11:05pm, Friday night at Paolo & Chi. Sat before me, relaxing temporarily, are Nguyen Lan Chi, the owner and Duong Van Vu, the delivery driver. Somewhere out of sight a phone rings. I hear a woman’s voice double-checking an order in English. What follows is a cacophony of shouting in Vietnamese and suddenly everyone’s on their feet.
The kitchen springs to life and everyone in the restaurant sets about playing their part with frantic energy. Somewhere in the sleepy depths of Ba Dinh, the customer sits back and waits, tranquil in repose, blissfully unaware of the shockwaves their phone call has sent rippling across the city to Tay Ho. An order is prepared, drivers scramble like fire-fighters or fighter pilots, before tearing off into the night once more. This is just one of the 200+ orders that Paolo & Chi’s team will deal with tonight, with Duong generally racking up 50 to 70 of those deliveries each night. Just another day in the life of a delivery driver.
“I do about 200km every night – we have a strict policy that we only take one order out with us each time so that the food stays hot and fresh.” Duong seems generally unfazed by the magnitude of his nightly outings and shrugs off the relative insanity of driving over 200km on a nightly basis. “I start at 7pm and I’ll work until around 3am or 4am – depending on how busy the night gets.” Nguyen proudly explains that Duong has worked for Paolo & Chi for over two years now and – much to the humble blushing of Duong, tells us that he’s a very good man, a hard-worker and one of our best drivers.
Duong’s work takes him all over the city. “We deliver to most parts of Hanoi. Lots of customers live in Ba Dinh, Hoan Kiem or Tay Ho, but we still travel out to Long Bien, Hai Ba Trung, Dong Da and Cau Giay – even trips out to Times City aren’t uncommon.” Suddenly it becomes easier to see how Duong is burning through so many kilometres a night, but he is the picture of serenity as he recounts these long voyages – the Zen master of motorbike deliveries. Duong enjoys his work, he assures me, it’s peaceful and he enjoys meeting a wide variety of customers – besides, it complements his day-job in terms of timing. “My wife is a chef in a Korean kitchen so she often works late, but delivering food means we’re on similar schedules and the extra money helps us to save up for our own restaurant – it’s all good experience to see how a place like Paolo & Chi works.”
Despite the apparent ease with which Duong accepts his manic work schedule, it is not a position that comes without challenges. “The weather is the hardest issue to face, especially in the rain, but also a lot of customers give the wrong address, the wrong phone number or worse still – drunk people fall asleep after they’ve ordered, I don’t know why, but it’s often British people that have done this.” The cruel and unforgiving climate in Hanoi, armed with seasonal variations that render the prospect of going outside about as alluring as a kick to the urethra, is a consistent challenge for delivery drivers, but Paolo & Chi pride themselves on taking it all in their stride.
“Last Saturday, when the big rain came, lots of customers called to tell us that other restaurants were closed or weren’t delivering.” A smile of pride flashes across Nguyen’s face “We had something like 60 orders in 30 minutes, it was a crazy time for us and some of our customers had to wait over two hours for their food, but they were all so happy to see us.” At times like that, when the skies are torn open by unrelenting torrents of rain, it’s a true team effort to get the food out of the door and into the bellies of hungry customers. Even Nguyen takes to the road to get all of the deliveries out as quickly as they’re able.
With flooded roads, the insanity of driving in Hanoi more than doubles and even the ever-reliable Honda Waves struggle to pull through the water-clogged streets. Even this is no obstacle to Duong and his colleagues. “Sometimes, if the water’s so bad then the bike breaks down, so I have to call another driver to come and take the delivery while I get the bike fixed, but we all help each other, even when it’s really busy.”
This particular Friday, the rain was brutal, but brief and by the time Paolo & Chi reached their peak time for deliveries, it had slowed to a gentle drizzle. All around us soggy drivers kicked back with their rain-slicked coats hanging to dry near their bikes, but in the times when they’re not working, Paolo & Chi have set up a sort of R&R room for drivers to enjoy. With a foldout bed, a table-football setup and a range of snacks and drinks, Duong and the other drivers are free to relax whichever way they want to while they wait for the next order to come through.
Heeding the call, Duong is off and we were in hot pursuit, following his expert navigation – despite the journey and the detours necessary due to road-works, Duong never once stops to check a map. These roads are etched out into his mind already. In under 20 minutes we’re all parked outside a customer’s house as Duong waits patiently for someone to descend and collect their order. “Sometimes if there are security guards, they see a young man entering a building and they think we’re thieves,” laughs Duong as he explains some of the more unique problems that drivers in Hanoi encounter. “The customers want it delivered to their door though, so we do all we can to make sure we do that.”
As we return to the restaurant, Nguyen herself has just returned from another delivery, but now – in this brief moment of respite – the drivers and the owner sit down to enjoy some food together. “We like to eat together when we can, it’s like a family here.” As Duong settles into a game of table-football, Nguyen goes on to explain her rules for delivery drivers. “First is safety, second – honesty and third is a good smile. The face of the driver is the face of the restaurant.” The night is far from over for Duong and his team, even as they enjoy some free time, in their heads rests the knowledge that at any minute, they will be summoned back to the road once more to feed some poor pizza-starved customer out there in the black of the night.