A GrabBike driver at work in Hanoi. Photo by Reuters.
Others are learning self-defense skills following the murder of several colleagues.
It’s only 8 p.m., but 42-year-old Nguyen Hung Thuan, who has been a GrabBike driver for around two years, has stopped receiving bookings from customers, choosing to merely sit and surf the internet at a corner of Nguyen Cong Tru and Nam Ky Khoi Nghia Streets in District 1.
Normally, early morning and night-time are the peak hours for GrabBike drivers to earn extra money because of higher demand.
"I used to pick up passengers until 11 p.m. and return home close to midnight, but now I don’t dare to. I am afraid of being robbed and killed," said Thuan, who rents a room in District 8 with his wife and two children.
"After 8 p.m. I turn off my ride-hailing app and take a rest. Anyone would like to earn more money, but safety comes first. Some of my people have lost their lives after late-night trips to remote areas and outlying districts because they were not careful. "
Le Hung Minh, 32, who works as a mason during the day and dons the green Grab jacket in the night, also said he feared robbery and violence from passengers, mostly drug addicts who need money and are ready to kill drivers to rob motorbikes and smartphones.
"Two months ago, I picked up a man at around 9 p.m. from the Mien Tay bus station in Binh Tan District. He looked like he was high on drugs. I was driving him to the area near the Kenh Te Canal in District 7, around 11km. The fare was VND70,000 ($3.01)."
On the way, the passenger asked Minh to stop his vehicle at a somewhat deserted place for a few minutes so that he could take a piss. But 10 minutes later, the passenger had not returned. Minh decided to cancel the trip and sped away.
"Since then, I always turn off my app after 9 p.m. Though late-night trips for long journeys can increase my income, life is still first and foremost," Minh said.
Robberies and murders of ride-hailing drivers have occurred between 10 p.m. and 3 a.m. at deserted areas and drug hotspots. Most of the criminals prey on young and inexperienced drivers with expensive motorbikes.
In mid-July this year, officers in HCMC’s Thu Duc District apprehended a man who slashed the throat of a GrabBike driver and took his bike away. The victim survived the serious attack after being rushed to the hospital by local residents.
In October last year, another 18-year-old GrabBike driver, Le Nhat Hao, a college student in HCMC, was killed after being stabbed in the neck by a 15-year-old teenager who robbed his newly-bought motorbike.
GrabBike drivers in other big cities are also afraid now.
The ride-hailing community was shocked last month after 18-year-old Nguyen Cao Sang was stabbed to death by two men in Hanoi who asked for a ride without booking in advance through Grab app. The duo killed Sang to rob his money and smartphones.
Braving the risk
Not everyone feels they can afford to refuse or cancel long-distance trips, because the extra income is difficult to resist.
Many ride-hailing drivers ignore safety issues and accept picking up passengers at secluded areas and danger hotspots frequented by drug addicts and heroin users, so that they can earn a little more money.
"If he works hard, a GrabBike driver can earn up to VND400,000 ($17) per night," Thuan said.
Such income is a handsome sum in a country where the average monthly salary of manual laborers is VND4.9 million ($212), according to the latest report from the General Statistics Office.
GrabBike drivers willing to take the risk are finding several ways to increase their personal safety, including learning martial arts and equipping themselves with self-defense equipment like electric rods and pepper sprays.
GrabBike drivers join a martial arts class to increase self-defense skills in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo by Thu An.
Tran The Hung, 30, of HCMC’s Tan Binh District, said he has a fulltime job on weekdays and spends most of his nighttime driving GrabBike. For him, after 10 p.m. is the ‘golden’ hour to cash in because he can earn VND300,000 or VND350,000 a night.
"I am also nervous about the recent deaths, but I need this job to support my family. I am taking martial arts classes Sunday mornings at a sports center near my home, just to be prepared for emergencies," Hung said.
The Ho Chi Minh City police last week signed a memorandum of understanding with Grab Company Limited to provide drivers with guidance on self-defense and how to deal with criminals.
Police forces would equip Grab drivers with knowledge of certain laws, self-defense skills and how to identify a criminal. The drivers will also be instructed in how to react in particular situations when they run into an offender and how to make prompt reports to authorities when they spot criminals.
In addition, a hotline between the city’s police department and Grab will be established to gather information and respond faster to any crisis.
Jerry Lim, country head of Grab Vietnam, said the collaboration will help ensure the safety of Grab drivers and passengers.
"Besides the development of the service, Grab has been doing more and more to keep both drivers and passengers safer by improving transportation safety standards for its driver partners," he said.
Grab Vietnam says its drivers are covered by accident insurance with a compensation payout of up to $4,400, in addition to unspecified "financial and mental support."
Grab has seen strong development since it entered Vietnam in 2014. Between January and June this year, the number of active monthly mobile users rose by 70 percent.
According to a report from ABI Research, a global tech market advisory firm, which collected data in the first six months of this year, Grab’s two current biggest markets are Vietnam and Indonesia. Its market share in Vietnam is 73 percent.
The company employs 175,000 drivers.