Though it can be frustrating, Michael Arnold finds out that taking the bus in Saigon can enrich both your travelling experience and your wallet at the same time. Photos by Nick Ross

 

There’s a common theory out there that, while the traffic rules in Ho Chi Minh City are somewhat open to interpretation, there is one unwritten law that all drivers respect — buses get the right of way. Taxis, bikes, everyone gets out of the path of an oncoming bus — very civilised.

 

I see it a different way. If you were going head to head with something the size of a few elephants being driven more like a motorbike than a heavy vehicle, you’d get out of the way, too. That says to me that it’s probably better to be one of the passengers than to have it thundering towards you.

 

I admit it takes a certain amount of courage for a foreigner to step on one of Ho Chi Minh City’s xe buyt. How will you communicate with the driver? Will you get ripped off on the fare or be crushed among the crowds of unwashed passengers in the afternoon heat? Could you successfully get the bus driver to let you off at your intended stop — provided you managed to recognise it in the first place?

 

I sometimes chuckle at such fears as I sit comfortably reading in my favourite seat on Route Number 1 along Tran Hung Dao, where the only discomfort is that the air conditioning is occasionally a few degrees too marvellous. The little taxis pass by my window, carrying their foreigners along less-than-direct routes to hopefully-the-right destinations, swerving dizzyingly into tiny gaps in the traffic just because they’re there. Their passengers will be paying a hundred thousand dong or more by the end of their journey — I’ll be parting with a grand total of four. I’m pretty clear on where the bus is heading, too, having pored over the map at the station many times now.

 

Master of the Bus

 

One of the major benefits of mastering the bus system is that you start to build up a remarkably accurate sense of direction here, of a sort that you just can’t get from taxis. Ho Chi Minh City bewildered me for months when I first arrived, with its chaos of diverging boulevards and labyrinths of little alleyways that all tended to look the same. While I was certainly building up a familiarity with my As and Bs, I couldn’t hope to understand how to get from one to the other. Nowadays I know where more things actually are, because I’ve started to recognise the street names on the sides of the buses and have put some time into finding out if they’re on my route.

 

Buses give you a kind of freedom and a sense of engagement with the city. I’d always felt at the mercy of taxis, nervously watching the meter and checking the driver’s eyes in the rear-view mirror to see if I was being cheated or not. Taxis are a privilege that isolate foreign passengers from the world outside, whereas bus travel is a friendlier sport, putting you on a par with the everyday Joe Public, while at the same time being so cheap by foreign standards that they’re virtually free.

 

Route 1, it has to be said, is still the exception rather than the rule. Connecting the station opposite Ben Thanh Market with Cholon, it’s served by the city’s newest bus fleet, sleek blue Korean machines that look almost like spacecraft. It’ll be a while before the dusty old green buses serving most other routes are retired — and they’re just not as good. They’re still cooler to ride than you’d expect from looking at them (provided the ventilation system has been turned on, the doors and windows stay shut, and the number of fellow travellers emitting full-strength body heat isn’t large), but they’re still fairly dusty and worn inside, and your level of comfort depends on luck — some particular buses are better than others.

 

The Insider’s Guide

 

There are a few insider tricks, but they’re not hard to figure out. It’s VND4,000 for a ticket, unless you’re going farther than 18km (which is rare), upon which you’ll be paying five. Keep the tickets on hand for spot-checks. Wave your hand to signal a driver to stop, and don’t be shy about insisting that he notices you — he may be enjoying his cigarette or his in-vehicle sound system playing full-volume Vietnamese traditional anthems too much to spot you on the side of the road. He may not actually stop when you want to get off either, preferring instead to slow down and let you leap off and stumble to regain balance upon your own judgement.

 

Fellow passengers can be overly friendly — I was wondering once about a handsome young man who seemed to be rubbing his hand a little too close to my leg before I realised he was trying to open my satchel. That’s the only time I’ve been targeted in over two years. So I wouldn’t say that theft is a significant danger on the buses, as long as you’re not fingering through a thick wad of dollars looking for change for your ticket — prepare the small change in advance and keep the big stuff out of sight. A far more common pest is the English language student who invades your space while plucking up the courage to say hello — bury your nose deeper in your book, or put on your headphones and stare wilfully out the window until he or she gets off.

 

Xe om drivers have a field day whenever a bus pulls in to the station — many of the passengers will need to be biked the final kilometre or so home. If you end up taking a bus regularly, they will drive you insane. Make a sport of smiling cheerfully at them as they clamour for your custom, as if you find it all terribly jolly but really aren’t in need of a ride today thank-you-very-much — otherwise, you’ll just end up grumpy and irritable.

 

That’s exactly what you don’t need. If anything about becoming a regular bus rider is just going to give you further cause for frustration in this town, don’t throw away your taxi card just yet. But if you’re looking for a way to feel less like an outsider here, or want to develop a sixth sense for which street goes where, this is one option that won’t have a significant impact on your wallet.

 

Routes & Details

 

Ho Chi Minh City is shamefully devoid of late-night buses, and many routes finish up before 7pm. You should be able to pick out the service times and their frequencies on the bus-stop signs, even if you don’t read Vietnamese.

 

The routes that are going to get you where you need to go are different for everyone, but there are some key routes that are particularly useful:

 

Route 1: From Me Linh Square up Nguyen Hue and Le Loi, and on to Ben Thanh Market, making it a great inner-city route; from there on past the Cao Dai temple on Tran Hung Dao to Cholon.

 

Route 4: Out from Ben Thanh station all the way up Pasteur, past the Mövenpick on Nguyen Van Troi and along Cong Hoa all the way out to An Suong.

 

Route 6: Travels out of Cholon past the Windsor Plaza and NowZone, along Nguyen Thi Minh Khai through to Districts 2 and 9, and on to Thu Duc. Several double-deckers in the fleet provide good, cheap top-deck views along the way.

 

Route 102: From the bottom of Pham Ngu Lao along to Ben Thanh station, circling down Calmette through to District 4 and turning back through Phu My Hung all the way to the Mien Tay terminus.

 

Route 152: The one to really be proud of yourself for being-in-the-know — connects the airport and Ben Thanh market, through to District 8 and Binh Chanh without the need to hate your taxi driver. Air-conditioned and with a space for luggage at the front. If you fly into Tan Son Nhat before 6pm, save yourself the rip-off — take this bus.

 

The Ho Chi Minh City bus website is www.buyttphcm.com.vn (Vietnamese only)

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