Since one of my first forays to Vietnam, I have never trusted cyclo drivers. On one of those first trips, our group leader warned us: “Be careful of cyclo drivers. Make sure you settle on a price first and don’t let them persuade you to pay any more than that.” First impressions are strong. Since then, I’ve avoided using cyclos at all costs. I’ve always opted for xe ôms (motorbike taxis) instead of cyclos, even though xe ôms can be quite cutthroat about prices themselves.
Then, a couple weeks ago, Ngân and I were a position where we needed a vehicle to transport the last large belonging of ours to the new apartment. It was a desk, and there was no way we could get it on the Honda Wave. We also needed someone to help us get it down two floors in the old house.
I immediately headed for a place where I’d seen not cyclos, but xe ba gács (motorized cyclos) parked at all hours.
They were interested in making money, but not particularly helpful. “150,000,” one of them said when Ngân described our situation. “Or 100,000 if we don’t help you move anything.” For such a short distance, we couldn’t say yes to a price like that, and headed to our old house with the intention of asking the landlord if she knew any way to transport my desk at a reasonable price.
As it would happen, Ngân spotted a cyclo pedaling along the street in the midst of our short ride.
We pulled alongside and she quickly outlined our situation and what we needed to move. “30,000,” he told us. His skin was weathered and he was wearing old clothes and the basic plastic sandals typical of many in his trade. “We’ll pay you 50,000 if you help us move the desk out,” Ngân told him. I drove slowly back to our old house and he followed me, puffing on his Hero cigarette.
Once he was off the cyclo, I realized that he was slightly disabled. It seemed like one of his legs was shorter than the other, and he moved with a limp. However, he was true to his word and helped me move the desk down two floors of stairs. In addition to the desk, we had some other odds and ends still in the old house, and when the cyclo driver saw this, he told us to bring everything down and he’d pile it on his vehicle and take it along with him.
He tied everything on his cyclo with rope and straps that he procured from under the seat. All the while he spoke to me and Ngân in Vietnamese and never even seemed to acknowledge that I was a big foreigner with blue eyes and curly hair. When everything was secure, he started pedaling to our new house. Ngân told him where it was and he knew the way.
He arrived at our building only a few minutes after we did on the motorbike. I helped him unload his cyclo while Ngân held the elevator for us. I was so impressed with his work ethic, honestly and polite demeanor that I gave him 70,000 for his hard work. Still peanuts relatively speaking, but much more than he asked for.
After we’d said our thanks to each other and he was climbing back on his cyclo, he looked at me and said: “You speak Vietnamese really well.”
“Thanks uncle,” I said.