Lost in transportation: A guide to catching buses in Vietnam
The first time I rode a bus in Hanoi was one afternoon in early March this year, two weeks after I arrived in the country.
At the end of my first HIWC book club meeting, I bravely asked the ladies, “Does anyone know how to ride the bus?” My husband and I recently moved into an apartment on Truc Bach Lake, somewhere in the middle of Hanoi. Until then, all my trips downtown were in the comfortable confines of a taxicab.
The buses cruising down Yen Phu intrigued me, and offered a possibly more efficient way of getting around. How does one start on this bus network?
Or, practically speaking, where? A nice lady at the book club meeting named Janice led me to the terrace and pointed across the street. “Go to that bus stop over there, and take #23. That goes to your area.”
Nervous and excited at the same time, I got on #23, having no idea where it was going. I kept asking the other passengers, all English language-challenged, “Truc Bach?” All of them were saying “50”. Bus # 50. At Long Bien station, they told me to get off.
I got on the wrong Bus 50 (the one on its terminal stop) and was directed to the opposite platform. I got on, and finally the surroundings looked familiar. I got off at the top of Truc Bach Lake, and after a 10-minute walk, I was home.
That first attempt egged me on to more bus adventures. Janice told me about the monthly bus pass, and I was on the lookout for a Hanoi Bus office that sells them. These are located at the terminal stations, like Long Bien and Cau Giay.
At Long Bien, I went up to the counter and said “Monthly bus pass?” All I got was an empty look from the older lady at the counter. I turned around to the few people standing by, “Speak English?” A young man with a “Hanoi Bus” label on his chest pocket came up to me. “Do you speak English?”, I repeated. “No speak English. I speak Russian,” he replied. Oh wow! Only in Vietnam will you find bus company employees fluent in Russian. Obtaining a bus pass was turning out to be a drama all its own. I tried once more, hoping we had an elementary language in common, “Speak French?” Again, a blank look.
Eventually, he understood what I wanted and explained it to the lady at the counter. She then proceeded to hand me a form to fill out. It did not contain a word of English. I looked up to the heavens for help. I made the best attempt at guessing: name, address, birth date. I left the rest of the form blank. Miraculously, she took it, and gave me the price – VND140,000, plus another 100,000 for the permanent ID card. She wrote the pick up date on the form.
Three days later, I proudly waved my new bus pass at my housekeeper, who was not all that amused. “Only students and old people ride the bus,” she told me. Everyone else had a motorbike. She was smiling, but puzzled as to why the person she called “madam” would travel “beneath her”, so to speak. All this just adds value to the experience, I think.
Now it is all very easy. From my new abode in Tay Ho, I take bus #31 to my different destinations, including Vincom Towers all the way in lower Hai Ba Trung. At the stop in front of 33 Au Co, the buses arrive 15-20 minutes apart. The wait is never lonely, as I am always accompanied by a cackle of turkeys, certainly another “Only in Vietnam” experience.
The culture is also made manifest here, in the way young people automatically stand up and give up their seats when an elderly person comes on board. That sort of courtesy is something we can all re-learn.
The bus map is not 100 per cent precise. It tells which streets the bus traverses, but not the exact stops, which leads to more adventures. At the very least, I get a free tour of Hanoi.
Going to the monthly coffee mornings at the different hotels downtown, I resist the urge to take the easy route and just hand the address to the cabbie. Taking a bus to Long Bien station, I transferred to #1, which brought me just 20m from Hotel Nikko. On another occasion, it stopped right in front of Hotel Mercure. And always just in time.
One recent English Conversation class was held at Cuc Gallery in Keangnam. They warned us it was far and to share a taxi, if possible. But all it took was one bus ride, on #33 and, from the same “turkey” station I always go to. I was expecting a long walk or a cab ride at the end, but it stopped right in front of Landmark 72.
It’s not always easy, especially when the bus is packed and I have to stand while the bus sways this way and that. But it is always more interesting than a point-to-point cab ride. You must pay attention, or you might miss your stop! My favorite bus has become the 31, by virtue of frequency. Janice swears by the 23. What’s your number?