The little image of the car on the map seemed to be sitting at the junction for a long time. What was my Uber driver doing? Did he accept my ride request and then fall asleep? Was he dropping off a crowd of drunks? Was he having a liaison in the back seat? It was plausible the app had crashed, so I looked up and down Bui Thi Xuan street to see if I could spot my car. Mr. Van Nam was driving a Kia Morning, which didn’t help since Kia Morning is apparently the only car to own in Ho Chi Minh.
I discovered by opening up the Facebook app to see a lovely blank white news feed that I was clearly not in proper range of the wi-fi from my hostel. So I wrenched my suitcase back towards the entrance and refreshed the Uber app to see that my driver was hurtling down the street towards me, breakneck, on the opposite end of the road as he was before. There was no time to process this confusion, so I hurled my bag back towards the pavement just in time for him to pull up.
Just great! I have yet to not be amazed by the fact that I can call a car, just for me, to a precise spot on any road in most any major city in the world. I also never fail to remind my drivers about this fact. I’m an unusually giddy Uber passenger. One time I was riding back from a club in Manchester at about four in the morning, a belly full of beer, enthusiastically insisting to my driver to ignore those anti-Uber bastards. This inspired spectacular eye rolls in my lady companion.
I was right though. As a general rule, you know when a new technology is derided by all the worst people, it’s probably amazing. For all the steaming about exploitation, you can’t look beyond the behavior of everyday people that work for the service and use it. It’s not difficult to see why customers prefer ride-sharing services to traditional taxis. They’re faster, more convenient, more trustworthy, cleaner, cheaper and more fun. For the drivers, it offers independence and creativity.
The only reason why London and other city boroughs have declared Uber a “taxi company” is because it’s crowding out the traditional taxi companies. That’s incidental – the structure is completely different. Ultimately it’s about the sense of ownership. Rather than more or less renting vehicles from a taxi company, it’s up to the driver to use the car that most suits them. They can create their service in their own image. If this model happens to make the old services economically unsustainable, that’s all to the good as far as I’m concerned. You live by the market, you die by the market.
Astonishingly, the app economy is allowing the workers to own the means of production. There are two ways to read this. The Marxist reading: these ride-sharing apps are subverting capitalism by permitting those that do the work to take control. The second is far more likely: capitalism, which is for my money a shorthand term for what results from the free economic choices of individuals, is leveling the playing field. Rather than signifying a collapse of capitalism, this is exactly where capitalism is meant to go. Yet if the Marxists want to hang on to their own theory that’s fine with me, so long as they’re not among the taxi protectionists.
Individual freedom is what’s important. The justness of any enterprise has to be looked at through that lens. Which brings us to my experience after my fateful Uber trip in Ho Chi Minh – to the railway station, where I was to take a 36-hour journey to the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi.
The experiences couldn’t have been more different. Not that I didn’t enjoy my train ride, but it’s obvious that the motivations of all involved are simply not the same. I found my carriage relatively easily and the conductor led me to my berth, whilst having an argument with a middle-aged woman in there who had set herself up in the wrong one. Yelling was to be the unifying theme of the trip. The rail rattling was loud, and there was no PA system, so announcements were made by slamming the sliding door open with no warning followed by abrupt hollering in Vietnamese. There was no Wi-Fi, but I had prepared by downloading a movie and a Kindle version of 12 Rules for Life by Jordan Peterson.
Thank goodness all I needed to know was to get off when the train terminates at 5:30 am on Monday. Thank goodness again that one of my roommates knew English so she could order rice for me. That morning’s breakfast incident was my first scam experience in Vietnam. I guess it was coming.
It took me unawares. I had just woken up as the train had come to a halt, and immediately I was being asked if I wanted coffee and breakfast. “Sure”, I said, wiping the gunk from my tear glands, and a woman in plain clothes dashed off. About five minutes later she came back and threw a bag of two baguettes and a wheel of Laughing Cow cheese at me, and gestured for me to pay her. It was 100,000 Dong (just over $4), which seemed like a lot, but I had heard prior that it was going to be expensive. It turned out a lot more than that, as I fumbled with my wallet to produce what I thought was a 100,000, but was actually a 500,000. That’s one expensive bread roll.
It gradually dawned on me, as the train left the station, wherever we were, and the official trolley ladies yelled at me, that this woman was just some random stranger selling dodgy sandwiches to half-awake clueless foreigners. Ugh. Anyway, I feel like this thing has to happen to you once so you learn not to do it again.
I had booked a “1st class soft-berth”, the title of which I hope someone from the booking company got some amusement out of. I would like to know what the “hard-berth” felt like. It was 87 USD, which is not that bad considering my other options were a $200+ flight, a series of four buses, or waiting two weeks for a cheaper flight. I got a bed because I now have to rationalize that I am no longer a “backpacker” that must slum it at every available opportunity, but a “digital nomad” who needs his beauty sleep. After that slog, I’m thanking my former self for the foresight of not subjecting my arse to that bench.
The berth sleeps four. I had new co-companions every eight hours or so, each of them accompanied by a small child or two, who could entertain me with their babbles when I was taking a break from having all of my assumptions about the world shredded by Dr. Peterson. I find it very easy to find Asian kids cute, but that might be because I don’t understand what they’re saying. Either way, I gave each of them a cookie.
I found out later that, unsurprisingly, the rail line is state-owned. It was originally set up in the late 19th Century under French rule. Building the line from Saigon to Hanoi was a 30-year process (!) that was finally completed in 1936. The railways have undergone heavy upgrades since the 1980’s, and more have been proposed, including a high-speed rail link that will cut the grueling 30-hour trip I experienced down to six.
For now, residents and tourists alike will have to suffer through the rattly endurance that I won’t be in a rush to do again. I don’t want to make it sound like it was something close to hell. It really wasn’t that bad. I could sleep okay. It was warm and cool at the right moments. I felt as if I and my stuff were safe. It’s hardly worth the effort to complain about it.
The difference, though, between my experiences on that train and my earlier experience with Uber is vast. I can put it down to attitude. With the train, I felt as if my passenger-ship was incidental to the overall goal of getting to Hanoi. Picking up and dropping off foreigners is something the staff has to do, but it’s rather an inconvenience. When the risk of going under from lack of business is out of the picture, the passenger is quite literally not a priority.
With Uber, however, I felt as if the whole experience was geared towards me. The company and the drivers know precisely where their money comes from, and they know well that if they fall down on some aspect that we’ve come to expect from a ride-sharing service, another one will only be too happy to fill that gap. For the few minutes I am under the custodianship of that driver, he takes the responsibility of my wellbeing in his hands. He wants to make sure I get to the place I want to go in the most comfortable way possible.
It only takes a direct comparison like this, occurring right next to each other, to plainly see the fundamental role of incentive in how the market operates. This is versus the state model which offers no incentive for proper customer service. Uber made me feel gooey and special. The train made me feel like an outsider best to take a train out of here. Take this personal anecdote as far as it goes. Try it for yourself and tell me you wouldn’t trust a private company over a state monopoly any day of the week.
Check out other articles James has written for Think Liberty here!