Chasing Hanoi’s Street Train
Twice a day, a train speeds through the heart of Hanoi, narrowly passing between houses !!! Join me as I explore this Urban phenomenon.
A loud horn can be heard in the distance. Nearby, people come out and start taking in their motorbikes and belongings into their homes. Children stop playing and head inside, drying clothes are taken inside, the street gets deserted. No, this isn’t a prelude to a gun fight in a remote western town !! It’s just preparation for the daily train passing by … inches from the doors !!
In 2016 when I visited Hanoi briefly, I was amazed to see train tracks passing between houses. While I was no stranger to seeing life on the tracks, the sheer closeness of how the train weaves into daily lives intrigued me. So on my recent visit to Hanoi, I decided to spend some time exploring this rather unique urban phenomenon.
I began my journey along the tracks at the main train station, moving along the main roads till the tracks revealed themselves. The tracks weaved between narrow buildings, just as a street might, with locals treating the rather unusual railroad in their backyard with remarkable nonchalance.
As I walked along the tracks, little vignettes of Vietnamese life revealed themselves. From school children on their way home to vendors selling fruits to folks resting in comfy chairs along the tracks, doing dishes along the tracks to even offering spirit money to the ancestors – the tracks were lively, just like any other street.
I stopped at a railway crossing to figure out when the train would arrive. And alas, it seemed that I wouldn’t get a chance that day to see the train. I explored the tracks more that day and then planned to return on another day. I ended the day at Long Bien bridge, where I just about managed to catch the train leaving the station.
A few weeks later, I was back at the train tracks, but still quite clueless at what time the train would pass by. I had read that it would pass by at about 3 – 3:30 pm and so I planned my visit then, but a little nagging doubt still remained – maybe I mistimed this again. I spent a few minutes photographing the tracks again and each passing minute made it even more likely that I’d go back without seeing the train again.
Then suddenly a guard started moving barriers and it looked like I was in luck. I quickly found a nice spot to shoot from and waited. I didn’t have to wait long as pretty soon the train raced by, screaming as it passed by. I managed to click a few pictures before the train vanished in a sea of motorbikes as it went onwards to its destination
Being so close to a passing train, that too in such a surreal environment was a crazy, once-in-a-lifetime experience for me. Still, I can only begin to imagine how this might be just another facet of life for those living along the tracks.
The train street is located between Lê Duẩn and Khâm Thin street in Hanoi’s old quarter. You can walk along the tracks pretty much all the way to Long Bien bridge. Vietnam in Focus conducts a regular photo-walk on weekdays and weekends (subject to demand) called “On the tracks” ($79) to explore the tracks. I’d highly recommend this if you want to get a feel for the place and are somewhat reluctant to explore on your own
When to Visit
Trains pass by daily at around 3- 3:30 pm and 7 pm. Unless you want to shoot the train at night, you might be best suited to try for the afternoon. Do get there a little early so that you have time to find a spot to view the train
Where to stay
Hanoi has plenty of options to suit all budgets. For budget accommodation I would recommend the Hanoi Gratitude Hotel (from $30 a night) and Palmy Hotel and Spa (from $ 50 a night) as good options in the Old quarter
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