HANOI, Vietnam – Nguyen Kim Lan used to make a decent living shuttling customers around town on his Honda motorbike. But his clientele has dwindled as young and tech-savvy Vietnamese increasingly use ride-hailing apps like Uber and Grab to summon cheaper, safer motorbike taxis.
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The expansion of the ride-hailing services across Southeast Asia is shaking up traditional motorcycle taxi services that are a key source of informal work for people like Lan. In some cases, the Xe Om, or motorbike taxi, drivers are venting their anger in attacks on the new competitors.
Lan is just frustrated. He says his income has fallen to just 20 percent to 30 percent of what it used to be.
"Nowadays, 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 would come here after work. Now they just sit in their offices and get picked up at the door," he said.
As elsewhere in the region, motorbikes are Vietnam's main form of transportation, especially in the capital Hanoi and the southern commercial hub of Ho Chi Minh City. They can maneuver through crowded, narrow city streets more easily than cars and are less expensive to buy and run.
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Having invaded the conventional taxi market, ride hailing apps like Uber and Malaysia-based Grab are now elbowing aside the Xe Om with their UberMoto and GrabBike services.
Vietnam, a communist-ruled country of 93 million, has about 45 million motorbikes, the highest rate of motorcycle ownership per capita in Southeast Asia. Some 3.1 million new motorbikes were sold last year.
Practically everyone has mobile phones, and cheap Internet access has enabled most Vietnamese city dwellers to get online.
Nguyen Tuan Anh, chairman of Grab Vietnam, said the number of GrabBike drivers has jumped from 100 when they first launched in late 2014 to more than 50,000, with hundreds joining every day.
The growth of passengers is "explosive," he said.
Many Vietnamese now prefer to use ride hailing apps, viewing their services as safer and cheaper, Tuan Anh said. "GrabBike brings transparency and that's why customers love it. They know that they will not be cheated by the drivers."
But Tuan Anh said he knows of more than 100 cases where GrabBike drivers were attacked in the past year, often by Xe Om drivers worried about losing business.
Bus stations, hospitals and schools are hotspots for 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 battling near a bus station in Ho Chi Minh City.
Similar problems have been reported in Thailand and Indonesia.
Tuan Anh said GrabBike tells its drivers to be cautious and to seek help from police.
Many Vietnamese seem keen to use such services despite the potential for conflict.
Tran Thuc Anh, a 21-year-old video games designer, says she switched to using GrabBike to commute from bus stations to and from her office about six months ago.
It costs her half as much as using Xe Om did, she says.
"I just need to be online to book a bike without going around to look for a traditional Xe Om, so it's very convenient," Thuc Anh said.
Many GrabBike drivers originally worked as Xe Om, but not all are willing to sign up. Older motorbike taxi drivers say they don't know how to use online apps or lack the cash to buy smart phones. Others are put off by the cheaper fares GrabBike charges.
But Nguyen Quang Trung, a 30-year-old salesman who began moonlighting for GrabBike six months ago, said Xe Om drivers who try to overcharge their customers are finished.
"Uber and Grab are safe and their fares are reasonable and customers see this," Trung said. "Only elder people or those who are in hurry use traditional Xe Om. Young people and people who are not short on time never use Xe Om."