I climbed up the little stone staircase, eager to go on to walk on the famous train street of Hanoi and photograph it. And then I was stopped. A woman said I could not pass. I was astonished. I could see people in the street and sitting at some cafes. Do you want to drink or eat something?, she asked, to which I replied, no. I just want to walk through the street. It is not allowed she insisted. I thought maybe she was going to ask me for money. But she didn’t. This other guy seemed to be ignoring me sitting there with some sort of ID he didn’t bother showing me. He appeared more official, but the woman was doing the job without an ID. It is dangerous, she said. I looked at my watch. It was 5pm, and I knew the day’s first train was only coming at 7pm.
I am not going to lie, I was pissed off. I was already disappointed that the train schedule was so late during the week – I was too tired to wait. Yet, I was definitely more interested in photographing the street without the train. And the reasons they were giving me to not let me pass were ridiculous – it was 2 hours until the next train. I snapped some pictures under the surveying eye of the woman and then walked away.
The first time I came across this little corner of the world was on Leighton Travels blog. A video showed a train passing through a narrow street surrounded by buildings which seemed to be the place of living of some. It had quite an impression on me and it seems that in recent years, social media caused a boom in visitors to this place, and multiple safety incidents have been reported, mostly with tourists lying down or sitting on the tracks. Just before Covid, the government had started to create pressure for the street to be barred to visitors and for cafe and restaurant owners to close their doors.
It was in 2018 that this place started to become more famous among tourists. And tourists bring money, so what was quickly becoming a street surrounded by deteriorated buildings and a place for drug addicts to hide, started to flourish with facades being renovated, and new layers of brightly coloured paint. And many of the residents started to open cafes, to accommodate tourists coming to see the train pass by. A great source of income for those who every day live on the brink of poverty.
According to Lonely Planet, the original cafe was The Railway Hanoi, set up in 2017. More cafes then followed, but this definitely made authorities nervous – a first wave of restrictions was imposed, and then lifted because the cafes and the street were not only loved by tourists but by locals as well, with the cafe also promoting interesting projects for the community such as free English classes for the kids.
Officially, the Train Steert has been closed since October 2019. I did see a cafe open, with what looked like tourists sitting and waiting to see the train pass. On the next day, I also came across a different way I could have entered the street but decided against it as I didn’t want to get in trouble with any authorities.
It does seem though that some tourists still manage to get in – quick online research shows me a TripAdvisor page full of recent reviews – some claiming the place is full of tourists, and not enjoyable at all. Either way, it seems to be a matter of time for Train Street to be closed once and for all, to both locals and tourists, potentially with residents being forced to move away. And all because of Instagrammers who made the street worldwide famous, a must-go place for those of us looking for the perfect Instagram photo. This also made me wonder – is part of being a sustainable traveller simply not sharing the precious gems we find along the road? Could we avoid getting original places such as this being turned into awful tourist attractions by simply moving away from our own vanity and sharing less?
Definitely something I’ve been reflecting on.
2 thoughts on “The sad ending of Hanoi’s Train Street”
I have been enjoying your recent posts Nic. We visited so many of the same spots, so I’ve been retracing my old steps, so to speak. Thanks for the backlink and mention, I feel lucky to have been able to explore Hanoi Train Street and meet a few of the locals. The situation now surrounding the street is bizarre to say the least. Your last thought is an interesting one. It’s something we should all consider I suppose, but speaking personally I love blogging so much I couldn’t possibly give it up or water it down in any way. Maybe that makes me selfish, not sure.
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Thanks for reading Leighton, glad you are enjoying it so far! I completely understand, I always say that the two things I like to do more besides the actual trip is to plan it and to share it. I definitely won’t stop blogging or posting on social media, but it was definitely a thought that became a reflection 🙂 I don’t think sharing a passion with the world should ever be considered selfish. I do believe in being self-aware, trying to be responsible and owning to whatever we put out there. I don’t think what’s happening with the Train Street is to be blamed on the tourists, more on the local authorities and their inability to create a safe space for locals and tourists alike, taking in the benefits of the extra income while conserving such an iconic place. Perhaps things will change for the better in the future!
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