of them want to register. Older motorcycle taxi drivers say they don’t know how to use online apps or they lack the money to buy smartphones. Others are put off by the cheaper rates charged by GrabBike.
But Nguyen Quang Trung, a 30-year-old salesman who started moonlighting for GrabBike six months ago, said Xe Om drivers who try to overcharge their customers are over.
“Uber and Grab are safe and their rates are reasonable and customers see it,” Trung said. “Only the elderly or those in a hurry use the traditional Xe Om. Young people and people with no shortage of time never use the Xe Om.”