One moment all appears normal on this sleepy back street in Hanoi. But then there’s a low rumble. Tourists sitting outside cafés get their phones at the ready. And then, as if from nowhere, a train zooms down the improbably narrow single-track railway.
However, the makeshift cafés on Hanoi’s “train street,” one of the Vietnamese capital’s most popular tourist spots, are to close after a near-miss on Sunday.
The safety of the street has been a cause for concern for some time, but local authorities finally gave a weekend deadline for dozens of cafés to shut after a train had to apply its emergency brakes at a section that had become overcrowded with tourists.
The train driver Nguyen Huu Nam was quoted in the VN Express, a national Vietnamese newspaper, as saying he saw a woman standing close to the track taking pictures. Nam says he sounded the horn but she did not move, forcing him to stop the train just metres away from her.
Nam said it was the third time he had had to make an emergency stop at this section of the railway.
In recent years entrepreneurial locals have cashed in on the street’s popularity, with cafés such as the Hanoi Rail Track Café billing itself as an “excellent place to visit, to chill and get amazing photos of the train.”
But a number of illegal cafés have sprung up in recent years with outdoor seating dangerously close to the tracks.
On Tuesday Ha Van Sieu, deputy chairman of the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, held a press conference and said: “Though the railway cafes attract tourists, they are, in fact, violating some regulations.” He added that while new tourism initiatives are encouraged, they must conform to legal regulations.
The single-track railway that runs through Hanoi’s Old Quarter was built during French colonial rule in the early 20th century, although the houses that now stand impossibly close to the tracks were built afterwards. Homes in close proximity to roads and railways are not an uncommon sight in this city of more than 7.5 million residents.
The popularity of Hanoi’s train street has boomed in recent years. In November 2018 around 7,000 images had been tagged with #trainstreet on Instagram – there are now over 26,000 with the tag. The Google Trends graph, which indicates searches on Google, also shows how the search term “train street Hanoi” has gone up over the last two years.
However, according to Indonesian Instagrammer Kristian Patrasio Pasaribu, there is nothing particularly unique about this street. In a post last year, he said: “It was quite hyped on Instagram, so I decided to pay a visit. Maybe because I’ve seen similar places like this in various cities in Indonesia, I don’t know what [is] so special about this spot.”
He added: “Amid the flock of foreign tourists, I bet the local people thought nothing special too. I saw a woman cutting vegetables in preparation for dinner, a gentleman washing his motorbike and a couple of kids playing around on the rail track. For them, it was just another day. It’s funny how someone’s ordinary life may look extraordinary in the eyes of others.”
Vietnam has become an increasingly popular tourist destination in recent years. In 1998 only 1.5 million travelled to the south-east Asian country, a number that shot up to 15.5 million in 2018 – more than the number of people who travelled to Morocco, Switzerland or South Africa.