Back Stories » Saigon » All Aboard Bus 146, Home of Plushies, Rubber Chickens and a Side of Humanity

All Aboard Bus 146, Home of Plushies, Rubber Chickens and a Side of Humanity

“Cute” doesn’t seem like a fitting descriptor for any mode of public transport, but a bus in Saigon is driving straight into the heart of Saigoneers for being the quintessence of “smotheringly adorable.”

At Saigon’s Eastern Station, commonly known to locals as Bến xe miền Đông, picking up and dropping off passengers is a daily ritual for bus operators. The terminal, one of the busiest transport hubs in the south, is where millions of residents embark on their daily commute.

For many of these travelers, especially the more veteran ones, participating in Vietnam’s mass transit system, though frugal and practical, is often a cumbersome experience due to the eternal lack of funding and human resources. Instances where buses bypass traffic laws, or where staff harangues passengers, have become the norm and triggered further stigmatization among the public.

But against all odds, a delightful presence continues to defy expectations by hitting the streets with grace. Lovingly nicknamed the “plushies bus” by locals, Bus 146 offers carnival-like rides to counter the gridlock’s chaos and inhospitality with its own brand of kindness.

At 9:30am sharp, the bus departs from the Eastern Station to head towards Hiệp Thành Station in District 12. The Saigoneer crew was greeted by chú Phạm Ngọc Tuyền and chú Phạm Văn Sang — men in their middle ages whose look and voice just exude a fatherly comfort. By striking up a conversation with the two, I learned that they had been friends long before becoming colleagues. Tuyền bought the bus and takes the wheel, while Sang is in charge of selling tickets and keeping the place neat and tidy.

When the pandemic broke out two years ago and the route’s ridership declined, Sang began to have more downtime when the bus arrived early at the station. He would spend his extended breaks and pocket change at the claw machines in the waiting room as a way to unwind after a long journey. But unlike the majority of players who might struggle to luck out, Sang was a master of chance. The machine’s plushie reservoir fell slowly into the conductor’s arms every time he played (VND10,000 each time) and the cuddly toys became decorative trophies with a life of their own on Bus 146.

Sitting at the rear entrance and plucking out colorful tickets for those who just entered, Sang says to me: “It was for my own entertainment at first, but the bus ended up looking prettier with them. The passengers seemed to love the idea too, so I went ahead with it. All of the stuffed animals that I get from the machines I hang here.” Over time, the bus has accumulated more than 100 toy residents that reside at different corners — hanging on the handles, by the window frames, and behind seats. The vehicle’s rigid interior softens where it meets the cushiony touch of a chubby duck or minion, which blithely swung back and forth with every stop and turn the bus makese while dodging a swerving motorbike

Steady in his driver’s seat, Tuyền watched over the steering wheel. Tuyền admitted that he isn’t much of an arcade ace like his long-time partner, but ensured that he is just as “obsessed with plushies.” As far as the man is concerned, having what essentially is a moving castle full of stuffed toys is “mad cool.” It makes the dozen-kilometer-long trips that he takes daily a bit less daunting for him, he says.

Having traveled for some distance, it dawned on me that the ambiance on Bus 146 did in fact feel more amicable than my usual commute. For so many people, taking a bus in Vietnam means enduring wobbly seats and racing to get on and off a vehicle that moves at the velocity of a rollercoaster. But the plushie bus takes its time to enjoy the ride, whether the wheels are rolling or not.

At every station, the duo would come to a complete halt until all passengers, especially seniors, have safely boarded, and welcomed them with pleasantries, a rare commodity in the world of public service. The bus also moves at a relatively slow speed, so passengers can sit back and fancy a view of the curated plushies, rather than holding on for dear life every time the bus hits a pothole.

Most importantly, there is no need to live out an introvert’s nightmare by crying out from the top of their lungs “Please let me get off here!” as the operators have installed a rubber chicken to serve as a makeshift bell. One only needs to “cock-a-doodle-do” from the rear, and the driver would “cock-a-doodle-doo” in response to confirm the stop.

Like other modes of public transport, the majority of Bus 146’s passengers are students, blue-collar workers, and the elderly. Some actually prefer traveling on the bus so much that they have made a point to save Tuyền and Sang as phone contacts.

"Squish squish."

“Some students will call me to ask where my bus is because they want to catch it specifically. I always tell them to ‘take whichever arrives first,’ but they say that they ‘have time to spare’ and wait out for the toys,” Sang recounts. Some of them even gift the bus with more stuffed animals to help sustain the "population."

But Sang and Tuyền are determined to give back by giving the plushies away, both because they like to keep a fresh rotation and because they see the young passengers “as grandchildren of their own.” During rush hour when it’s common to have 40–50 students pour in all at once, Sang improvises by having a raffle. Whoever’s ticket serial numbers match the ones of Sang’s choosing will go home with a toy from the bus. “I want them to make some good memories. So I give them what they like,” he reasons.

But more than just toys and games, I suppose the best memories on Bus 146 are from the kind hearts that operate it. Be it a student, street vendor, or casual traveler, people are treated with respect and human decency that we don’t realize has been missing for so long.

It is the cheery smile that Sang and Tuyền put on their faces; the small talk about just anything they have with passengers; the way the bus doesn’t budge until older riders have been seated; and the “no cussing" policy that the two adopted because they staunchly believe that "people don’t deserve to be bullied just because they are traveling on concessionary fares."

As I bid goodbye to Tuyền and Sang to return to my office, they insisted on dropping me off at a station with shade so I wouldn’t have to stand under the sun. Bus 146’s silhouette got smaller and then disappeared as it merged into the flow of traffic, continuing to attract curious looks from passersby. Perhaps like me, many of them boarded the plushie bus with that same curiosity, only to leave knowing that the cutest things were, in fact, its people.