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Finding Fun and Revelation Aboard Saigon's Wayward Waterbus

Cement, clay, clapboard, spackle, rebar, piping, plaster smears, paint drips, pencil scrawlings: to witness the rise of a building, observe its innards, is to marvel at the pretense of an ego, for what are those constructed with?

Stepping through the unguarded construction site surrounding the Bạch Đằng Waterbus Station last month, I attempted to put aside my ego. After all, could I design, implement and operate a Waterbus system that carries people up and down the Saigon River? Certainly not. So how is it my place to be critical of it?

Then again, I am not a transportation expert, nor was I given an initial estimated budget of VND120 billion (US$5.28 million). So in the same way that one eats dessert only after eating their vegetables, before I profess my appreciation for the Waterbus, I must get a few things out of the way.

To be blunt, the Waterbus is an enormous failure, at least when judged against what it was intended to be.

Plans for the Saigon Waterbus unveiled in 2017 included a 10.8-kilometer-long first line with nine stations in District 1, Thủ Đức, Bình Thạnh and District 2. A second east-west line was reported to be in the works with 11 stops along the Tàu Hũ Canal, and authorities followed with approval for a third line connecting downtown with District 7. Officials and representatives from Thường Nhật, the route’s operator, claimed it would help reduce the city’s traffic woes, giving commuters a faster and more efficient means to travel to and from work every day. This was cause for celebration; not only would it help reduce pollution and the pains of sitting in traffic, but a functioning water transit system would elevate Saigon’s charms and experiences for locals and tourists alike.

Expectations Meet Reality

The Bạch Đằng Wharf is undergoing a construction overhaul, so to make it to the station several weeks ago, I swerved past cement mixers and wheelbarrows, avoided a shower of welding sparks and tip-toed through an obstacle course of fencing strewn across the sidewalk. It is not too far of a walk from my home, so the journey is reasonable, and living in Saigon necessitates cohabiting with construction, but the faults of the Waterbus system more than four years after its launch were clear in how my colleague joined me.

Each Waterbus information kiosk features a list of the stations inside with associated lights to signify where on the route one is; standard for any means of public transit. Yet, the lights no longer turn on for many of the stops. For example, Bình An, which provides relatively easy access to Thảo Điền residents, has been out of commission for months. Whisking past the stop, one notices that despite the boats at Bình An, the station is a shambles of construction equipment rendering it wholly inaccessible. You wouldn’t know this by visiting the Waterbus' website or social media pages, however. There was no announcement that only four stations had resumed service after four months of COVID-19 closure. Rather, all posts still feature outdated, inaccurate schedules. There have been no updates, let alone ground-breakings, for the new routes, or even all of the stations originally planned for the first route.

When contacted regarding the Bình An station’s status, a Waterbus representative said they would update the page when the stop resumed operations, despite, bafflingly, never announcing they had been suspended. So to ride the Waterbus, my coworker had to book a Grab bike from District 2 to Bach Dang. This is clearly not the easy, affordable transportation the project promised.

For our Friday morning ride, we were not joined by men and women in suits, briefcases in hand, busily e-mailing important KPI, SEO, or ROI-related updates on their commute to the office. Rather, the dozen or so other riders were all college-aged young adults enjoying a pleasure cruise. There was plenty of selfies, laughter and chatter, but like us, the majority of them remained on the Waterbus until its final stop, and then rode it back into the District 1 pier we disembarked from. And why not? The boat is quiet, the chairs relatively comfortable, the views nice, and the atmosphere conducive to joviality.

The experience of our fellow riders is not unique. I have ridden the Waterbus half a dozen or so times, with friends, on dates, even by myself once for a change of scenery while reading. I have never ridden it for transportation, and judging from the other passengers on those journeys, very few do. Instead, it serves as an alternative to bars, coffee shops or parks for people looking to hang out in their free time. Waterbus officials have said just as much, citing weekends as the busiest times to ride. And further underscoring it as a leisure activity but not a realistic mode of daily transportation, the Waterbus recently unveiled nighttime cruises filled with music and alcohol; hardly accompaniments to a regular commute.

Witnessing Another Side of Saigon

If one puts aside the Waterbus’ failures as functional transportation and accepts it as a calm outdoor activity in a city seriously lacking such opportunities, it is incredibly delightful. But the greatest value of riding the boat is the rarely seen views of Saigon it provides. One gains a greater appreciation and understanding of the city when viewing it from the river.

The unglamorous construction site quickly slips from my mind as the boat begins its journey. The Thủ Thiêm 2 Bridge is approaching completion, with great progress having been made during the pandemic, and it immediately comes into sight as we make our way up the river. Perhaps assisted by anticipation piqued during years of delays, it is a sight to behold. Strung between sleek towers, its suspension cables stretch like the plucked bones of an especially sumptuous fish at the end of a feast. Gliding underneath it, it’s impossible not to marvel at its sheer size and the complex engineering behind it. And while transportation follies will never be far from one’s thoughts when riding the Waterbus, the bridge serves as a testament to the city’s progress and potential.

Not long after the bridge, Landmark 81, that unimaginative spire of stodgy stacked blocks, comes into view. While it always sticks out in Saigon’s skyline, Southeast Asia’s tallest finished building seems even more immense when seen from the water. Hardly unique in its design, the tower and its surrounding Vinhomes Central Park embodies Vietnam’s attempts to copy and compete with economically successful neighbors such as Singapore and Malaysia.

In addition to Landmark 81, which forsakes style for record-breaking size and its shopping mall filled with gauche global luxury brands, the park features imitations of Singapore’s iconic Garden by the Bay Supertrees. Yet, lacking the Supertree’s verdant vegetative skin, the ones in Central Park seem cynical and soulless. Some of Saigon’s initiatives, such as its sidewalk-cleaning campaign, have been criticized for eschewing the vibrancy that makes Vietnam unique in exchange for efforts to keep pace with or one-up other nations. The Vinhomes Central Park statues serve as monuments of caution to such efforts.

Vinhomes Central Park also features a marina where a dozen or so private yachts are docked. Cinema seating, bars stocked with top-shelf liquors, kitchens with personal chefs: for those accustomed to having to split rent with roommates, subsist on instant noodles while waiting for payday and trudging through a rainstorm because taxis are too expensive, what life must be like for their owners is unfathomable. This is not the only example of extreme affluence one encounters when riding the waterbus. Kept behind gates on secluded streets, often-garish neo-classical homes with elaborately landscaped lawns filled with statues, luxury cars, ornate balconies, pools and the occasional boat dock are rarely seen, unless traveling along the river as the Waterbus motors beside District 2.

This great wealth is a stark contrast to some of the cramped dwellings just across the water. Cluttered, multi-color homes and apartments hodge-podged together tumble towards the banks. One observes their inhabitants fishing, hanging laundry and washing dishes, the turbid water lapping against their dwellings’ stilts, a tangle of hyacinth clumped with discarded bags, Styrofoam boxes, beer cans, and trash tattered beyond recognition. One should need no reminder of the economic disparities in Saigon, nor how drastically different the “haves” live compared to the “have-nots,” but few activities put it in starker contrast than a ride on the Waterbus.

One can, of course, conjecture about how the mansion inhabitants got so rich, and certainly the barges loaded with sand and gravel that traverse the river are involved somewhere in the flow of capital. Dredged and quarried from the Mekong Delta, the raw materials required for skyscrapers, roads, resorts and building projects fueling economic growth in the country’s metropolises are increasing erosion, flooding and water degradation in impoverished rural areas. “The industrial world destroys nature not because it doesn't love it, but because it is not afraid of it,” isn’t that so, Mary Ruefle?

Amongst those barges and container ships that one passes on the Waterbus are smaller wooden boats used to transport various agricultural goods. Their owners often reside on them, and passing in such proximity gives a peek into their daily lives. Tiny makeshift gardens rest in the rear, a dog or two lounging beside various pots, pans and cooking utensils, changes of clothes flapping in the breeze beside hammocks, some reading material, a charging phone. Before the COVID-19 lockdowns, I might have imagined such a lifestyle to be equal parts lonely and inspiring. Now I know it to be so.

Filling the Quietude

“Our imagination flies — we are its shadow on the earth.”
― Vladimir Nabokov

A ride on the Waterbus invites more than ruminations on the city’s economic disparities and architectural aspirations, however. I’ve already acknowledged its value as a social activity, but it’s also a top-tier provider of quiet moments during which you can crawl into your imagination and explore.

At the front of the boat, the captain steers without so much as a door separating passengers and the controls. In no way am I advocating one actually storm the cockpit, overpower the captain, take the reins, instruct all passengers and personnel to take a life-preserver and abandon ship so that you can commandeer the vessel and live out a carefree Huckleberry Finn fantasy. The Saigon Waterbus may be the city’s most hijackable form of public transportation; but you’d not only eventually get caught — it’s also highly immoral. Still, in the cabin’s shady calm, it’s fun to think; to let your imagination soar and dive like a famished hawk above a battlefield strewn with bodies.

What lurks down nondescript roads, huddles in hẻms, shelters beneath awnings and scavenges behind shuttered doors Regardless of how long you have lived in Saigon, there are endless creases to explore, crevices to root around in. What will you find? A type of tree you’ve never seen before growing in a churchyard that drops a fruit whose flesh can be used to make cloth dye? A small shop unknowingly selling an endangered species of bird or turtle? A cơm tấm cart that has stumbled onto a transcendent new sauce few will ever have the pleasure of tasting? Perhaps a new best friend or lover? The Waterbus slips past such potentials. You can get out at one of the stops, wander around an area you’ve likely never visited before; or you can remain on board, let your imagination travel there and bring back trinkets: some postcards, a keychain, a refrigerator magnet.

Or play a game. I’m reminded of the hours I spent in the car as a child when my parents, to shut me and my siblings up, would give us a list of things to look for out the window for, and the first to spot them would win a nominal prize. Why not such a scavenger hunt for things seen from the Waterbus? A few items I’d suggest:

Any living animal (bird, fish, butterfly, etc.)
A garden growing fruits or vegetables
Someone who will return your wave hello
A section of river you would like to swim in
A slick of spilled oil with reflected sunlight that shimmers like a saxophone solo
A piece of plastic likely to end up in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch
Any dead animal (bird, fish, butterfly, etc.)
An abandoned construction project
A flourishing construction project

The last stop on the Waterbus route rests next to one of the city’s last remaining ferries. Workers of all types on motorbikes board the boat alongside delivery drivers and transportation vehicles to cut across the river and continue on with their menial tasks a few minutes later. This scene was once commonplace all across the Saigon, so maybe a trip aboard the Waterbus will transport you back in time, to a Saigon before bridges sutured riverbanks, when ferries hummed past floating markets. When Thủ Thiêm was a snarl of swamp, and the skyline rose only a few stories. When crocodiles and caiman sunbathed in sight of boats carrying letters people anxiously anticipated for weeks. When banana leaves wrapped all items for mang đi and not a single foreign word stretched across a billboard. When people sang long into the night without microphones or accompanying tracks, songs pulled through time with nothing but the fragile voices strung between sips of rice wine. When Saigon was nothing but a provincial town slowly filling with migrants. When the introduction of a motorized boat would be such a marvel that people would line up simply to ride it back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, no concern for the destination, no greater transportation purpose. Imagine that.

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