Rarely do projects garner as much talk as the Saigon WaterBus. Now it’s up and running, George Schooling does the commute. What’s it like and what are its prospects for the future?

 

Officially launched in November 2017, Saigon’s new water bus service is being promoted as being a way to avoid the city’s notorious traffic problems. While it has a long way to go to match the likes of Sydney, Bangkok or Hong Kong, there are green shoots.

 

First, it is undoubtedly a much more pleasant way to commute to town from one of Saigon’s northeastern districts. Starting in Thu Duc, the route follows the Saigon River to Binh Thanh and District Two before finishing at Bach Dang Wharf in District One.

 

 

At this early stage, there are plenty of seats available to take in the impressive cityscape, as it sweeps past Vinhomes Central Park in Binh Thanh and District One comes into view.

 

It’s also proving a hit for passengers who are already using this service. “It’s a peaceful way to get into town,” says Australian expat Sue Wire, who adds, “no motorbikes.” Having taken the journey once, it’s not difficult to see the appeal.

 

Avoiding the Congestion

 

Sitting back on the boat and being cooled by the natural breeze off the river, there is a slightly smug feeling about skipping the worst of the pollution and congestion. Even sitting at the stop in Thanh Da offers an oasis of tranquillity at the peak of the morning rush hour.

 

At VND15,000 it’s more expensive than an average bus ride but still much cheaper than taking a xe om. There is also the argument the price difference with the buses is offset by the comfort of the journey. An assertion made by local commuter Phuong who insists that the boat is “better than travelling by bus.”

 

It’s safer, too. There is relatively little traffic on the river, except for some of the bigger, slow-moving cargo boats which are easily overtaken. There’s no danger of being hit by an inattentive driver here.

 

The other big factor is the speed of the journey. While it may take up to an hour from Thanh Da to central Saigon by bike on a good day, the boat takes a mere 30 minutes. With little traffic on the river, that is unlikely to change.

 

Simply put by office worker Vinh, it’s a “great” way to commute to work.

 

Challenges Ahead

 

The authorities have high hopes for this service as a means to relieve the increasing congestion on Saigon’s roads. Yet they accept they still have some way to go.

 

At present, the service only operates six return trips a day. The first arrives at Bach Dang at 8am, and the last leaves at 5.30pm — hardly convenient for many commuters. Also, the route serves just five stops — though plans are in place for a total of 12.

 

There are other challenges too. The presence of duckweed and litter pose a risk to the boat’s propellers. Until those issues are resolved, there is a limit to how much traffic can go on the river.

 

 

Also, the boat was only about one-third full, despite the high-profile publicity. A common theme was that the stops were within walking distances of the passengers’ homes, which suggests the water bus holds little appeal for those who live further away.

 

These challenges will undoubtedly be met over time. There are plans afoot to integrate the water bus with a normal bus service so passengers can seamlessly transfer to their destinations.

 

Passenger numbers will also increase with the number of stops opening. And with a Route 2 from District 1 to District 8 already in the pipeline, it has the potential to become an integral part of Saigon’s transport network.

 

As the city’s skyline continues to develop, there’s also space in the market for tourists. According to Sue Wire, the 5.30pm service from Bach Dang wharf is “full of tourists” wanting to take in the views. 

 

Will it be a Success?

 

The overriding verdict from the passengers is positive. There is an acknowledgement of the current limitations but you sense they would rather keep it that way. At the moment, it’s a very calm, spacious way to head into the city. No crowds, no jostling for space or seats and no need to worry about accidents.

 

 

But they understand in order to succeed, the water bus needs more passengers. Given time and support to grow, there is no doubt the Saigon water bus can thrive. In a sense, it’s a wonder it had taken so long to get to this point. The river has long been underused and undervalued.

 

The additional stops will help with the vitality of the service and plans to integrate it with other forms of transport will make it appealing for more people.

 

As well as making those additional stops operational, the water bus should have more services. Six return trips a day is simply not enough. Even some of the passengers who take the trip in the morning still have to take the normal bus back home.

 

Still, I went to work that day with a smile on my face.

 

For more information on the service and the timetable, click on saigonwaterbus.vn.


PHOTOS BY BAO ZOAN

 

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