Confessions of a bus commuter

Text and photos by Jesse Pizarro Boga

HANOI, Vietnam (MindaNews/21 September)–Somewhere at the end of Hoang Quoc Viet Road and Buoi Street, bus 14 makes a long winding turn before it can reach the bus stop in Hoang Hoa Tham Street near Cho Buoi.

21In 2002, TRAMOC counted over 46.76 million bus rides throughout the year and in 2006, it increased to 318.6 million. MindaNews photo by Jesse Pizarro Boga
In 2002, TRAMOC counted over 46.76 million bus rides throughout the year and in 2006, it increased to 318.6 million. MindaNews photo by Jesse Pizarro Boga

Seeing the bus take off from the last stop in Hoang Quoc Viet, I sprinted to Hoang Hoa Tham to catch the same bus. It didn’t take a few minutes before I saw bus 14 again.

I was catching my breath as it made a stop and opened its door. Then I took out a piece of plastic from my jeans’ back pocket to show to the bus conductor.

That was the very first time that I flashed my TRAMOC bus card, my access to a month’s worth of infinite bus rides around the city (non-card holders pay 3,000-7,000 VND per ride or equivalent to P6.15-P14.35).

I turned to city buses when my Vietnamese boss made it clear that I can’t drive a motorbike because it’s undeniably dangerous, especially for a wimpy Filipino kid like me. They lent me a bicycle instead; but that human-powered vehicle can only take me as far as my legs were willing to pedal.

Taxi rides were convenient, but my experiences in them weren’t uniquely Vietnamese.

Getting to know the buses of the Hanoi Transport Management and Operation Center (TRAMOC) proved to be a challenge: I was clueless about the 70+ bus routes and there was no way that I can communicate with the bus driver and conductors while inside.

I, too, was going to become one of the many passengers that the bus network has had growing in the past few years. In 2002, TRAMOC counted over 46.76 million bus rides throughout the year; and in 2006, this number increased to 318.6 million.

The mechanics of public transportation in Hanoi is also world’s apart from what I am used to back in the Philippines. Every Hanoi bus ride counts to one lesson learned about people and the values that I often don’t experience with my means of public transportation back home.

Hanoi bus vs. Davao jeepney

In the Philippines, people often go around the city through a jeepney, vehicles rooted and inspired from US military jeeps left over from World War II. These are like small buses, with parallel passenger seats, that have regular city routes, but without a fixed schedule.

I often enjoy the convenience of being able to hail a jeepney from anywhere back home; in Hanoi, I have to trek to a nearby bus station. The word “trek” is an understatement.

Waiting for a jeepney ride doesn’t take long either; there are multiple jeepneys plying same routes and they are not more than 5 minutes away from each other. Hanoi buses, however, stick to a 15-minute lag, making it excruciating to wait for the next ride when I see that my desired bus just left.

My lack of the Filipino jeepney convenience in Hanoi, however, led me to learn a thing or two about discipline.

In Davao, many people forget that there’s a prescribed jeepney stop (called a Yellow Box) to pick up and drop off passengers. This tends to cause a mess in the road, with jeepneys stopping anywhere as the passengers inside yell “lugar lang!” or “para!” (vernacular phrases used to tell the driver to stop whenever possible) as they please.

In Hanoi, however, the locals (who don’t ride rowdy motorbikes) faithfully stick to the bus stop lifestyle like it is the ultimate rule of public transportation. They take time to walk from their houses (or wherever it is that they came from) to the nearest bus stop and patiently wait for their ride.

A typical scene in a bus station in Hanoi. MindaNews photo by Jesse Pizarro Boga
A typical scene in a bus station in Hanoi. MindaNews photo by Jesse Pizarro Boga

A typical scene in a bus station in Hanoi.

Getting off the bus applies the same routine. In Hanoi, no one just yells “dừng lại!” (stop!) to the bus driver; and no one jumps off the bus when it is stuck in traffic (unlike jeepney passengers).

Hanoi bus commuters who are used to connecting bus rides probably have twice the amount of patience and discipline than everybody else. And I bet that they have astounding time-management skills, too, considering that they might end up being caught in between the 15-minute bus lag.

Getting on and off a bus, however, feels like a Super Mario game: the giant vehicle only slows down in when loading and unloading passengers–it often does not come to a full stop. Commuters literally have to jump in and out!

Bus norms

A bus ride is also reflective of one of the values that the Vietnamese hold dear: to respect the elderly. This is so infectious even to bus newbies like me.

It works very simply: give your seat to an elderly.

I remember doing this as though it were a reflex during my second Hanoi bus ride. When I saw an old lady get on the bus, I immediately stood up to give my seat to her after calling “ba oi!” (madame!)

Younger Vietnamese, however, have a lack of respect at each other when it comes to bus seats. When I left my seat to get off the bus, I gestured to a young lady with two bags and offered her my seat. But before she could ever turn to me, another young lad (busy fiddling with his phone), took over.

“Siya man dira!” I muttered, as the seated guy obviously ignored my Filipino quip that closely translated to “I gave that seat to her!”

Apparently, there is no concept of being a gentleman in the bus when dealing with young adults or teens of your age. And that is why, to conform to this Vietnamese norm, I have decided to never give my seat to any teenager just because I am inherently generous like a Filipino. Not ever.

Another bus norm that I’ve yet to get used to is how it’s highly discouraged to chat with someone or talk over the phone. I’m often met with snarky stares from the bus driver when I answer a call.

And I am not alone. Expats in Hanoi have had their share of scolding, even from the bus conductor.

“The bus conductor asked me to get out from the bus because I was talking on the phone (in my language) for 20 minutes,” Effa Rizan shared in Facebook. “I wasn’t that loud. I swear.”

There are awkward moments too! “I have had a lady–a stranger–sit on my lap before,” Angela Sharp said.

And I have been told that there are pickpockets that passengers should be cautious with.

That’s why long bus rides quiet often cause my thoughts to drift to wonderland, instead. When I get bored of listening to my music or playing Dots on my iPod, I play around with the recorded announcement that the bus plays to announce the next bus stop: “đìêm dừng tiếp theo…”

I translate this in my head from it’s real meaning (next stop) to a theatrical phrase (next contestant) to amuse myself.

I like to imagine that the bus ride is a Hanoi beauty pageant of some sort, and that the passengers, beauty queens in their own right, represent various bus stops.

So when the announcement is played, I brace myself for the competition as everyone sashays down the narrow bus aisle. I am, undeniably, Miss Thoi Bao Kinh Te, Hoang Quoc Viet. I stand up from my seat (imaginary tiara and all) and walk to the bus door exit, and wait for the next stop: mine.

When the ride gets rough, I play a different game. It’s called the try-to-breathe-inside-a-packed-bus game. I usually play this when I go to Nguyen Trai inside bus 39 (and in any of the buses that can take me to Royal City).

Buses that ply that road are densely packed and should be awarded a world record for loading a number of tiny Asians beyond vehicle capacity, which usually ticks at 60 passengers max.


When a Hanoi bus is packed, my ride becomes an intensely sensual experience.

I hear all subtle murmurs that drown my earphones’ music. I feel all sorts of textures (clothes, bags, and skin) brush against me. I see bus passengers squeeze into each other, as motorbikes and cars run freely outside. I smell sweat, fish sauce, foot, Calvin Klein One, pine tree air fresheners, among other scents (fortunately, I haven’t been in a packed bus where a passenger passed gas).

A bus ride, to the Vietnamese, may just be a part of their daily grind. To expats like me, however, a bus ride is a peephole that shows us sights and culture beyond what’s in the dizzying road traffic.

Now if you’d excuse me, I need to go catch bus 14 now.

(Jesse Pizarro Boga is a fellow of FK Norway’s Environmental Communication Exchange Project in Asia. He is currently in Hanoi, hosted by the Vietnam Forum of Environmental Journalists. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @jesiramoun. His blog is