Cameron Conaway endures jeers and glares as he tours Saigon on the back of a motorcycle driven by a female tour guide.
War and motorcycles. These are the two mental projections that come to mind when many people think of Vietnam. The wars have been documented extensively and continue to be fodder for movies, books and art. However, as the world’s second fastest growing economy continues to rumble forward, so too does its more than 3 million motorbikes. While these numbers make Vietnam the world’s fourth largest motorcycle market, they can’t tell the story going on behind the handle bars: the rise of gender equality.
“Women are too weak to drive a motorcycle,” the Vietnamese tour guide driver said after I mentioned my plan to spend the following day exploring Saigon with the all-female XO Motorbike Tour. He continued: “…and they get in accidents a lot because their breasts get in the way and they are too short and they get distracted easily. Everyone knows this.” I was on my way to visit the Củ Chi tunnels in Saigon and after this five-minute lecture I began to feel as though I was being held hostage in some sort of misogynistic time machine. Even the modern roads and restaurants passing by in the car window gave way to rocky roads and humble straw huts.
While at the tunnels I watched a short video from the 1970s that described the story of a young teenage woman renowned for killing American soldiers during the war. She dug and clawed her way through the thick jungle just like the men. I started to juxtapose past and present—women fifty years ago were strong enough to be good at a very physical form of fighting yet today they are too weak to even drive a motorcycle. Ancient Vietnamese stories often depict the heroic actions of women warriors (this article about the Top 10 Badass Woman Warriors lists three Vietnamese women), yet in the minds of some Vietnamese men I spoke with it seemed as though they believed that modern women had grown increasingly less capable.
The following morning the female driver from XO arrived at my hotel. The “women are too weak” comment floated around in my head—not enough to scare me but enough to make me muse. My driver was certainly less than one-hundred pounds, but she easily maneuvered the bike to face the other direction, got on, asked me to get on and off we went without a hitch to the first spot on our tour, the Saigon Central Post Office. During the ride, I noticed how male motorcycle drivers laughed when they saw a woman driving me around. Others looked disgusted. One man standing on the corner pointed and shouted to all of his buddies to look at us. I could forever speculate as to what their thoughts were but one thing was for sure—we were causing a scene. I asked a woman who did the tour with me if she noticed anything similar. “Absolutely,” she said. “You can see many of the men here don’t agree with it. Either that or they are simply not used to a woman driving a motorcycle, especially for their job and especially with much larger foreigners as their passengers.”
As we parked the bike outside of the post office a Vietnamese man in his forties greeted me with a huge smile.
In pitch-perfect American English he introduced himself as Tung Do, the founder and owner of XO Tours. After he delivered a brief introduction I jumped right into it. “Tung,” I said, “I’d love to know how you started XO Tours and why all the drivers are female.”
Tung beamed with pride at my interest. “I was raised by a strong mother and with a sister and they instilled in me that women could do anything,” he began. “I was born here in Saigon in 1972 but immigrated with my family to the United States at the end of the Vietnam War in 75’. I didn’t return to Vietnam until 1992 to visit relatives and this is when I grew to know and love my native country.”
A graduate of the University of Texas at Austin, Tung was a securities trader for ten years in the US before he took a year-long sabbatical in 2009 to work with charities throughout Vietnam. As his sabbatical was nearing its end, he knew he wanted to stay. He had come to love Vietnam’s diverse environmental landscapes, the hardworking people and the creative entrepreneurial energy that seemed to be bursting all around him. Having spent the vast majority of his life in the US, he noticed the contrast of how women were viewed there compared to his native Vietnam. “It was a natural fusion,” he said. “The tourist industry here was booming but I felt it could be improved. What better way to show people the true beauty of this country than by showcasing the strength of Vietnamese women and embracing our primary form of transportation?”
It was a brilliant idea and Tung had the background, foresight and work ethic to turn the idea into what has become the #1 rated tour in all of Vietnam. Good thing, too, because with each XO motorbike that cruises around the city perhaps the grimaces and the grunts and the general discomfort of women on the road will erode.
I enjoyed the morning tour so much that I signed up for their popular Foodie tour in the evening. Each minute I spent seeing the sights and learning about the extensive history of Vietnam while on the bike I couldn’t help but think of the quote from Martin Luther King Jr., “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”