Recently I went to Monkey Island with a friend on Teacher’s Day, and we ended up taking public buses to get the full experience.

This is the first time I’ve been on the bus system here (seriously – this long! It even took me months to try the buses when I first moved to Chicago! I don’t even know) and it was a pretty good experience. Long, but very interesting, and I got some fun videos.

I thought I’d write a brief post about it, as some aspects are a bit… different… than bus rides I’ve had in the past.

Read on for a short primer on “how” to ride the city buses in Saigon! Complete with amusing videos!

We started at the central terminal, located across from Ben Thanh Market (Saigon’s most famous and centrally-located market), and searched for our first bus, which would take us all the way to Nha Be river, 30 km from HCMC (yet somehow still within the boundaries of the city?). From there we would be disembarking, boarding a ferry, and locating a second city bus (even this far from the center!) to take us the remaining 32 km to Monkey Island.

The buses were relatively comfortable and pretty clean. The 20 (on the way to and back from the ferry) was even air conditioned, which was shocking! The prices were also shocking – a mere 5,000-6,000 VND (~$.25 USD) was the most we paid for very long rides.

There must be people living back in the forests… but you’d
never know! Riders hail the bus from the side of the road.

There weren’t many people on the 20 bus by the time we got to the ferry, but the 90 bus was a different story. There were about 60 high schoolers on a bus half the size headed with beer and music to 30/4 (April 30th) Beach, which was about 4 km past our destination. We were seated on the only seats available, but on the left side of the bus… which meant we didn’t see our destination to holler at the driver to stop. We got off at the beach with all the kids and found a xe om back to Monkey Island.

On the way back to HCMC, we picked up the bus like champs. I should mention that this is pretty far out in the middle of nowhere, and there aren’t many bus stops. Instead, people just wait on the side of the road with their wares, looking like they just walked out of the mangroves (which they probably did), and hail the bus like you would a cab (hand down, fluttering, of course). We hailed the 90 bus on the side of the road several km from the monkeys, and it was pretty cool. Several games of cards were played and the relaxing nature of the trip confirmed.

Getting safely back into the city proper once more, we discovered we had a perfect seat to capture the magic of just how the buses pick people up and drop them off on video! If there are only one or two people, the bus doesn’t even stop…

Boarding:

Exiting:

People kind of take a running leap at the bus to board, helped up by the conductor, and people exiting have to kind of jog a little to avoid twisting an ankle when leaving. It’s pretty funny – the conductor kind of holds them back until an opportune time and sort of helps/tosses them off the back steps, even elderly passengers. It doesn’t seem very safe, but I guess the alternative is that trips like ours would take much, much longer than the 2.5 hours it already did (that’s the way back, the trip there took almost 3.5 hours. Blame the kids on the bus).
Sigh… I remember Chicago’s grid system… I remember it fondly. Look at this mess.
Here’s a crazy big map of HCMC’s bus routes (which does not cover all of it – see this enlargement of the bottom right corner, where the 20 ‘terminates’ – we haven’t even gotten to the 90 at that point yet, which itself goes another 46 km south to the ocean!).
Overall, the bus experience was pretty great. I’ve missed riding public transpo around the city – it’s such a great time to zone out and see more of your urban environment while being relatively free to let your mind wander. Perfect reflection time! Unfortunately, my schedule is so tight most days that I just don’t have the time to make use of the system as I could. A shame, since I could probably deal with all my transportation for less than 10 USD a month. I spend that on gas every two weeks, at least.
That being said, if you’re here for a while and are looking for either a way to get around without a motorbike or a very, very cheap way to see more of the city, I recommend it! It’s fun local color!