Buses wait to pick up passengers on the road outside the Giap Bat Bus Station in Hanoi
It took 30 minutes for the bus to travel just one kilometer as it inched its way out of the My Dinh Terminal in Hanoi at around 8.15 a.m., picking up passengers sporadically.
Then the driver saw other buses on the road, a sight that galvanized him. In no time, he had moved from soporific lethargy to near manic speed.
The race was on.
The passengers, meanwhile, were reduced to spectators clinging to their seats in desperation and consternation, but helpless to do anything about it.
The bus, BKS 21H-4415, touched speeds of up to 100 km/h as the driver stepped on the accelerator, and then, suddenly stomped on the brakes as he competed with other buses in picking up as many passengers as he could from the roadside.
Such races are a fact of daily life on highways and roads across the country, especially in bigger cities.
A traffic policeman told Thanh Nien that bus drivers had their own “codes” to inform each other of the presence of traffic police checkpoints and even the location of speed detectors on the way.
For instance, a driver raises his hand up to signal to another driver that traffic police officers are not ahead; if he points the hand down it means “watch out, traffic cops ahead.”
A driver who has spotted a speed detector one day will warn others to slow down when he arrives at the road section where the detector is located.
Bus managers also pay xe om (motorbike taxi) drivers to act as brokers and informants – whenever they see anyone waiting to hail a bus, they call bus drivers (via mobile phones) to go there as soon as possible to pick up the passengers.
As passengers on the BKS 21H-4415 bus complained and told the driver that he could cause an accident at such high speeds, Tien – the bus owner – told them that the bus had never been involved in any accident before.
“Please be calm. We’ll have to pick up more passengers, otherwise we cannot make up fuel costs,” he said.
A bus will not make any profit if it carries only 20 passengers a day, Tien told the Thanh Nien reporters.
Nguyen Manh Tien, director of the My Dinh Bus Station, said that there are hundreds of buses at the station, so it is understandable that the competition among them gets tough.
However, it can be easily seen that some buses, though packed, still join the race to win more passengers.
Many buses do not set off from the main bus station. They pick up passengers at offices-cum-residences of private-owned transport companies, usually family-run businesses.
Two Thanh Nien reporters were onboard a sleeper double-decker bus belonging to the Dung Tuyet Company, going from Hanoi to the north-central province of Ha Tinh at around 9 p.m. After the bus traveled around two kilometers, Tuyet – the bus owner – let two passengers into the reporters’ double berth.
The same thing happened to other passengers: Each had paid for a berth, but had to share the berth with another passenger. Some even had to lie on the floor.
When the passengers got angry and threatened to call traffic police, Tuyet challenged them to do so.
“If you don’t like it, get out of the bus so others can get in,” she said.
Nguyen Ngoc Trung, a Nghe An native, said he was once onboard a bus from Hanoi to Ha Tinh in which passengers were packed until there was no room left. Each time the bus went past a check-point, all passengers were required to lie flat on the ground so that police officers could not see them.
But in the end, the bus was stopped by police officers, Trung said, adding that the bus owner later called “someone” – he thought it was an official the bus owner knew – to talk to the police officers, and the bus was let off with a warning.
Reckless and dangerous
Senior Lieutenant-Colonel Tran Son of the Road and Railway Traffic Police Department said investigations into recent bus accidents put most of the blame on reckless drivers.
This is not surprising. In fact reckless drivers are preferred by transport companies.
The director of a major bus station in Hanoi told Thanh Nien that transport companies will choose a driver who is ready to drive recklessly and scramble for passengers, and is ready to attack rivals.
Many drivers hide weapons in the buses; they are ready to fight other drivers in case of conflicts, he said.
“Small companies pay little, so how can they hire skilled and ethical drivers?” said Nguyen Manh Hung, chairman of the Vietnam Automobile Transport Association.
“Some companies even hire drivers who are drug addicts, as they can pay money to buy fake health certificates,” he added.
According to Nguyen Hoang Linh, deputy chief of the Hanoi Transport Department, there is a lack of drivers in the market, so a driver who has just been fired by one company can be hired by another one very soon.
“Drivers who break traffic laws are ready to quit if they are punished by bus owners, because they know they will be recruited by many other companies.
“Some companies even hire drivers whose driving licenses have been revoked or who have no driving licenses.
Most recently, on August 8, five people were dead and six others injured after a bus crashed into a truck, which was traveling in the opposite direction, in Loc Dien Commune in the central province of Thua Thien-Hue. The bus driver was found to have sped and encroached on the wrong lane.
For their part, bus drivers say they are always under pressure to generate as much money as possible, and that they are pushed to do this by their employers.
Cuong, a driver on the Hanoi-Yen Bai Route, said he, and most other drivers, work such long hours that he keeps awake in the night by smoking while driving. “You can see that most (bus) accidents happen in the early hours of the morning, when they are very sleepy” he said.
Transport officials approached by Thanh Nien admitted that loose management had led to rampant violations by bus companies, and that existing infrastructure development has not kept pace with the rising number of buses on the road, making trips more hazardous.
According to the Road and Railway Traffic Police Department, Vietnam had licensed 1.8 million automobiles, including buses, as of June this year, for an annual increase of 10 percent.
But these drawbacks do not explain the mafia-esque nature of the bussing business in the country, mostly between cities and surrounding areas within a radius of several hundred kilometers where tickets are not booked but bought after boarding or just before boarding the bus.
The criminal nature of these operations has at its roots a system that is very corrupt. Many bus owners are protected by officials of state management offices because the latter are bribed regularly. With these connections, bus owners allow drivers to break traffic laws, and some bus companies even hire gangsters to fight competitors.
In many cases, bus owners are compensated by insurance companies when accidents happen and their vehicles are damaged. While bus drivers are punished for causing accidents, the owners get away scot-free.
According to statistics from the Ministry of Public Security, between July 1 and August 15, 40 people were killed and 85 others injured in 16 road accidents, of which nine accidents were caused by buses (with 21 dead and 74 injured).