A few years ago we ran a cover story called, Life’s a Boat. We took a sampan down the Mekong, explored the importance of boats, rivers and canals in the development of Hanoi and Saigon, looked at the history of boat tourism in Halong Bay and went rowing on West Lake. One frequently heard comment, particularly with regards to Saigon, was the need to start up a river boat service.
“Normally, travelling to Phu My Hung from District 2 would take at least half an hour,” said boat enthusiast and speedboat owner Carl Gay. “On a [speedboat]? 10 minutes.”
As we discovered, it got better than that. Downtown District 1 to Thao Dien in District 2 on the same vessel was five minutes, and you could get to District 9 in under 10.
Not only would a river boat service along the various tributaries and canals of the Saigon River shorten travel time, it would help ease some of the traffic congestion that over the past few years has been bringing Vietnam’s largest city to a standstill.
The New Service
Three years later and the Department of Transport have announced the launch of a river bus service this coming June. Connecting Bach Dang Wharf in District 1 with Linh Dong Ward in Thu Duc, the river bus will travel just under 11km along the Saigon River and Thanh Da Canal, with seven stops in between.
In September, a second service will be added that will connect District 1 with the Lo Gom area of District 8. With seven stops and travelling a distance of just over 10km, like its sister route, tickets are expected to cost VND15,000 per ride.
According to the operator, Thuong Nhat Ltd Co, in the first phase of the service’s development they will have a fleet of 10 boats that can carry 60 passengers each. The two services, they say, will be able to serve 5,000 passengers per day. This won’t ease congestion issues in this sprawling metropolis, but it will certainly add to the transportation options available in the city.
The problem of setting up any new transport service is will people use it? The Saigonese are so attached to their private transport, whether it’s on two wheels or four, that getting them into public transport mode will be a challenge.
To do this will require a number of things to be put in place including motorbike and car parking near the passenger stations, taxi and xe om ranks, and connecting bus services. It will also require a change in mindset. Public transport is often deemed to be the transport mode of the poor. This was certainly an issue in Bangkok when the Skytrain was first launched. The city’s middle classes wouldn’t use the service as they deemed it to be below them.
Over time the status issues were conquered. But it wasn’t an easy process as in the first few years of operation, the Skytrain ran at a substantial loss.
The biggest issue will simply be getting people used to putting aside their wheels in favour of going public. It’s a conundrum that will affect the upcoming metro system, as well. Bangkok has managed it with their decades-old river boat services that run along the Chao Phraya River and the Saem Saep Canal, and a Skytrain and metro system that connects the two.
The question is, will Saigon? If the river bus can offer a substantial decrease in travel time, then perhaps it will.