I had the great pleasure of getting to take a vacation the last two weeks, travelling to Saigon to explore urban environments in a region of the world I’d never visited.
No one will be surprised to hear that what I was most excited about was riding buses. And I’m here to report that I found many great buses.
Saigon (AKA Ho Chi Minh City or HCMC), is the largest city and commercial center of Vietnam. This rapidly growing metropolis has been working on a metro system for a number of years, and has recently begun construction of the first line in earnest. For the time being though, residents and tourists have three main ways they get around: motorbikes, taxis, and buses.
The motorbikes are a constant swarm, covering every inch of the road not taken up by a larger vehicle, often spilling onto the sidewalks, seemingly unaware of any traffic control systems. The taxis are bastions of air conditioning and storage space inching along like barges in the stream of motorbikes.
The buses though are something truly special. They’re supermax speedboats cutting through the stormy streets to form an impressively quick and cheap (20 cents!) commute through even the busier parts of the city. The buses are in charge, and all other vehicles follow in their wake.
All this, with style. Check out the upholstery and driver-side decoration of plants and buddhist icons that the numbers 44 and 14 had to offer.
The system was extensive, and the tools were there to make navigation easy for locals and tourists alike. System maps were posted at many major stops, and Google Maps was up to date with the latest GTFS from the agencies. I’ll admit, bus stop signs at minor stops would have been useful to identify them from a distance, but in a metro area of about 13 million friendly people, someone was always around to clarify.
The Saigon River winds through the city and its suburbs, and is bustling with maritime traffic (often bringing construction materials in for HCMC’s numerous sky scrapers in progress). But the river is also about to become a transit focal point, with the new Waterbus system (turn on your audio for a bit of local music). We found this small, fancy ferry to be both a great way to get downtown, and a scenic trip to the suburbs.
Locals were taking tours for fun on the Waterbus as well. On our third Waterbus trip, we happened upon a group of about a dozen women from the same neighborhood traveling downtown. The Waterbus became a concert hall as the group and others on the boat took turns signing folk songs and clapping together. No comment on whether they got to hear any American folk songs as well.
Thanks for the great buses, Saigon!