|Le Thi Hong Hanh, who began working as a bus driver when she was 20 years old, drives her 30-seat bus on HCM City's congested roads. — VNS Photo Van Dat
by Van Dat
HCM CITY (VNS) — Le Thi Hong Hanh rushes out of her house at 5 am, hops on her old motorbike and heads for the bus station in HCM City's District 4. Once there, she gives her 30-seat passenger bus a quick inspection and then jumps into the cabin and starts the engine.
Today, as she does six days a week, Hanh takes the wheel of the bus that will travel on a 16-kilometre route, from Ton That Thuyet Street in HCM City's District 4 to its final destination in Binh Quoi in Binh Thanh District.
By the end of the day, she will have completed 10 rounds.
HCM City streets are notoriously congested, and as the traffic moves slowly, Hanh cleverly maneuvers the bus amid hundreds of motorbikes that sound like bees circling a hive.
"Today is Saturday, so students and workers are at home, and the traffic is not as bad. On weekdays, however, I get sweaty driving the bus during rush hour," she tells me as as we stop at a red light.
She must be alert at all times, frequently checking the rear- and side-view mirrors as she controls the wheel.
In such traffic, one wrong move could easily lead to an accident, with a motorbike or two, or more, trapped under the bus.
When we reach Binh Quoi Street, the passengers begin to shout as they see a motorbike driver dash in front of the bus.
Hanh calmly presses her foot on the brake, avoiding the man and a potentially deadly accident.
If her bus breaks down or has a flat, she repairs it herself - quickly. Bus drivers are fined by their company or cooperative if they are late at their stops.
It takes her 10 minutes to replace a tyre.
Hanh says she learned repair skills on her own, as her father refused to teach her, telling her that "a girl driving a bus was enough".
"But it's a part of the normal job for a bus driver," she says, adding that some passengers, after seeing her change tyres under the hot sun, have urged her to change jobs.
Hanh's schedule leaves her with little free time, she says. If she arrives on time at the station, she has only a 10-minute break before resuming her next round.
Like all of her colleagues, she is fined VND15,000 for each minute she is late.
Still, even when she gets to the station on time, she spends most of the time cleaning the bus and collecting rubbish left behind by passengers.
At 1 pm, she has a quick lunch of rice and vegetables and then waits for her next round.
For 10 years, this has been her routine, but the 30-year-old says she is happy with the job, even though she works on most national holidays, including Tet (Lunar New Year).
With such a hectic schedule, she has little time during the week for her two daughters, who are in the first and fifth grade.
Every day, she gets up before dawn, does some household chores and makes breakfast for the two children, who are asleep when she returns home at 9:30 pm.
As we near the mid-point of her round, Hanh tells me about the memories of her first days of driving, when an elderly passenger hesitated to board her bus.
The man stared at her, asking: "Are you confident you can drive safely? It's very dangerous!"
Finally, he agreed, and when he left, he admitted that he had thought only men could drive a large passenger bus, she recalls.
At one of her daily stops at Ben Thanh Market, a regular passenger, Tran Thanh Tri, 56, steps in and greets her warmly. He was surprised when he saw her the first time.
"Now I see there is no difference between her and other male bus drivers. She even drives more safely and better than her male colleagues," he says.
While he has seen several female taxi drivers, Tri says he admires Hanh for her attention and ability to drive a big bus on the congested streets of HCM City, which saw a total of 2,193 accidents in the first six months of the year, according to the city's Committee on Traffic Safety.
Hanh says her inspiration was her father, a retired bus driver. When she was a teenager, she helped him sell tickets on the bus, and then, years later, she asked him to teach her to drive.
"Initially I thought driving a bus would help my father because my family was poor," she says.
Nguyen Van Chieu, head of Dong Nam Bus Cooperative's administrative board, says the cooperative has three female bus drivers, but two of them quit recently because of the stress of the work.
"Hanh is now the only female bus driver in the city. She works much better than her male colleagues. I haven't heard any complaints from passengers. And she has never been disciplined or had a major accident," Chieu says. "We hire people, both men and women, who have a bus driver's license, are in good health, and have at least a 10th-grade education."
While some passengers have urged Hanh to quit her job, citing her gender, she says that being a woman can have its advantages.
"Incidents can happen, of course. When they do, the other side can get angry, but after they see a woman jump out of the bus, they calm down quickly, regardless of whose fault it is," Hanh says.
Male bus drivers, on the other hand, sometimes get into arguments or a fight.
Asked if she would ever think about changing jobs, she says: "No, I love the job, and I want to upgrade my driving license to an E level so that I can drive a bigger 50-seat bus." — VNS