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Opinion: The Virtues of Riding the Saigon Bus

On a brutally hot day back in January, I was riding Saigon bus No. 65 out to District 10 when I made an amateur’s mistake.

Distracted by my phone and still reeling from the sun outside, I waved away, without glancing up, a woman who approached me, assuming she was selling lottery tickets. It turned out that woman was the bus’s conductor, who just wanted me to pay my fare so she could get on with her job already.

When that same conductor sat down next to me a few minutes later, I assumed she was mad, and I started wondering if I was capable of explaining myself in my meager Vietnamese, which mostly consists of pointing at stuff and saying nouns. “Where are you from?” she asked. “Chicago,” I said. Within seconds, she had excitedly whipped out her phone, dialed someone, and handed it to me. It turned out she had relatives who live in Chicago, and some of them happened to be visiting Saigon that week. We made plans to get noodles together a few days later, and my appreciation for the city bus system, already well-established, reached an even higher plane.

My love for Saigon's buses, which is deep and true, seems widely un-shared by my friends. In the 11 or so months that I’ve been an enthusiastic rider here I've faced little frustration with the system, but probably encountered fewer than a dozen other foreigners on the bus, and most of them were on the route to or from the airport.

I’m here to tell you, this is a shame. Bus service in the city is reasonably comprehensive, surprisingly comfortable, incredibly affordable, and—most importantly, for my purposes—endlessly entertaining. I’ve been offered babies to hold and bánh bao to eat; been the happy recipient of street food suggestions miles away from the well-trodden tourist path; and been asked the Vietnamese question trinity—“Where are you from?”, “How old are you?” and “Are you married?”—more times than I can count. Even on less-social rides, there’s always the thrill of leaping off the not-quite-stopped bus when it reaches your destination (though the driver will eventually stop completely if you hold out for it).

If all of that sounds more annoying than enticing, you might be surprised by how refreshing the communal aspect of riding the bus can be, especially if you’ve been living here a while. Life in Saigon, like in many other massive cities, is often crowded but solitary—a paradox that combines the worst aspects of solitude and companionship without retaining the perks of either. This is never truer than when puttering across the city on a motorbike in rush hour traffic, isolated yet cramped, surrounded by masked strangers in direct competition with each other for the city’s (increasingly choked) road space. There is no such commuter Darwinism on the bus, unless you count the occasional jockeying for seats (rarely a problem except on certain routes at certain times of day). We’re all in this together. When’s the last time you felt that way in Vietnam?

I should note quickly that I’m speaking from a couple different positions of privilege here. First, I’m a freelancer, which means I rarely have to be anywhere at any given time. I’d like to think I’d still have the resolve to ride the bus every day if I were racing to a downtown office at 8 am—especially because the travel time disparity between buses and motorbikes tends to narrow during rush hour, when everyone is crawling—but who knows? Second, I’m a lanky white dude, and even on the egalitarian wonderland of the bus, that brings certain advantages. On crowded buses, the conductor will often go out of his/her way to find a seat for me, because it’s easier for everyone if my 1.8-meter frame isn’t blocking the aisle

Anyway, I don’t ride the bus solely for abstract social reasons. I find the pace and perspective of the bus to be one of the best ways to fully absorb Saigon’s sights and sounds, freed from the attentive responsibilities of driving or the blink-and-it’s-gone speed of riding a motorbike. On a recent trip out to Can Thanh—a sleepy town in Can Gio that's technically still a part of Saigon, and thus accessible by city bus—I brought a book to read. It turns out that I didn't need it, as I spent almost two hours transfixed by the way Saigon’s central density gave way to Nha Be’s colorful street life and then, after a ferry ride, to Can Gio’s swampy calm. This city is fascinating—in all senses of the term, good and bad—and riding the bus almost never fails to whet my curiosity to see more.

One last advantage to riding the bus: You also get to ride on a moral high horse. Traffic is one of those issues, like climate change, where even though most people agree there’s a serious problem at hand, far fewer people are willing to significantly alter their behavior to address it. Don’t get me wrong, Saigon’s bus system is in no shape to completely replace private vehicle ownership—and it’s the city’s responsibility to build and maintain infrastructure to meet the needs of its growing population. The blame for the city’s ever-worsening congestion ultimately rests on the shoulders of those in charge. But individual choices matter too, and every bus trip taken is a vote in support of greater public transportation services in Saigon. Or at least a chance to make an unexpected noodle date.

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