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Stuck in motion: Co-riding, interaction, and social distancing in public space in Ho Chi Minh City

Immobilisé dans le mouvement : voyager ensemble, interagir et garder la distance sociale dans l’espace public de Hô-Chi-Minh-Ville
Catherine Earl
p. 103-127


Public space in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), Vietnam, appears to be malleable and unsettled. Located in a developing mega-urban region, the city is undergoing rapid economic growth and development. Its public spaces are emerging, disappearing, and transforming. The Saigon Bus network is a subsidised but flailing mass transit system. Taken as a public space, it highlights some of the particular features of public spaces in East Asian socialist contexts. Drawing on long-term ethnographic fieldwork among highly mobile residents of HCMC this paper aims to explore issues observed in shared non-private spaces in order to shed light on how public spaces in Vietnam’s largest city are made and used. Leaning on concepts of Lyn Lofland and Erving Goffman, I explore interactions of co-riders on Saigon Bus services and co-riders’ responses to experiencing an offensive odour. The paper concludes that, firstly, public spaces are made through practices that transform while-in-use and they can be self-regulating while under rules and regulations. Secondly, public spaces are place-dependent and in HCMC typically include anonymous, private and commercial activities. Thirdly, public spaces are socio-historically situated in the contemporary post-reform socialist context of pre-pandemic and post-pandemic times.

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Ho Chi Minh City’s public spaces
Stranger-relationality on the Saigon Bus
Stuck in motion on Saigon Bus route 34
Olfaction and social distancing on Saigon Bus

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Public space in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), Vietnam, remains unsettled. Like the city itself, which is undergoing a seemingly unending process of development and growth, HCMC’s public spaces are emerging, disappearing and transforming. For example, the small square in front of the main cathedral, a popular selfie spot, reappeared in late 2019 as restoration works on the cathedral progressed. The square in front of the famous Bến Thành market, where the city’s main bus terminal was previously located, had not yet reappeared after disappearing more than two years earlier into the building site for the long-awaited metropolitan rapid transit (MRT) system. In the midst of the construction works for the MRT (subway), HCMC’s main boulevard Nguyễn Huệ became pedestrianised in part to encourage people to gather in the disrupted city centre. Unlike a fear of spontaneous crowds in Hanoi’s public spaces noted by Thomas (2002), open-air public spaces constructed by the state, such as H...

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Bibliographical reference

Catherine Earl, Stuck in motion: Co-riding, interaction, and social distancing in public space in Ho Chi Minh CityCivilisations, 69 | 2020, 103-127.

Electronic reference

Catherine Earl, Stuck in motion: Co-riding, interaction, and social distancing in public space in Ho Chi Minh CityCivilisations [Online], 69 | 2020, Online since 01 January 2024, connection on 17 January 2022. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Catherine Earl

Catherine Earl is lecturer in communication at RMIT Vietnam. She has conducted ethnographic fieldwork in and around Ho Chi Minh City since 2000. She is author of Vietnam’s New Middle Classes: Gender, Career, City (2014), editor of Mythbusting Vietnam: Facts, Fictions, Fantasies (2018), and co-author of Retiring Women: Work and Post-Work Transitions (2021, with Philip Taylor, Elizabeth Brooke & Christopher McLoughlin). Her research interests include the rise of Vietnam’s middle and affluent classes, changing nature of work and welfare, urban mobilities, and gender and social change in contemporary Vietnam and Australia.[School of Communication and Design, RMIT Vietnam, 702 Nguyên Văn Linh, Tân Phong Ward, District 7, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam | Catherine.Earl[at]].

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