It’s 4.30 a.m. in HCMC’s District 1.
Inside bus number 19, a couple pick up their mat and hammocks and roll everything into a corner.
They quickly pick up their uniforms and toothbrushes and head toward a toilet at the end of the bus terminal.
Exactly at 5 a.m. the man gets into the driver’s seat while his wife picks up a wad of tickets and stands by the door, ready to begin their first trip of the day. The noise of many other bus engines being revved fills the terminal.
It has been seven months since Bui Thai Phuong, 41, and his wife Nguyen Thi Kim Loan, 29, started living in the bus.
Phuong first met his wife on a bus when she was a factory worker and he was the driver. After they got married, she moved to his bus company.
Phuong recalls: “I used to have a fairly tight schedule. Once I had to do a midnight shift and I was so sleepy I had an accident.”
After that he asked for a transfer to bus route 19 to make life less difficult. Loan too asked to move so that she could be with her husband.
Since they began working together, the bus has become their “home”.
“Living in the bus gives us some time to rest and saves the money we would need to rent a room,” Phuong says. Noel, their son, has to live with his grandmother.
Buses on route 19 ply between Saigon Bus Terminal and the National University, a distance of 21 km. A trip takes around an hour and a half, and they do eight to 10 trips a day.
It is nearly 11 a.m. and Phuong stops the bus in front of a cheap restaurant. Loan gets out and quickly returns with two servings of rice.
After running for a while they stop in front of a small market, buy a red tilapia fish and put it in the bus.
Taking advantage of a 10-minute break between trips, Loan takes some rice and a rice cooker and runs down to the porch of the operations building to plug it in.
But since she doesn’t have time to cook the fish, she puts it in a fridge at the bus station. Occasionally, when roads are clear and the bus is on time, Phuong has time to eat or quickly cook some vegetables. But today he is not so lucky.
“If there are traffic jams on hot days when I have to drink a lot of water, it is troublesome,” he says with a laugh. “In this job, traffic jams are a nightmare.”
Every Saturday afternoon they pick up their son from his grandmother’s and keep him until Sunday afternoon.
Around 4 p.m., Loan keeps looking out of the windows in eager anticipation as the bus heads toward Highway 13 in Thu Duc District. At one of the bus stops, their son is waiting with his grandmother, waving his arms excitedly. Loan quickly clambers down and brings him into the bus.
The five-year-old is put in a seat by his mother. She rubs his head and asks lovingly, “Were you a good boy at school today?”
After holding him for a while she returns to her job of issuing tickets as three passengers board the bus.
During rush hour, when the bus is packed, Loan stands at the entrance and occasionally says “Hang on” when she hears “Mom!” from a corner.
At the Saigon Bus Terminal after 7 p.m., Phuong opens a foam box and takes out chopsticks, small bowls, a mini gas stove and fried fish. The rice meant for lunch has become dinner.
On the bus, Noel lies on a seat under a thin blanket, looking up at his mother who’s cleaning the floor of the bus. Once the floor gets squeaky clean, the family sits down with their meal on sheets of newspaper. The place begins to fill with laughter.
Occasionally, they are visited by colleagues who live in their own buses.
Nguyen Thanh Tuong, coordinator of route 19, says: “In this occupation, it’s normal for drivers and their assistants to sleep in buses. But Phuong and Loan are unique in that they are the only couple to do so.”
Loan and her son busy themselves with smart phones as Phuong sleeps in a hammock in the bus. Photo by VnExpress/Mong Diep.
The couple found the first few days of living in the bus difficult, since they had to stay away from their child.
“The first evening he cried asking for me and I also cried because I missed him,” she says.
By now, used to their lifestyle, the family members look forward to weekends to be together. Little Noel even compares weekends with vacations.
After 10 p.m. Loan spreads a mat at the widest point in the bus since tonight she will have a chance to hug her son to sleep. Phuong’s place remains the hammock between two iron bars.
When the lights go off, Loan chides her husband: “How can we sleep if you park the bus right under the bright street light?”
“Let me move the bus to another area.”
Loan hugs her son as he falls asleep and Phuong steers the bus away from the street light.