I’ve always loved bikes. When I was in my early twenties, my ex-boyfriend was motorbike mad and I used to love being perched on the back of his Suzuki while we zoomed through the country lanes of the Peak District, stopping for picnics or pub lunches. Since then, though, I haven’t had many opportunities to ride pillion again. I did a four hour trip from Norway to Sweden on the back of my friend’s bike a couple of years ago but that’s about it. I missed the sound of the wind rushing past me and that feeling of freedom that you just can’t get when you’re stuck inside a vehicle.
So when I moved to Vietnam in early 2012 I was so excited to discover that motorbike taxis (or ‘xe om’) were the norm and a lot cheaper than taking a cab. At every opportunity I would look for one instead of a taxi (you can find them on every street corner) and when I went to Hanoi at the weekends I would meet up with my Vietnamese friends and jump on the back of their scooters to get to wherever we were going.
The real treat, though, were the Easy Rider tours (http://www.easy-riders.net/) which you could get from most of the big cities there and tailor make your trip to your specific needs. I did three altogether: A day trip from Hoi An through the countryside and along part of the famous Ho Chi Minh Trail, an eight hour journey from Nha Trang to Dalat and back again and then a five hour trip from Mui Ne to Ho Chi Minh City to get me to the airport on time (it was Tet (Vietnamese New Year) so all the buses were full). I can’t recommend them enough. It’s such a great way to see the country and you end up in places that cars just can’t reach – we even crossed a rickety wooden bridge to get to a traditional village and meet the locals.
Now that I’m in Jarkarta, it’s great to see that they also have motorbike taxis (or ‘ojeks’), but here they’re much more of a necessity. During peak rush hour you get the luxury of air conditioning in a cab but the flip side of that is that you’re going nowhere fast. Take a good book or some work to do because getting across the city, especially on a Friday afternoon when everyone tries to escape to the suburbs for the weekend, will take you an hour at the very least. On an ojek, though, you can weave in and out of the stationary traffic and slip down narrow side streets, reappearing a good few hundred metres or so ahead of all the other vehicles.
I had a hair appointment on a Friday afternoon the other week and, worried that I wouldn’t get there on time, hopped on an ojek only to end up arriving early with an hour to spare. On the way back we nipped through all the little back lanes and alleyways which gave me the chance to see a side of this huge, sprawling city that I didn’t even know existed. There were kids playing with homemade kites in the street, women hanging out washing, old men hunched over chess boards and even a makeshift shed with cows in it on one of the street corners.
The only downsides are the air pollution (you may want to wear a mask if you plan on using ojeks often) and the rain. Fortunately, here the rain’s warm enough for it not to be a big issue and most ojek drivers have waterproof jackets tucked away which they quickly produce when the heavens open. You must also insist on negotiating a price before you leave to avoid getting ripped off, and have some idea how much the journey should cost. You can’t expect the same safety standards you would find in a developed country, but you can use your common sense to make sure that the trip is as safe as it can be. Always get your driver to adjust the helmet if it doesn’t fit properly and if for some reason they don’t produce a spare helmet, my advice would be to take another ojek. You want to sit back and enjoy the ride, not be freaking out about the chances of you getting to your destination in one piece. 🙂