From dodging erratic motorcyclists to transporting live animals, the life of a bus driver is never boring
The job of a bus driver in Saigon has long been one of the most stressful and hazardous gigs in town. If staying on schedule or fighting through traffic or remaining in a seated position for hours doesn’t get you, then fending off a loudmouth, drunken passenger will.
Working as a bus driver for 10 years, 45-year-old Huy gives us a rundown of his day.
My morning routine varies depending on which shift I’m on. If I’m on the early shift I get up just after 3:30am, take a shower, grab a quick banh mi and am on my motorbike at 3:45am. I’m at the 23/9 Park depot by 4am. My first 15 minutes is spent checking the bus—inside and out—to make sure it’s roadworthy and generally clean and tidy. Then I get my schedule for the day; I have to stick to it no matter what. The schedule sets out the route for me and also gives me the timetable of when and where I need to be at any time during the day.
I leave at 4:30am for Ben Xe Mien Tay (the final stop) then more or less just turn right round, departing Ben Xe Mien Tay at 6:35am and arriving back at 23/9 Park just after 8:30am. The first morning runs are usually the shift workers going to work and some school kids. I tell folks, “If you like people and driving then you’ll make it as a bus driver!” and it’s true. On any given day I’ll have about 200 to 250 people through my bus. Most will be really good folks, but you’ll also get the odd grump and sometimes even two on the same bus, then life can get interesting!
I can have up to 60 people on a busy run, sometimes they’ll all be speaking so loudly that I can’t hear the passengers requesting their stops. Some will be have suitcases, boxes and baby strollers, while the old ladies will be carrying bags and bags of fruits and vegetables on their way to the market, and once I even saw a young guy with a cage full of baby birds!
I’ve got a break until 10am and as I live close to the depot I go home for a while. When I’m on the early shift I finish at 2pm which leaves my afternoon and evening clear.
Lunchtime depends on what time I start. My route, which passes through District 1, 4 and 7 complements the more direct service route. No two days are the same and that’s what I like most about this job—that and the people you meet. I’ve been a driver for 10 years, most of them on this route, so you really get to know a lot of the regulars and their routines.
There have been a lot of changes over the years. Traffic is horrendous now compared to when I started—they were talking about the bypass then and we still don’t have it. Peak time traveling adds almost an extra hour to the journey and if we’re stuck in traffic we have to call the operator to let them know that we’re going to miss our scheduled stops.
Traffic in Saigon can get really bad and driving at an average speed of 5-10 km/hour is very depressing. But luckily we do not have a target of how much money we have to make from the passengers every day, unlike other bus operators. So that helps my stress level.
If the traffic is at a standstill, I just wait. This job requires a lot of patience. If I wasn’t patient, I would go crazy!
When I’ve finished working the early shift I try to make the most of my afternoons. I have 3 grandchildren so I spend time with some of them or I might go for a walk or go have coffee with my friends.
If I’m on the late shift I start at 3:30pm and am finished by 8pm. Last thing at night you check the bus—similar to what you do first thing in the morning—looking for any damage and also checking for lost property: gloves, hats and garbage are the most common things people leave behind.
I don’t mind working in the evening because it gives me flexibility during the day. This is a great job for anyone who likes driving, and there’s more to it and a lot more skill involved than I think people realize. Driving a bus is all about precision and forward planning, not just driving from A to B.
IMAGES BY NGOC TRAN