Women in southern Vietnam have been challenging gender stereotypes for decades as long-haul passenger bus and truck drivers.
The physically demanding job, which involves hours of maneuvering bulky vehicles through dense traffic and avoiding accidents, has been traditionally the domain of men.
Long-haul female drivers are not something one expects to see every day.
At 4:30 am, a commotion stirred at the Western Bus Station, one of Ho Chi Minh City’s major coach stations.
While a Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper reporter searched for a coach to Cao Lanh City, in the heart of Dong Thap Province in the Mekong Delta, a slightly-built woman enthusiastically ushered her to a blue bus parked nearby.
That woman was Chau My Huynh, 41, a native of Dong Thap.
To the surprise of many, Huynh has been on the job as a long-distance passenger bus driver for nearly 20 years now.
“Huynh is the only woman on the job at this bus station. Despite her slight build, she is a really tough, careful driver. Patrons usually insist she carry them,” one of the station’s supervisors said.
Chau My Huynh (right) spends rare moments with her grandmother during her days off work. Photo: Tuoi Tre
After drinking coffee to stay awake, Huynh climbs into the driver’s seat of a bulky 45-seat passenger bus and slowly drives away.
Born into three generations of long-distance passenger bus drivers, as a child, Huynh would accompany her father on many of his inter-provincial rides throughout the Mekong Delta.
The little girl gradually developed a fondness for the job, which involves quick meals and spending nights in the vehicle, as well as dealing with the likelihood of thugs and extortionists.
“At 14, during one such ride to Sa Dec [another city in Dong Thap Province], I was amazed at the sight of a woman driving a truck overloaded with rice. My dream of becoming a driver started then,” she recalled.
Huynh met with fierce family objection, however, as girls were supposedly not cut out for the driving job.
Set on realizing her dream, Huynh taught herself how to drive without her family’s knowledge by observing her father closely and driving his bus at night while he was fast asleep.
She would sometimes doze off in the cabin.
When she turned 18, the girl sought her family’s permission for a months-long trip, during which she took a driving course in a neighboring province.
Her family’s reaction was mixed but when she later brought home her driver’s license, they finally yielded to their daughter’s indulgence.
Huynh soon matured from a driving assistant to an official driver and was recruited by a transport company.
With the job, she became the breadwinner of the family, providing for her parents and supporting her younger brothers’ university education.
“I had a tough beginning. My boss and colleagues doubted I could stick to the job, but gradually I proved to them how careful I was as a female driver,” Huynh said.
Ten years ago, she worked as both the driver and an assistant by helping passengers carry their baggage.
“I still help my patrons, but now my back aches a lot after long trips,” the woman added.
Female driver Tran Thi Tuyet. Courtesy of Tran Thi Tuyet
With two shuttle rides each day from Ho Chi Minh City to Cao Lanh City, approximately 160 kilometers apart, Huynh typically leaves home in the wee hours and does not return until midnight.
Over the past 20 years, the single woman has rarely even been treated to cozy meals with her grandmother, who she lives with.
Huynh earns VND200,000-250,000 (US$9-11) per day, which is enough to support herself, her grandmother and youngest brother who is studying at a topnotch university in Ho Chi Minh City.
“Upon my youngest brother’s graduation, I will start saving money to buy my own bus and offer passenger transport services, which will be less physically strenuous,” Huynh said.
Meanwhile, Tran Thi Tuyet, 45, has eked out a living by driving trucks loaded with produce from An Giang Province, also in the Mekong Delta, to the Thu Duc wholesale market in Ho Chi Minh City.
Her salary barely provides for her family of five, including her three growing children.
“I’m never at ease whenever I’m behind the wheel. Luckily my male colleagues often make way for me to overtake them, or help me fix my truck when it breaks down,” she said.
Tuyet said that she now knows what is wrong with her vehicle and how to fix any problems just by listening to the engine.
The woman, whose face is gaunt from lack of sleep, revealed that her husband walked away following the birth of their third child, leaving her alone to care for their three kids and her own aging parents.
She borrowed money for a truck driving course and later earned her license.
However, she was denied a job until several male drivers quit their jobs several months later, when she was finally hired to transport coconuts from Ben Tre, another Mekong Delta province, to Ho Chi Minh City.
Tuyet later took on longer trips to earn more and develop her experience.
Apart from daytime driving, the woman, who looks much older than her years, also drives at night carrying heavy loads for extra money.
During these trips, the mother can never shake the anxiety she feels for her children at home.