Ask anyone in Ho Chi Minh City how to get to the Mekong Delta, and they will probably point you to Phuong Trang (FUTA) or another big, reliable bus corporation. But for all their reputation, speed and comfort, travelling on these closed-off, air-conditioned coaches can be rather mundane.
Perhaps for this reason, a small minority of the Vietnamese population still prefer to go local. Mien Tay Bus Station sits about 30 minutes’ drive from Ho Chi Minh City’s District 1 and is the beating heart of bus lines for the Mekong, spitting hundreds of buses out onto the Highway 10 artery every day. Here, a few privately-owned minibuses hide under the shadow of their towering counterparts, with homemade signs in their front windows stating where they came from and where they are going.
You will find the bus to My Tho on the far left of the station, next to the exit gate. All the smaller buses at Mien Tay are the private property of the people who drive them. They are not regulated — the owners simply rent a parking spot so that they can pick up customers. The driver of our bus, Dat, lives in My Tho.
“This bus only travels between My Tho and Ho Chi Minh City, and we own it,” he says. “We make the journey several times a day.”
Getting onto his bus, we are greeted by an array of gold seat covers and a conical hat jammed into the railing above our heads. A thick, frilly curtain about 20cm long sits like a fringe around the top of the windows and does nothing to keep out sun and dirt. The windows are darkened, like giant sunglasses, and most are cracked a little to let the outside in. There is no air-conditioning.
I eventually find myself squashed in the window seat next to a surprisingly sturdy woman of about 70 named Ba Trang, who carries an ancient plastic bag and wears what may have been pyjamas. She leans across me and shoves the window wide open.
Ba Trang is not going to My Tho. “I’m going to Tan An to visit my family,” she says. “We will celebrate the anniversary of the death of a family member, and then I will return to the city. Tan An is before My Tho, and I hope the bus stops.”
The young woman in front of us is also going home to visit family, and as we begin to talk I realise that most people in the bus around us are travelling for a similar reason. Millions of people across Vietnam make journeys like these every day, in fact FUTA Bus Lines claims to serve over 20,000,000 passengers per year nationwide. If these are the statistics of one company, imagine how much more the total sum could be. Vietnam relies on its buses.
As we drive, the ticket lady suddenly rises from her seat and begins to lurch around the bus like a well-worn sailor — it is time to cough up. Each person pays VND31,000 regardless of where they are getting off, and we continue our journey.
By then, the sun is so hot that I have put on my facemask and zipped up the hood on my jacket until only my eyes peep out, like some kind of navy-blue penguin. With the window wide open, thanks to the indomitable Ba Trang, the wind whips through everyone’s personal space, dragging the road and its fumes with it. The men behind us light up to blow their cigarette smoke into the mix.
Getting off the bus at My Tho, we are greeted by the usual throng of idle taxi men waiting for an easy customer. My Tho Bus Station is a large, open square, with 10 or so distinctly stagnant-looking buses, all waiting in a line. The bus back to Ho Chi Minh City sits under a small shelter near to the front of the station. To its left is a bus to Ben Tre, the next province, and to its right is a clan of sleepy cyclo drivers.
“You can get to Ben Tre, then Tra Vinh, all by local bus,” says Dat, our bus driver. “Just ask the people at each bus station and they will tell you which bus to take.” The whole system seems based on chance — you don’t know which buses you’ll find until you get to a place. But there are many local buses going directly to other cities back at Mien Tay. Local buses run to Tra Vinh, Vinh Long and even as far as Rach Gia.
With almost half the day gone already and our stomachs growling, we decide to explore our surroundings rather than go further. My Tho seems to be the mecca of vegan cuisine. The road from the bus stop down to the Tien River is peppered with com chay and noodle joints, offering a steaming bowl of tasty hu tieu chay or a big plate of rice and tofu for around VND10,000 to VND12,000 per person.
Judging by most people’s reaction to our posse of three, foreigners don’t often wander around in My Tho. We eventually find the river and walk along it, marvelling at the brightly coloured fishing boats moored at the riverside and enjoying the clean Delta air, before winding our way back to the bus station.
16 and On the Road
On the way back to Ho Chi Minh City, I sit next to a young woman of 16 named Duyen who seems to be carrying her whole life on her back. “I am meant to be a student at this age, but I don’t want to study,” she says. “I am a nha phieu luu — an adventurer — I want to see many new places, so I have decided to work.”
Duyen is from Dong Nai Province, to the north of Ho Chi Minh City, but she has been working at a roadside drink shop in My Tho. She has just quit her job and is returning to her home town, making the six-hour bus ride alone with evening fast approaching. Struck by her boldness, I ask her what her parents think about her living and working so far from home, but she tells me she doesn’t know.
As we drive, we try to make sense of each other with my broken Vietnamese. Duyen tells me she wants to go to China.
“I am studying Chinese,” she says. “It’s so hard to pronounce, so I listen a lot and train my ear and hopefully this will help my speaking too. I don’t want to stay with my family. After I go home I will go somewhere else and work there.”
And as the bus pulls up to Mien Tay and we all pile off, I watch her walk away into the evening.
It is just after 6pm when we arrive back in Ho Chi Minh City, having left My Tho about two-and-a-half hours earlier. The bus back had been decked in magnificent green and gold trimmings and blasted icy air-conditioning at us from the moment we stepped inside. Having made this day trip and met the people we met, I can’t help but wonder what would happen on another local bus on another day to another place. You can complain all you like about comfort and punctuality, but at the end of the day you never know what to expect on a local bus, and that’s exactly what makes them worth trying.