Motorcycles Empower Vietnam’s Women

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.”


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About Cameron Conaway

Cameron Conaway is a former MMA fighter, an award-winning poet and the 2014 Emerging Writer-in-Residence at Penn State Altoona. He is the author of Caged: Memoirs of a Cage-Fighting Poet, Bonemeal: Poems, Until You Make the Shore and Malaria, Poems. Conaway is also on the Editorial Board at Slavery Today. Follow him on Google+ and on Twitter: @CameronConaway.

Comments

  1. Peter Houlihan says:

    “they get in accidents a lot because their breasts get in the way”

    Ha! :D

    Sounds like a great company :)

  2. I would only ride on the back of a motorcycle driven by a female tour guide. There is no possible way that I would voluntarily sit that close to strange man.

    • Why?

    • I would only ride on the back of a motorcycle driven by a female tour guide. There is no possible way that I would voluntarily sit that close to strange man.

      indeed, who are foreign male tourists, most of whom are hetero, going to choose to sit snugly behind – a male, or female tour driver.
      the male drivers know they cant compete. their, what i imagine is a lucrative, income is under threat. they can see their demise.

      in just 3 yrs xo tours is already the no1 tour company. id be surprised if other companies arent considering replacing male drivers with female ones.

  3. Jameseq , you and Eric M. nailed it! This ‘Business Model’ is about as ‘liberated’ as ‘Bikini Carwashes’ (unless your going to try to convince me that it’s only because women are better at washing cars that they’re a success). Come on! This guys no ‘Enlightened’ man. He’s just taken what he’s learned in the good old USA , SEX SELLS!, and has transplanted it ‘Back Home’!

    • I guess if they where wearing bikinis and riding around that would be true. But if they are jsut women giving tours, I don’t see how this is equal to “Bikini Carwashes”. The fact that they face such dislike among their own countrymen to openly be laughed and scored at also ads another layer to it. And these girls are brave enough to do this despite being laughed at. That’s not easy. It doesn’t really sound like it’s about sex. Unless anything involving a group of women automatically equals to sex?

      • Erin, if there was a mixture of men and women tour guides your argument would have merit. But come on, you mean there aren’t any decent male tour guides in Vietnam? I don’t think the hate is sexist as much as finanicial. After all, Vietnam is a communist country in the old Soviet mold. Where men and women are considered equal in both the workforce and the Military. These male tourguides see their livlihood drying up before their eyes. Why, are female tour guides that much better? If so ,how? No, they see this ‘slick American’ with his successful business model and they feel there’s nothing they can do to compete against it. SEX SELLS!

  4. I can’t answer for anyone else but I don’t need or want a ride on a motorbike for a cheap thrill from a woman I don’t know. I’ve earned the right to that and more every day and night from a woman I do know.

    My point is, I personally would not, under any circumstances whatsoever, sit with another man like that for free, let alone pay for it. The ONLY way I would ride that close to another person is if they were female. And even then, frankly, I reserve the right to be selective.

    • the female drivers are not sex workers in any shape or form.
      it is just that as youve explained , understandably a hetero man is going to be more comfortable behind a female driver, than a male driver

      • And yet, as a lesbian I’d be fine being behind a male or female driver. So how do you explain that?

        • easily,
          hetero men do not want to inadvertently rub their penises (they have external genitals) against the bums of other men. sitting on a cramped bike, a man’s butt in their groin. understandably (it seems to men, im bi) theyre going to choose a woman to sit behind

          • Exactly. No more complicated than that.

          • I would think no one would want to inadvertently rub anything up against anyone no matter the gender. That seems fine. Thinking it’s better to rub against a woman (rude) instead of a man (rude and gay?) is weird. Inadvertent rubbing would be seen as something to avoid no matter the sex. But having sat upon horses and cycles with men and women, there’s not much sexual rubbing going on. It’s just…part of the ride and means nothing, or as little as pressing arms together. I mean, I get it I guess that it means something to some men, but it seems like if that got in the way of an amazing tour..I don’t know.


            • I would think no one would want to inadvertently rub anything up against anyone no matter the gender. That seems fine. Thinking it’s better to rub against a woman (rude) instead of a man (rude and gay?) is weird. Inadvertent rubbing would be seen as something to avoid no matter the sex.

              such a bizarre misunderstanding, i think you are being deliberate

              But having sat upon horses and cycles with men and women, there’s not much sexual rubbing going on. It’s just…part of the ride and means nothing, or as little as pressing arms together.
              it does not have to be sexual rubbing. a hetero guy is going to avoid having his cock and balls pressed tightly against a man’s bottom. it is not going to be comfortable for him.

            • I mean, I get it I guess that it means something to some men, but it seems like if that got in the way of an amazing tour
              xo tours is now the 1no tour company. some men? looks like alot of men are more comfortable sitting behind a female driver

          • “penises (they have external genitals)”

            I may be a lesbian, but I’m not an idiot, thanks. I am aware that men have external genitals…good grief. As for the rest, well my comment would echo Julie’s. Why is it somehow better to inadvertently to rub up against a woman rather than a man? What’s the difference in this situation? Both would be awkward. And look…if we’re talking about sitting so close that your penis might inadvertently rub up against the person in front of you…then that’s close enough my breasts might inadvertently rub up against the person in front of me. And that’s flipping awkward too.

            Also, check out the pictures on the website…no one’s sitting all that close to each other.

            • “Thinking it’s better to rub against a woman (rude) instead of a man (rude and gay?) is weird.”

              If I can possibly avoid it (and this is clearly the case) I do not EVER want my genitals touching another man, let alone rubbing up against him – no matter the circumstance. If I know in advance that there is a very strong likelihood or certainty of that occurring, this is not something I don’t even need to think about. The decision is obvious.

              “Why is it somehow better to inadvertently to rub up against a woman rather than a man?”

              I’m hetero. I don’t like touching men with my privates or vice-versa. There is no way I can make it more plain than that.

              Also, comparing arms and genitals is ridiculous. Even breasts aren’t genitals. Furthermore, if someone is fine with their genitals rubbing up against another person of either gender, more power to them. Fine by me. No problem. Just not something that I would ever voluntarily do with another man, let alone pay for it.

              What I don’t understand is why some here have a problem with what others’ choose to do or not do with their own bodies.


            • “Why is it somehow better to inadvertently to rub up against a woman rather than a man?”

              I’m hetero. I don’t like touching men with my privates or vice-versa. There is no way I can make it more plain than that.

              eric notice the use of language in the quoted exert. now the dirty, seedy man is deliberately rubbing his groin against the bottom of a woman. not that the two people are closely pressed together and the motion of bike is causing the rubbing.

              unbelievable

            • i checked the first page photos, pics are inconclusive as to how close people are seated on different bikes

              so cock and balls are the sexual equivalent of breasts?
              i cant talk about experiences with breasts, as i dont have them. when women talk about breasts, im in no position to challenge them.
              listen, you and julie dont have a penis and balls, you trying to talk about an experience that you both have entirely no understand of. eric and i have already explained, the reason for the discomfort

            • I didn’t say that male external genitalia was exactly the same as breasts, no. What I said is that were my breasts to be rubbing up against someone’s back, that’d be awkward too…in part because I could very well be turned on. And also, James, neither Julie nor I are saying we think that accidentally rubbing your genitals up against the back of someone isn’t awkward. We’re saying that the idea that it’s somehow more awkward if it happens with a woman than with a man on a bike doesn’t make any sense. It’s got nothing to do with having a penis or not…it’s all to do with someone’s perception of the incident.

              So we’re asking you and Eric to explain. Why does it weird you out more if it were to happen to a man than if it were to happen with a woman?

            • So we’re asking you and Eric to explain. Why does it weird you out more if it were to happen to a man than if it were to happen with a woman?

              lolol I have slept with men (trans and nontrans) and women (trans and nontrans). im not weirded out. i simply understand a hetero guy’s point of view.
              xo tours now being the no1 company according to the article, could be due to superior advertising etc, but more likely it is due to the owner’s understanding that hetero guys are going to be more comfortable sitting behind a female driver

              We’re saying that the idea that it’s somehow more awkward if it happens with a woman than with a man on a bike doesn’t make any sense. It’s got nothing to do with having a penis or not

              it doesnt make sense as you dont have a penis. accept there are some things you cant understand about the male-bodied experience.

            • Alright you’ve sort of just proven my point. You have a penis, and yet you’re not weirded out. Having a penis does not mean that you would prefer to sit behind a woman. If the only explanation you (or anyone else) can provide is literally “because he’s a hetero guy,” then it’s about heteronormativity…and that’s problematic.

              “it doesnt make sense as you dont have a penis. accept there are some things you cant understand about the male-bodied experience.”

              This is a bit off topic, but this is something that I also find problematic. This is exactly like the discussion in an article about the phrase “We are pregnant.” A man won’t ever be pregnant, but that doesn’t mean he’s unable to comprehend and understand what it’s like. He won’t ever experience it, but if it’s properly explained he can comprehend it. Similarly, there are things I won’t ever experience, and thus I won’t ever understand first hand because I do not have a male body…but that doesn’t mean I won’t be able to comprehend it if it’s explained.

            • “We’re saying that the idea that it’s somehow more awkward if it happens with a woman than with a man on a bike doesn’t make any sense..”

              It would if you were a strictly hetero male. I don’t necessarily expect you to get it.

            • Exactly right, Julie. Riding a motorcycle does not involve contact with the other person unless the driver hits the brakes hard (which some male riders have been known to do to get full-body contact from their female passengers). Making a big deal out of riding on the back of a motorcycle with another guy while being OK with riding behind a woman is silly IMO.

            • These aren’t Harley’s or even motocycles. These are essentially scooters. I have driven them with my wife on the back. There is no way, while in motion, the driver and passenger won’t be touching almost constantly.

    • Yeah I’m not quite sure where the sex appeal to this is, unless you were like, sitting literally pressed right up against them. Or if they were like, partially nude. But then…how’s that sexual either, seeing as you’re really just staring at her back. But no, these are proper two-seater motorbikes and everyone’s totally clothed. It’s about as sexual as riding in a car with someone.

    • I was responding to bobbt’s “sex sells” theory on why women are being hired to drive these motorbikes. I have no idea if that is true or not.
      “I don’t think sitting “like that” indicates anything at all except how a motorcycle is physically built (like a horse) nor would it indicate anything about sexuality in anyway unless it was marketed as a “G String/Boobie Time Cycle Ride” or something.”
      I never said anything about anyone’s sexuality, just what I will not do. I personally don’t care what other people choose to do, and will not judge them for their choices, nor am I saying there’s anything sexual. I can only speak for myself, am clear in what my choice would be, and make no apologies for it.

      I simply would never, under any circumstances, sit with my privates pressed up against another man’s backside bouncing around the streets of Vietnam no matter how good of a tour guide he may be. It’s just not something I would choose to do.  I really don’t care what others choose to do or why. Entirely up to them.

  5. Cameron, I really liked this. I never much thought about women in Vietnam and their daily life experiences with the changing dynamics of gender. I certainly never gave much thought to motorcycle tour guides. Good stuff.

  6. Notbuyingit says:

    Hymn, a website that says it’s dedicated to men’s issues yet a fair number of the articles discuss women’s empowerment !!!?? As if we don’t have enough venue’s all over the stratosphere, not to mention government agencies &I private entities shoving feminaze rhetoric on everybody, I couldn’t careless wither they ride bikes or goats, but then again the site’s origins is the MS PUBLICATION, FOOD FOR THOUGHT.

  7. Former Saigon Resident says:

    I lived in Vietnam for 2 years and have visited several times, and I find this article rather befuddling. It somehow implies that it is new and empowering for Vietnamese women to drive scooters, when even a quick walk down a Saigon street will demonstrate that a good half of the drivers on the road are women. In fact, people of all ages, gender, and social classes drive scooters or motorbikes (if they can afford it), from little old ladies to teenage boys to working class men to very wealthy business people. Furthermore, women have been driving scooters since the 1960s, when they first became widely available.

    What’s unusual with XO is not that a Vietnamese woman is driving but that a Vietnamese woman is getting paid to ferry a male passenger. Virtually all professional drivers in Vietnam are men (that goes for all types of vehicles: scooters, cars, trucks, buses). I imagine that’s why the author heard the commentary he did.

    Also, I suspect there is sex appeal, even if it’s not blatant. Saigon has plenty of sex tourism. Put bluntly, Saigon is a place that attracts white men with Asian fetishes… and, of course, men of all backgrounds who enjoy prostitution. (This is not to say that all male tourists or all foreign men who date Vietnamese women are creepy. Far from it. But it’s definitely a “type” that exists and is recognized by expats.) In fact, (non-creepy) white men in Saigon often complain that pimps are always trying to proposition them. One of my friends said he couldn’t walk down one of the tourist streets without being stopped by hopeful pimps. So XO may not be doing anything illicit, but they are using sex appeal and playing into perceived male desire.

    Maybe this reaction by some commentators about getting up close and person on a scooter is partly cultural. In Vietnam, it’s not uncommon to see 3-5 people squeezing onto a motorbike – sometimes whole families, even. Men hitch rides from each other or hail motorbike-taxis all the time in Saigon, and I suspect it’s not be such a big deal if you grow up riding on the back of a scooter or motorbike from the time you’re a kid.

    • “Virtually all professional drivers in Vietnam are men (that goes for all types of vehicles: scooters, cars, trucks, buses).”

      Interestingly this is true in the U.S. too. Most taxi drivers, bus drivers and subway drivers are men. Which, I’m not drawing any conclusions from it…just noticing it.

      • Notbuyingit says:

        :) :) ” I’m not drawing any conclusion from it … just noticing it”, come on the whole statement of you stating it implies it must be solely blamed on sexism & patriarchy , you basically making an ideological statement disguise as noticing something, it’s the new age or new era though everything is political including the personal, !!! That includes everything bedroom’s, workplaces, even charity & empathy to any human being got to be based on their colour & gender, period. Feminism rocks.

        • Oh goodness…the reason I stated I wasn’t drawing any conclusions from it was precisely because I knew that if I didn’t say that, people would assume I was examining it from a feminist perspective. And, as I said, I’m not. I’ve no idea why more men are taxi drivers, etc…I just know that’s what I’ve observed. Could it be because the taxi driver industry is something of a boy’s club? Most certainly. Could it also be because women are (incorrectly) more afraid of driving a car with strangers in the passenger seat? Most certainly. Could it be a coincidence? In other words, could it be something that doesn’t actually stem from gender difference, but has just happened to result in a different number of men driving taxis rather than women? Most certainly. Again, for those in the cheap seats…I wasn’t drawing any conclusions from it because there isn’t enough data to do so.

          Finally, your bit at the end there seemed to imply that feminism is to blame for the over-politicization of people’s lives. That is far too simplistic an answer for what is actually a much more complicated issue.

  8. Notbuyingit says:

    Taxi industry is something of a boys club, heck the whole world is a boys club according to the prevailing politically correct & enforced Ideology which I believe strives not so much for equality in itself as just equality of all outcomes regardless of gender physical limitations or even what the majority of either genders perceive or generally want (desire) , instead it’s patriarchy or religion’s fault, meaning even nature has to become political & correct,

    “Could it be something that doesn’t actually stems from gender differences” !!!! Surprise surprise, that you said that because feminism say it’s a whole lot more complicated then that.

  9. Simon Simon says:

    How narrow minded and ignorant some people can be .
    This tour has nothing to do with ” sex sells” the lady drivers are fully clothed in long Vietnamese traditional clothing.I have done this tour twice and ther was no indication whatsoever of anything to do with what you people are insinuating here. Even in the FAQ´s page of the the tours website it clearly states that male passangers must hold onto the bike and not the driver.
    On both tours I did there were equal amounts of women as men .
    I guess it´s the warped minds of some people that automatically assume that if a female is doing a males job she there must be something sexual oriented in it .
    The American view of Asian women is long long out of date , get with it guys !

  10. paul robb says:

    At last a normal persons reply ! i plan to hire the services of these people in the next couple of weeks for my wife and my self, and the sex side insinuated by some of the other comentators is just Bar Talk .
    I have a lot of friends in HCMC and they rate this attraction .I come from the UK and investigate all my trips thourougly and most of the above comments are ground less …some people need to smell the coffee and get a life !

  11. To Vietnam, Rent 1 guide, so they sent round the city.

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