Life on the Hanoi Train Tracks

Note: As of mid-October 2019, tourists are not being admitted onto train street. There are ongoing efforts to reopen the famous street in a way that is safe for all involved but as of Nov. 18, 2019, train street remains closed.

In America, we are used to barriers, “no entry” signs, and laws limiting our access to certain areas. Our litigious society – for better or worse – rarely permits entry into a danger zone.

So I often find myself laughing a little in Southeast Asia when I end up in some kind of death-defying half-splits, with one-leg precariously perched atop razor-edge rocks with nothing but a certain-death amount of space between me and the far-off ground beneath – all in the name of a picture.

Dad and the Mountaintop Dragon
I am literally risking my life to take this picture of my dad. There is nothing between me and a very long drop. We would not have access to this picture in the United States.

It’s just different here. It’s a less litigious society, certainly, but I think it has more to do with the fact that space is more limited. People don’t need the same space “bubble” that we’ve developed in the states and, quite frankly, space does come at more of a premium.

That’s exemplified by Train Street in Hanoi. It’s now a “Top Instagram Spot” in this city of scooters, beauty, and scooters amidst beauty.

This isn’t train street, but it is a typical moment in Hanoi.

“Train Street” is what we tourists call it on Trip Advisor, but this is a legitimate residential neighborhood that operates on top of the train tracks.

Train Street Hanoi
Just another day on the train tracks.

They know the schedule of the train and, when it comes through, they clear out. The games stop, the chairs scrape to the side, and the laundry gets an added gust of drying power as a no-joke train rips through the middle of this narrow neighborhood.

Train street Hanoi
Laundry drying on train street.

The locals have gotten wise to the “instagrammable” power of the place, so there are pubs set up along the tracks.

Train street in Hanoi
Waiting for the train

If you’ve ever worked in a restaurant, you know how nice it is to know exactly when the rush will come – and the bar owners here know just that. Twenty minutes before the train is scheduled to zoom through the neighborhood, the bars fill up.

That’s how close the train gets!

And then they will bring the bill and all goes quiet until the next train. The bartenders and servers also act as a sort of safety patrol, ensuring that everyone stands up and out of the way of the train.

Train Street in Hanoi
I mean, there are SOME signs here and there…

I loved my time on the train tracks. I drank my beer, took my pictures, and marveled at the easy-going, adaptable, entrepreneurial attitude of the Hanoi people.

Train Street Hanoi
All the photo opps exist on Train Street.

My dad and I even laughed at the limited signage and we played at being just a little bit dangerous.

Train Street Hanoi
Dad’s feet over the line. Living dangerously.

And then, not one week later, on a night-train from Ninh Binh to Hue, I saw firsthand how fast this easy-going, adaptable, entrepreneurial attitude can end a life in nanoseconds.

I wrote about that disturbing experience on my page on Medium. Click here if you wish to read about that part of this journey.

Right now train street is closed to tourists, but here is another way to explore Hanoi.

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