One of the criteria I use to gauge my knowledge of a new city where I live is for me to ride the public transport. In Hanoi, although my bicycle is quite reliable, going to places that are as far as five kilometers is very inconvenient, that means that I have to pedal for a total of 10 kilometers under the sun or wear a raincoat (which I really hate) during the monsoon season.
So two weeks ago, I began using Hanoi’s bus system more out of curiosity than the need to travel longer distances for my part time job. I could just pay for a faster and more convenient xe om. The buses here are not as well maintained as the ones in Singapore neither are they as reliable, for the company here in Hanoi, as far as I know, does not issue a time table for the arrival and departure of any of its buses. The passengers are left to do a more cerebral task of guessing game or making in full use their Algebra lessons: If bus A leaves Bach Mai station traveling at 10 km an hour (based on the passenger’s experience) at a distance of 6 kilometers, what time will bus B arrive considering that it travels half as slow as bus A? What time will bus C arrive if bus B hit the side mirror of Bus A?
But what Hanoi Bus lacks in reliability, speed, and comfort is compensated with its character. An experience of a Southeast Asian rush hour inside a Hanoian bus is a stimulation of all the five senses: The smell of sweat, body odor, and perfume bought from China are enough to reach one’s olfactory potential. After the ride you’ll realize that your sense of smell has approached that of a dog’s in terms of sniffing and identifying odor.
The sense of touch, owing to the incredibly packed passenger density of around 20 persons a square meter, is also equally stimulated, and it’s not just something sensual in case you happen to sit (or more usually) stand beside a perfect human specimen, one can have a feel of all possible skin textures, skin temperature, and amount of skin moisture. Moreover, the buses’ air conditioning units might as well not exist since during rush hour because they become overwhelmed by the number of passengers gasping for breath and available space. Being inside the bus is a first hand experience of how it is inside a pressure cooker. It softens the skin, though.
The sense of taste, although the least used of the five senses once inside the bus, is never left behind, for unlike other public transport like the LRT/MRT in Manila or the MRT in Singapore, or that one in KL, it is perfectly okay to eat while riding a bus in Hanoi, that is, if you are a foreigner. The conductor of the bus will reprimand you, of course, but a foreigner passenger can simply act dumb, as if not hearing what the angry gray-uniformed man say, and the angrier stares of the other passengers whose white shirt he has splattered with ketchup from a hamburger bought from Lotteria while waiting for the bus in Kim Lien.
Anyone who grew up listening to FM stations broadcast in English will have a shock of his life when he hears a Vietnamese DJ delivers his spiel in a combination of English and Tieng Viet. Not only is the male DJ cursed with an abnormally shrill voice but also an above average speaking speed. In addition, some words are awkwardly pronounced: hero is /he-ro/ instead of the more usual /hi-ro/. However, the songs, most of them ballad are surprisingly melodious. Ballads are played during rush hour possibly because they cool down the head of any angry commuters whose anger is only overpowered by the domineering gray-uniformed bus conductor.
Let’s briefly talk about that gray-uniformed man. He is a short guy, around half my height (I’m exaggerating, of course), who shouts “Di lai gan!” all the time. It means that the passengers must compress themselves in the center of the bus to give way to new passengers. He is very skilled at remembering faces for despite the number of persons who goes in and out, he still manages to exact payment from each of them, faultlessly. Furthermore, even though the bus is totally packed beyond capacity, he can maneuver himself from the back to the front of the bus easily to collect the 3000 dongs fare. He seems to be the only person in the bus who defies the physical law of impenetrability: no two objects can occupy the same space all at the same time. He is entirely capable of that.
The window shields of the buses do not discriminate based on the passengers Snellen’s Chart scores. Those with 20/20 vision will have an equally hard time seeing their destination as the ones with 200/20 or 2000/20 vision since the windows are endowed with incredibly dusty glasses made even worse by rain last summer or several summers ago creating a stained glass effect minus the sparkling rainbow colors, for here, gray is the only shade that is available.
Inside the bus, lovers are having a time of their lives. They cuddle, embrace, kiss, run their hands on parts of each other’s body that are not usually touched except during very intimate moments, in private venues, definitely not inside a crowded bus; but yes these acts occur inside the bus. So one’s sense of sight can feast at these romantic views making those who chose to be solitary regret the day they chose to be alone. And that includes me.
Each day, as I get more experienced and more knowledgeable in finding my way around this beautiful city by bus I also begin to understand the psyche of the people living in this foreign place. Being inside the bus is also like seeing another face of Vietnam. It may not be so beautiful, not so grand, not so clean, but one thing is for sure: It is real. Riding bus is a life in itself.