How We Invented Hanoi's 'Train Street' (and How Instagram Ruined It)
I know, I know…how can we claim we ‘invented’ something like ‘train street’? In fact, how dare we? Trains have surely been running through that neighborhood since Hanoi has even had trains! And curious travelers must also have ventured down that way at some point, marveling at the way locals eat, drink, cook, work and play right there on the tracks – until that familiar choo choo! sounds, and everyone scarpers. Someone must even have taken photos!
Yes, that’s all true. But we were the first to make it a ‘thing to do’, an experience, and especially a photographic one. And of course, we were the first to make a tour of it, with our Hanoi On the Tracks, created in 2013. Several years later, ‘train street’ had become a phenomenon, spawning a million Instagram posts, and an entire cottage industry of trackside cafes, restaurants and souvenir shops. Then it got shut down by the city government, most recently a couple of weeks ago.
So how did train street come about? And how did it fall apart?
Back in 2012, I was living on a street called Cao Bá Quát, right around the corner from the train line. I always absolutely loved that the train ran straight through the middle of Hanoi, stopping all the traffic when it passed. And I loved that you could take a shortcut down the tracks to get from Lê Duẩn to Nguyễn Khuyến, or Trần Phú to Lý Nam Đế. Away from the noise of the ever-flowing traffic, life along the railway seemed peaceful and slow, a snapshot of bygone times. And there was just something inherently cool about walking down a train track, especially in a city like Hanoi.
Colm and I started Vietnam in Focus that year, and our first two tours were Hanoi Encounter (a pretty run of the mill Old Quarter tour, soon abandoned) and Long Bien Sunrise (one for the adventure heads, and still going strong). But we were just getting warmed up – we wanted a photo tour that would show people something uniquely Hanoi, and give them images they’d never find elsewhere. Colm, an experienced photojournalist, was always on the lookout for a story, a theme. A crazy idea – the tracks were calling…
We walked the railway lines between Hanoi station and Long Bien a couple of times, before settling on a route. The biggest difference back then – many poorer families lived there, and truant kids would often be roaming around. People sat on the tracks to cook, wash their hair, read a newspaper, and they looked astonished to see a couple of Tây (westerners) passing by. But only when the train came flying through, sending everyone for cover, did we realize this was something special.
One of our first guests for On the Tracks was an Indian photographer named Kana Baroda. Not only did he write a fantastic review for us on TripAdvisor, he was kind enough to forgive Colm for running off before the end of the tour to attend his first child’s birth. A few months later, Kana even had his pictures from the tour published in the UK’s Daily Mail. The tour grew in popularity, and we started getting lots of questions about train times… We should have charged for that information!
In 2014, I got an email from GlobeTrekker TV, who were making a TV series for the Travel Channel called ‘Tough Trains’. They asked if I thought Vietnam would make a good location for an episode… Soon enough, we were shooting an interview with Colm on the Lý Nam Đế stretch, which would be beamed around the world, in hundreds of countries. I gave the producers some tips from my own experiences on Vietnamese trains, and helped them out with subtitle translation at the editing stage. The presenter of the show even borrowed an idea from one of my early country-length train trips, when I’d nearly broken my rump traveling two and half days on a wooden bench.
After that, we noticed changes along the tracks – cafes springing up, other tour companies leading large groups along our route. A trickle became a flood, and now we could only run the early morning tour because of the crowds during the day. Then Instagram happened. By the time we ran a tour with a group from National Geographic in 2019, train street had become like Cape Canaveral at a rocket launch – hordes of onlookers, cameras everywhere, waiting for the main event. Every house between Trần Phú and Lý Nam Đế now offered some kind of service to tourists, meaning the old locals had all moved elsewhere, bought out by prospectors.
A clip from our tour with the guys from National Geographic. Waiting for the train to launch! Soon after that, ‘train street’ got shut down for the first time. Photo by Duc Linh Nguyen