I took some of my food tour clients to the “Hanoi Strain Street” yesterday, and it reminded me of a quote by Mark Twain: “I saw a startling sight today, a politician with his hands in his own pockets”. It has become an Instagram-famous street where tourists come in hopes of a perfect picture with a unique background. I saw no politician on the train street there, but the increasing number of coffee shops with chairs sitting next the tracks are making it a startling sight.
The Road to Its Fame
The original meter-gauge tracks running through Hanoi are part of the North-South railway, which was built by the French colonial about 100 years ago. Today it’s still a regular mode of transport for locals and tourists. Unknowingly, people working in the railway industry began to build houses on both sides, and just a meter off the train tracks. Over the years, houses turned into small hamlets running along the tracks, starting from Long Bien Bridge to the Hanoi Train Station on Le Duan Street.
For that many years the railway lines quietly mingle with the life of this place, and people call it the “train track hamlet”. Like any other hamlet, it has all the timbre of life, with the mixtures of old and new, highlighted with a railway in the middle. Since the end of the American War, many generations have been living along the tracks, attaching their life to the come and go French-era trains.
I first walked through those unique hamlets with my travelers in 2015. After visiting the Art Vietnam Gallery and talking to its founder, Mrs. Suzanne Lecht, we were both inspired by a $5000 US picture of the train tracks lying between the old houses. We walked up and down the length of the “train street”, and we saw no tourist nor any foreigner. Local people and children were quite amused seeing us walking on the tracks.
But just four years later, those once empty train tracks with its hidden charms became the city’s most visited attraction, or most startling site, thanks to Instagram.
Life on the Hanoi Train Street
The train tracks take up nearly the entire “train street”, where living rooms, kitchens and locals’ bed rooms are within 2 meters from the tracks, people cook and eat just that distance away from the passing trains. We saw that the locals, who have been living there for their life, know the train schedules by heart and plan their day around them. “The train goes by a few times in the morning and more in the evening, but I don't find it a nuisance”, said Huong, a lady who has been living there for 55 years.
They live out their lives on their doorsteps, where fragrant aromas emanated from a food outlet selling bun cha dish, mixing with the smoke from the burning charcoal creating a bouquet so uniquely Hanoi street food. Women were chatting to each other siting on plastic chairs set right in between the tracks, so were the chickens pecking on the chopped green.
When the train was about to come, in just a matter three minutes, it went to an eerie ghost street. At first, we felt the slight rumbling underfoot, and then the high pitched screeching of wheels on the track. Then came the horn blast, echoing off the narrow alleyway as one final warning for anyone that remains on the tracks. The train speeds past the buildings with just inches to spare. Any remaining pedestrians pressed themselves tightly to walls with a startling nonchalance as the carriages narrowly missed the end of their nose.
The train disappeared as quickly as it arrived. Within seconds of it passing, everything went back to normal. The hamlet emerged to continue on with their day as if nothing had happened.
This unique Hanoi train street has become a favorite photo-taking spot of both locals and international tourists, drawing a huge amount of tourists to the hamlet to selfie with the railway and train street background, many come just to glimpse the startling sight. Many of them have gotten so obsessive about having the perfect social media photo that they hired professional photographers to follow them in pursuit of an Instagram photo, giving birth to the phrase "do it for the 'gram".
Where is the Hanoi Train Street?
If you are exploring the train street yourself, the best way to find where to begin is to type “Ngo 224 Le Duan” into google maps, and let it guide you to a part of the train tracks where you can walk along the tracks. By using the map, you can find the shorter walk from where you are.
There are a number of spots along the track where you can watch the train, almost every coffee shop has a board saying when the train arrives, however, some areas are more crowded than others. In the recent months, the street became more congested, but it’s got charm thanks to all the stores and seating available. The best places to watch the train zoom by is from the safety of a cafés outdoor seating. Just remember to ask for any cold beverages without a straw - the plastic problem in Vietnam is very real and we can all do our part!
When Does the Train Pass?
There are multiple trains that run across the tracks every day, the best time to take photos without crowds is earlier (much like anywhere else). Most people catch the 15h20 train, so café seating by the tracks might be busier around that time.
Train times from Monday to Friday
6h00, 19h00, 19h50, 20h30, 22h00.
Train times on Saturday and Sunday
6h00, 9h15, 11h30, 15h20, 17h45, 18h40, 19h00, 19h45, 20h30, 21h00, 22h00, 23h00.
Departure times may change due to delays, so expect some 15 minutes later than each of the time frame above. It’s better to arrive at least 30 minutes before the expected schedule to get a good viewing spot.
Mind Your Safety!
If you are going to see and take photos of the moving train, please mind your own safety by making sure you get your photo well before the train makes its appearance. When it’s nearing time for the trains to roll on in, find a safe spot on the side of the track at one of the many cafés that line the sides of the rails.
Don’t overstay your time on the train way, it isn’t likely to stop if you are caught in the middle of the track when it passes. Getting a cool photo isn’t worth the chance of death.
There is a good thing on the train street that the local people, as a habit, pop their heads out to check whether there is someone lingering over the railway. If you are standing too close to the tracks, it's very likely that a local will shout to you to alert.
Hanoi’s Talking About the Train Street Closure
The heat of the train street and the increasing number of the tourists coming to the side, appearing cafés and street vendors springing up along both sides of the train tracks, have raised the authorities some serious safety concerns. Just few days ago, Hanoi was ordered to shut down the selfie hotspots and makeshift shops violating the railway safety.
An authority warns that the appearance of the local business along the train tracks, allowing visitors to sit just inches from the tracks, are extremely dangerous and increased the risk of railway accidents threatening the lives of foreign tourists.
This morning, October 10, 2019, just few hours before I post this article, local Hanoi police are blocking entrances with barriers to stop visitors from walking into the train street. Hopefully, this closure is only temporary, and there will soon be some kind of safer ways for visitors to experience the remarkable and unique Hanoi train street.