A shrill whistle blows. Like much of Vietnam’s rail network the signaling system here is mostly manual. And that whistle means the next train will be passing through Hanoi’s Train Street shortly. Within seconds the proprietors of the make-shift cafes and bars lining the track leap into action. Tables and chairs that sit against the rail line are quickly scooped up and moved out of the way. The gaggles of tourists are herded back a (hopefully) safe distance, often with a beer in one hand and a camera in the other.
A couple minutes later the train rolls through. Perhaps it is moving a little faster than expected, or perhaps the ice cold beer on a hot Hanoi evening is affecting that perception. And then, just as quickly as the tables and chairs disappeared, they return to the edge of the tracks. Another round is ordered while visitors quickly check the photos they snapped. And if you wait 15-20 minutes there’s a pretty good chance it will happen all over again.
This is the nightly ritual of Hanoi’s “Train Street” where the building sit nearly on top of the tracks. It is a scene seemingly made for Instagram (though the construction is decades older). And, according to recent reports, it is poised to shut down owing to the risk to tourists getting hit by the trains.
I first learned of Hanoi’s “Train Street” rather by accident. We were in a car weaving its way through the city en route to our hotel and noticed tracks crossing the street. Nothing too surprising about that, save for the buildings right along the edge of the tracks and the crowds flocking to the area. A quick bit of research revealed that the area is a hopping scene when the trains roll through. We made plans to visit the following afternoon, not knowing that the trains only really come through in the evenings, at least on weekdays. During the day the scene is relatively benign.
The shop owners try to draw visitors in while a seemingly regular life goes on around them. Our walk through could’ve been on any random side street in Hanoi, save for the tracks in the middle. A man sat on a rail, shaving as others walked by or squeezed scooters between the tourists along impossibly narrow strips of concrete. At night, though. At night it changes.
The hawkers are more plentiful, matching the swelling crowds. The scene is perhaps jubilant, with plenty of beer available and more than enough visitors to drink it down. But controlling those crowds is a challenge. Even the night I visited, where the numbers didn’t seem too crazy, our shop-keeper had an incident with one guest that didn’t respond initially to the need to move. Fortunately that was quickly resolved and without affecting the train operations, but it is easy to see how things can get out of hand. It only takes one visitor acting stupid.
Or an accident. Someone trips. A beer bottle slips from the balcony onto the people or train below. Any of these could beget tragedy.
On the one hand, it is nice to experience a culture where people are expected to take responsibility for their actions. It makes access to some of the crazier experiences – like Train Street – possible. But it also creates greater risk. And if the crowds continue to grow and interfere with the train operations that could be a far more significant problem. But I’m very glad I had the opportunity to visit while it was open.
More from my Vietnam Adventures
- Six new (to me) airlines booked; more to come!
- Tapping in to Vietnam’s craft beer scene
- DLD 262: Hello from Hanoi!
- Hanoi’s Train Street is awesome and is being shut down
- DLD 263: A Hong Kong connection
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