A few weeks ago, Ve Ding Hoang maneuvered his Ride-On bus through a maze of orange pylons and rubber balls with enough finesse to take top honors in this year's Montgomery County bus operator "roadeo."
Wrangling a bus through turns affording a margin of three inches takes skill not matched by some veteran bus drivers.
Hoang, 37, who grew up in a quiet suburb of Hue, South Vietnam, has only been driving a bus for four years, and says that previously, he had little experience driving anything.
The former South Vietnam air force officer's earlier encounters with vehicles included the time that a big army truck had to be moved from in front of an office in his native country -- when he "just got in and moved it" without really knowing how to drive -- and some "zigzagging around" in a forklift truck while he was working part-time in a Forestville furniture store.
The zigzagging practice came in handy for the roadeo, when Hoang had to drive the "serpentine," a difficult maneuver. "I hit the gas and did it -- in one application," he recalled.
"I can do any job," said Hoang, who is assigned to drive the 31 and 34 routes between Bethesda and Glen Echo. "Just give me a chance."
His first chance came in 1972, he said, when he was chosen by his supervisors to participate in a U.S. military-sponsored training program that brought him here.
"That was a big thing," Hoang said. "Many people bribed officers to get chosen. . . . I just worked hard and did well in English."
From 1972 to 1974, he spent time studing management and production techniques in Texas and Illinois before being assigned in Vietnam to work on U.S. bases coordinating aircraft maintenance.
During his two-year stay in this country, Hoang met Air Force Master Sgt. Harry Renninger, who would later sponsor his migration to this country and help him move to Hyattsville.
When Hoang returned to Vietnam in 1974, he served as a lieutenant in charge of supply and maintaince at Nha Trang air base. At that time, the U.S. military was shifting the brunt of the fighting responsiblity to the Vietnamese army. Hoang said he was "working day and night" then to help keep 50 to 60 helicopters and jets flying.
By 1975, North Vietnamese troops had all but surrounded Saigon, but Hoang was able to escape aboard a jet commandeered from the Vietnamese air force and piloted by a man who hadn't flown for years. Hoang's parents and siblings remained in Vietnam.
Hoang said that at one point during the flight, the pilot walked among the passengers asking if there were any mechanics on board: The airplane couldn't descend because of wing-control problems.
Fortunately, the plane was full of fleeing air force mechanics who were still carrying their tool boxes, Hoang said. Eventually, the plane was repaired and landed safely in Thailand.
Hoang said that he was "very lucky" to escape from Vietnam at all, but that it forced him, in effect, to start life all over.
Once in this country, he took a series of jobs -- stuffing envelopes, moving furniture, pumping gas -- that paid as little as $2 an hour. Until 1980, Hoang said, he worked at least two jobs a day "trying to avoid welfare. . . . I wanted to help myself first.
"I'm a transplant -- no longer an officer -- and I expect to do whatever is necessary to survive."
It was in 1980 that Hoang's fortunes took a swing for the better when a friend told him about a job as a maintenance worker with the Montgomery County transportation department's motor pool.
Six months later, when the Ride-On bus system expanded operations, Hoang -- who had learned to drive a car by this time -- was trained by the county and became a full-time bus operator.
He continued to attend classes at the Control Data Institute in Arlington, and landed a job as a computer programmer, and switched to driving part time.
After two years as a programmer, Hoang quit his job after his boss left and he found he was not able to get along with the new manager.
In 1983, after searching without success for a another programming job, Hoang resumed full-time work as a driver.
He said he's happy driving for Ride-On, but has also applied for a supervisory job. In the meantime, he plans to continue his schooling to improve chances for promotion.
The hardest aspect of driving is dealing with "so many different people. . . . I have to be so careful," Hoang said. "In my country, the bus driver is a king: people listen when he talks. Here, I have to listen carefully and know all kinds of things to be able to help."
He has among his commendations a memorandum from the Ride-On operations section's chief and a letter of praise from a passenger who said the driver had gone out of his way to help him. Hoang said he cherishes the letter because bus drivers in this country are thought of as "nasty."
Hoang said he remembers names and faces of his regular riders and that they "know I'm always on time. They have confidence they won't have to stand in the rain or cold."
Hoang said sometimes on his Bethesda routes he drives with the bus empty, which he finds funny: "In my country, bus drivers never go anywhere empty."
Asked if he would ever return to Vietnam, Hoang said he dreams of it. But returning would mean "starting over once more," he said. "I don't think I want to do that soon."