Vietnam. Hanoi. Train Street.

Over a year ago myself and my best friend Judith started planning a special trip to celebrate our milestone birthdays. We’re the same age as we met at school many many years ago, but have never had a holiday together. We decided to have an adventure to a country that neither of us have been to before, and after plenty of research, ideas and tips from other people who’ve been there, we chose Vietnam. As our departure date of March 1st approached though, we started wondering whether our trip would be able to go ahead, as the Covid-19 virus was starting to spread around the world and many people were cancelling their travel plans. Undeterred, having checked the small print in our travel insurance, and despite one us being told things such as “you’re insane”, “well good luck with that!” and receiving a text saying “don’t go” we flew out as planned. All the crew on both our flights were wearing face masks and gloves, but very few of the passengers were.

Our first destination was Hanoi and we’d chosen an AirBnb apartment in the ‘Old Town’ area. I’d pre-booked a taxi transfer as the airport is approximately 45-50 minutes outside of Old Town and we’d read tales of tourists being ripped off so didn’t want a bad start to our adventure. In addition, we were arriving in the evening and knew that we’d want to get to bed as soon as we arrived. The first thing we did though was to buy a local SIM for my phone which took all of 5 minutes. This was our first experience of how efficient things are there. Upon exiting the airport, a driver was waiting for us with our names on a board, and we walked out into a balmy evening that unmistakably smelled of the Far East. Our driver found the address for our AirBnb easily, despite it being tucked away in a small square off a side street, and helped us with our cases right up to the front gate of our building. That’s when we encountered our first hitch. We had very detailed ‘self check in’ messages and got into the building with no problem but the lift wouldn’t work for us as we didn’t have a keycard for it. I was very thankful for having bought a local SIM, so rang our host who gave us different instructions and it wasn’t long before we were fast asleep in our beds.

One of the sights I really wanted to see in Hanoi was Train Street. This is a residential street and a train trundles through twice a day. What’s so special about this street is that it’s so narrow, all residents must ensure that their bikes, chairs & tables, personal belongings, and roaming children are all safely inside their house before the train passes. Many of the residents have opened up the back of their homes, turned them into track-side cafés and bars, and make their living from tourists. Last October I was disappointed to learn that the authorities had closed Train Street to the general public due to safety reasons. Apparently idiotic tourists had been standing on the tracks in order to take selfies as the train was approaching so I’d resigned myself to accepting that this was one sight that I wouldn’t be able to experience. As it happened, the first day we were wandering around Hanoi, we stumbled across the end of the street, and it was less than a ten minute walk from our apartment. Sure enough, there was a barrier in place with a policeman very sternly turning people away. As we were standing there, a local lady in the street mimed drinking, and indicated for us to walk around the buildings. As we did so, she popped out of the front of her house and beckoned us through to her tiny café at the side of the track. The rules have been bent, and once there, we could wander up and down a short distance, although when Judith ventured too far, she had a policeman blow his whistle at her so she scarpered quickly back to me whilst he was engaged in arguing with two more tourists! Anyway, we ended up with drinks and a delicious freshly cooked lunch for less than £2 each. In the right hand photo below, you can see how close the train tracks are. 

Having explored elsewhere during the afternoon, we found ourselves back at Train Street in the evening.A local lady came up to the barrier, spoke to the surly policeman, and he let us through with her.  She explained that they had ‘an arrangement’ that allows tourists to go into the street, providing they are accompanied and going to eat or drink there.  We therefore found ourselves at a different café, up a very steep set of stairs and on a balcony.

As we were about to leave, the owner told us that a train would be passing through about 30 minutes later, so of course we had to stay and experience it. Sure enough, it was indeed extremely close to the buildings!

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Train Street in Hanoi from Julie Lovegrove on Vimeo.


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