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"Short stories and travel reports from my life adventures around the globe".

Travel Report: Hanoi Train Street.

Visit Hanoi Train Street.

Hanoi Train Street.

April 2018.

I was starting to think that I would never find Hanoi Train Street. With no official listing on any online map app, I’d been relying on written directions from a blog article. Directions that turned out be… if I’m charitable… patchy. And so unfolded a frustrating hour of walking around in circles on the western side of the city’s old quarter.

It didn’t help that there weren’t any street signs to identify most of the roads and alleys. Nor that not one person I asked, neither locals or foreigners, had even heard of Hanoi Train Street. Really? Had I been the victim of some grand, elaborate hoax?

I knew that I was looking for a narrow street called Tran Phu, also known as Alley 26. And that said alley was snugly sandwiched between Le Duan and Khao Thien Streets. But as I couldn’t find any evidence of these places, this wasn’t much help.

Hanoi Train Street April 2018.

Hanoi Train Street.

I was literally about to give up hope and head back towards my hotel when I finally caught a break. Catching sight of a crossroads ahead, my eyes picked out a raised section of rail track stretching off into an unseen side street. Moments later I was turning onto the street and my heart skipped a beat. Yes! It certainly felt good that I hadn’t entirely wasted my afternoon.

Hanoi Train Street.

A stroll down Hanoi Train Street.

Success!

Immediately my irritation began to melt away as I found myself swept up by the charms of this historic 500 meter stretch. Walking right on the track between the rails, I spied an old woman hanging up laundry outside her home. Elsewhere, children played tag around the entrance of a general store, while a pair of hungry chickens pecked uselessly among the loose stones.

Roaming chickens on Hanoi Train Street.

Hanoi Train Street.

Between 1899 and 1936 Hanoi’s French colonial rulers constructed the grand North South Railway service connecting the major cities of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh. One of the capital’s major hubs was Long Bien Station (more on that in my next post). It was from there that a number of services ran right through local neighbourhoods before rattling off into the countryside.

North-South Railway service Vietnam

The North-South Railway Service.

Today most of these so-called train streets are long gone. However, a few still remain, offering an authentic glimpse into traditional Vietnamese communities. With their homes and businesses standing just a few steps from the tracks, they have to gather up their kids and clear away any stalls whenever a train comes rumbling by. Pretty cool.

The Railway Station Cafe.

Coffee on Hanoi Train Street 2018.

At The Tram Cafe.

I had barely walked a quarter of the street when I came across the first of two cafes. It was as if god himself had put them there, just for me. Hence I settled on one of the wooden benches outside the Railway Station Cafe. Within a minute or two a young bespectacled twenty something appeared to take my order. “Mm, what’s good?”

Visit Vietnam Train Street in Hanoi.

Hanoi Train Street.

It was all good of course, or so he claimed. In the end I went for a creamy and sweet Coconut Iced Coffee, and was not disappointed. In fact, I sat outside the cafe for around half an hour marvelling at just how peaceful the street was. You know, when there isn’t a giant train grating through it.

Building mural Hanoi Train Street.

Hanoi Train Street.

Ready to resume my explorations, I continued down the street taking in some of the charming works of art painted directly onto the buildings. Indeed the street had become a popular place for local and foreign artists to come and leave their mark.

Mural in progress Hanoi Train Street.

Hanoi Train Street.

As luck would have it, I met a street artist at work that very afternoon. If my memory serves me well she was a Ukrainian woman travelling around Asia doing murals. “I’m gonna call it Galaxy Train”, she said, with a warm smile. Behind her, looking on with a palpable degree of apathy, was a local family who live on the street at the back of their small store-restaurant.

Hanoi Train Street.

Local residents Hanoi Train Street.

Hanoi Train Street.

“What do they think of your painting?” I asked, almost a little mischievously. “Mm”, she mumbled through pursed lips, “probably not much”. There was an extended silence before she spoke again. “This family has lived here for generations. Change can be a hard thing. Thao… from the Railway… she tried to make friends with them. Tell them that we can all support each other. But they’re not interested”.

Thao Quach The Railway Cafe Hanoi.

Hanoi Train Street.

Thao Quach, aka The Choo Choo Lady, runs another of the street’s coffee joints, The Railway. Born in Hanoi, she’d arrived in Train Street just four months prior to my visit to launch her business. According to Thao, her inspiration had come from bumping into a group of tourists one day while she was cutting through the street.

They were trying to find out what time the train was passing through, but none of the locals could speak English. Thao says she could see how excited they were and how much it meant to them. This set the cogs in her head turning. “And here I am!” she grinned.

The Railway Hanoi Vietnam.

The Railway was the first cafe to open on Train Street. First they offered coffee, in addition to a full range of cold drinks and nibbles. Next, Thao began developing various social projects in order to share her success with the local community. It was Thao, I learned, who was behind most of the art. She also set up a volunteer program to teach the street’s children some basic English.

A Small Cafe with a Big Heart.

A balcony seat at The Railway Cafe Hanoi

On the balcony at The Railway.

I chatted with Thao for a bit up on The Railway’s first floor balcony, my seat offering a choice view over the rails. “We’re also gonna arrange for free business advice to all Train Street residents” she said, chewing her lip. “For those who want it”. 

Unfortunately, I had missed the last of that day’s afternoon crossings. “You have to see the train!” she insisted. “Come back tonight! You will even get your own certificate”. That last part confused me somewhat, but definitely felt intriguing.

Volunteer art program on Hanoi Train Street

Hanoi Train Street.

Thus I took Thao up on her offer to return for an evening train crossing. After a nap and some dinner at my hotel, I came back to find the street positively buzzing. There were perhaps twenty people of all nationalities sitting outside The Railway drinking and eating at plastic tables and chairs at the side of the tracks.

I also saw how much progress the artist had made with her Galaxy Train. “Almost done!” she said, wiping her brow. “But now I’ll take a break, the train is coming soon”. “Choo Choooooooo!” cried Thao from the entrance door of The Railway. “The train is coming guys! Please help me clear the tables and chairs”. 

Hanoi Train Street.

Everyone pitched in to clear the way. Following Thao’s instructions, we all stood as far back as we could, backs pressed against the walls of the buildings. The rails began to vibrate. Then came the low rumbling of an engine somewhere in the distance.

When the train eventually arrived I was struck by how it inhabited the street. And for a brief terrifying moment I actually doubted whether we were at a safe enough distance. But of course we were, the hulking beast grumbling harmlessly by at a steady pace as passengers waved at the onlookers. It took the train maybe a minute to pass through and as it chugged away the assembled group broke out into sporadic applause.

Choo Cho Certificate of Appreciation Hanoi

Hanoi Train Street.

True to her word, Thao presented me with a cute homemade certificate. In fact, everyone got one. I had survived the Hanoi Choo Choo! Phew, a tale to tell the grandkids I’ll never have.

——

Hanoi’s Train Street became more and more popular over the next year. Before long, they’d become overpopulated with streams of tourists and selfie taking teens. In October 2019 there were so many people on the tracks a train had to be rerouted, an incident which caught the attention of the government.

Hanoi Train Street.

Hanoi Train Street Shut Down.

Sadly for Thao and friends, the authorities issued a temporary closure order on Train Street cafes due to safety concerns. Then came the pandemic and its restrictions, which killed off Hanoi’s cafe scene altogether.

But then, in November 2020, a few began reopening. From what I can see the government hasn’t lifted the order. Rather, they’re turning a blind eye because of the general lack of tourism in Vietnam. On Google The Railway is listed as permanently closed. Or maybe Thao is just flying under the radar, who knows. Whatever the case, I wish her all the best in these tough times. Choo Choo!!!

Leighton Travels travel reports short stories.

For more on Vietnam’s amazing capital, have a look at my other pieces from around Hanoi.

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37 Comments

  • Little Miss Traveller

    Loved this article on Hanoi Train Street because it brought back fond memories of my trip to Taiwan where I visited Shifen with its very own train street where tables, chairs and stalls also have to be removed when a service passes through. Hopefully the cafes in Vietnam will start to re-open as visitors are able to return. As with everywhere else, it’s devastating for tourism.

    August 25, 2021 - 9:59 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Oh very cool, I had no idea there was a train street in Taiwan. I’ve had a look online and it looks like a similar setup. Also hoping Vietnam’s service and tourist industry can bounce back soon. They have had a particularly tough time of it in terms of lockdowns and restrictions.

      August 25, 2021 - 10:03 am Reply
  • UnstableTrip

    Interesting how, on the one hand, tourism is necessary for the development of small local businesses and, at the same time, it can destroy that unique and interesting “something” that attracted tourism in three first place

    August 25, 2021 - 10:07 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Very much so. I’m so glad that this place wasn’t a circus (or indeed closed down) when I visited. The whole thing is quite delicate for the owners of such businesses. Thanks for reading!

      August 25, 2021 - 10:11 am Reply
  • apeacefultree

    Beautifully written. Do the streets surrounding the train street have art and things that appeal to tourists as well? Love the certificate 🙂

    August 25, 2021 - 1:55 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Hey, thanks for reading and contributing to the thread! Yes, if I remember the surrounding streets were starting to show signs of rejuvenation too. Cafes, murals, abandoned buildings being converted into new enterprises.

      August 25, 2021 - 1:57 pm Reply
  • kagould17

    A fascinating glimpse into the local life and culture Leighton. And we complain if a train goes by 10 blocks away. Thanks so much for sharing this place. Allan

    August 25, 2021 - 2:43 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Ha ha right? Imagine a train rattling right by your window, quite literally shaking your house twice a day.

      August 25, 2021 - 3:36 pm Reply
  • Memo

    I have to admit my first thought was about safety. Was I worrying needlessly? You’re the only person I know with an official certificate. I see they even used your secret agent name. Sure beats the “Midnight Train to Georgia.” You’ve searched out another great posting. Thanks.

    August 25, 2021 - 3:05 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Cheers Memo, I think one day, if we ever craft a home together, I’d like to find a space on the wall for that silly certificate. Thanks for reading!

      August 25, 2021 - 3:40 pm Reply
  • travelling_han

    Amazing – though those chickens on the track are daring! I’m so sad these were then closed down; it’s sad to think the same thing that brought people and business to the area is the same thing that has then subsequently deemed it unsafe.

    August 25, 2021 - 3:57 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Indeed, I guess it just got too popular. Not sure who is to blame. Maybe the tourists themselves who don’t treat the street respectfully. Or business owners trying to squeeze as much juice out of the orange as they can. Probably a mix of both. Prior to the closures and COVID the situation seemed to be heading towards a fatal accident of some kind. At least it never got that far.

      August 25, 2021 - 4:01 pm Reply
  • thehungrytravellers.blog

    This was our best experience in Hanoi, Leighton. Absolute thrill, especially for an old school railway enthusiast like me! It was indeed difficult to find (not on any tourist maps) but we managed to get hold of train times and witnessed two separate passenger trains bludgeoning through. And…the bit about the authorities closing it down due to safety was absolutely not true. We had also read on the web before we got there that it had been shut down (would’ve been gutted) but from the level crossing we could see people at cafes by the track. Security guards blocked the way, but a cafe owner sidled up to us and whispered how we could enter via a back door in a different street. “If the guards come, we just tell them you are our family guests”, she said, adding “but they won’t come”. So although the ban was officially in place, it was not effectively enforced, thankfully from our point of view!

    August 25, 2021 - 4:23 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Very cool that you also got to see Hanoi Train Street! From what I understand the closure was strictly enforced, but later relaxed. A friend of mine tried to visit in December 2019 and found all the cafes closed. He also got stopped by a security guard and politely moved on when he tried to simply pass through the street. It’s great that you guys got in, especially with all the disappointments you had to deal with in Hanoi. A few articles I read claim that it’s even more relaxed now, which is good for those businesses and visitors alike.

      August 25, 2021 - 4:32 pm Reply
      • thehungrytravellers.blog

        It would have been first week of March 2020, so not so long after your friend. And despite the official ban, there were plenty of open cafes and the whole thing was thriving! Tell you what, we will DEFINITELY do it again when we get back to Hanoi.

        August 25, 2021 - 4:35 pm
  • ourcrossings

    “Train street,” became quite famous on Instagram, and it’s easy to see why it is a tourist draw in central Hanoi, although it seems like the track runs dangerously close to the cafes. But then again, given the current situation, I’d say that the tourism industry would want the cafes left open to attract visitors. I am glad you eventually found them. Thanks for sharing and have a nice day 🙂 Aiva

    August 25, 2021 - 4:47 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks for following my Hanoi series Aiva, glad you liked Hanoi Train Street. I concur with everything you’ve said. A bit rough and dangerous on the one hand, but essential to the neighbourhood’s long term survival on the other.

      August 25, 2021 - 5:55 pm Reply
    • grandmisadventures

      What an incredible part of the country! Loved your pictures of the train street. And how fun to get to see the street artist at work.

      August 26, 2021 - 2:27 pm Reply
      • Leighton

        Thanks Meg, it’s a fascinating little place that simply could never exist in The UK for example. Health and safety would shut the first care down the moment it opened its doors.

        August 26, 2021 - 3:05 pm
  • I’ve Bean Travelling

    Unfortunately I visited Hanoi right after Train Street was closed. Interesting to live vicariously through you by reading this post!

    August 25, 2021 - 7:06 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Hey Jess, sorry to hear your trip coincided with the strictly enforced closures. Glad you enjoyed my report, thanks for reading!

      August 25, 2021 - 8:46 pm Reply
  • salsaworldtraveler

    You always find the most amazing and often little-known places! And you got the scoop from the horse’s mouth. The train seemed to be traveling way too fast considering the proximity to people of all ages. Great post.

    I rode the train from Nha Trang to HCMC and it was a fun experience though I was glad when the journey ended. I’m looking forward to your next posts on Hanoi to see what else I missed. 😄 John

    August 25, 2021 - 11:13 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks for the kind words John. Train travel is my favorite way of getting around and there were a few memorable ones for me too in Vietnam. Just one more article from me to wrap up Hanoi, but feel confident there are a few gems within. Thanks again.

      August 25, 2021 - 11:30 pm Reply
  • Lookoom

    Good find, it gives a different look to the city. It reminds me of Agua Calientes, near Machu Picchu with a similar street train.

    August 26, 2021 - 12:03 am Reply
    • Leighton

      I’ve just had a look…. an exceptionally handsome and colourful street. Thanks for stopping by.

      August 26, 2021 - 12:07 am Reply
  • Rebecca

    What a unique (and thrilling!) landmark in Hanoi! To be so close to the upcoming train is scary, but also an experience to be had. Your certificate with your name (“Lay-tun-tun”) is really cute, and you have proof that you’d lived to see this all happen! I can imagine it would be a fun experience to have a coffee or beer and watch the train rumble by (but hopefully not bullet-train fast)!

    August 26, 2021 - 5:24 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Hey Rebecca, Train Street was one of my favorite Hanoi experiences, pretty unique. Lay Tun Tun was a nickname given to me by my Chinese students in Ruian, so I used it from time to time ha ha.

      August 26, 2021 - 9:32 am Reply
  • Marla

    What a wild experience!

    August 26, 2021 - 6:35 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks for catching up with my Hanoi series Marla!

      August 26, 2021 - 9:40 am Reply
  • wetanddustyroads

    I’ve read on so many social media platforms about this popular train (or rather street) … but it’s the first time I saw someone got a certificate! You go Lay-Tun-Tun 😄. Really fascinating!

    August 26, 2021 - 11:36 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Glad you like the look of Hanoi’s Train Street! It has bags of character and is a unique experience.

      August 26, 2021 - 12:31 pm Reply
  • Trouspinet

    I loved reading your story. It must have been super cool.

    August 26, 2021 - 9:05 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks for reading! Train Street was one of my favourite Hanoi spots.

      August 26, 2021 - 9:11 pm Reply
  • Nic

    What a fantastic experience! And the certificate it’s such a cute souvenir . “You’ve survived the train” it made me smile! It is so daunting though, imagine having a train passing every so often by your door! I’m very happy the cafes have started to reopen… I would hate to miss this experience when, one day, I visit Hanoi 🙂

    August 30, 2021 - 12:30 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Yeah I guess as a mum or dad you have to be constantly aware of where the little ones are and what’s going on in and around the track. Thanks for reading!

      August 30, 2021 - 12:35 pm Reply
  • rkrontheroad

    I loved this story, including the local train vendor people and street artists. How exciting to experience, you were there just in time before it closed. It’s a delicate balance between tourism and tradition, isn’t it?

    August 30, 2021 - 6:59 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Yes Ruth very much so. And it seems those cafe owners very quickly became victims of their own success.

      August 30, 2021 - 7:58 pm Reply

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