Photography is an amazing thing - it is our collective memory as a species and it is being formed, with every single snap every one of us captures, in tiny, 1/125th of a second, slices of time. The increasing omnipresence and dissemination of photography is making our world smaller in a way but constantly bringing all of us images of places and cultures far away, thanks to those few adventurous souls amongst us who venture out there and share their images with us.
Social media on the other hand, it’s turning up not so good - social media also claims to aim to do the same thing, but because social media has become a largely unhealthy ecosystem of “Like” hunting and, even worse, “influencing”, rather than just bringing us together, it is changing the world to fit its own self-serving, vampiring needs with little to no regard for the world itself and as it is. And unfortunately, combining the two can, under the right conditions, turn photography into a menace, into something changing rather than documenting how we live. There are many examples of this all over the world and Hanoi’s Train Street is just one of its latest “victims”. Let me explain why.
Researching what is worth seeing in Hanoi one cannot but stumble upon a mention of the famous Train Street. You get to read about the train which passes “inches from the houses” (it doesn’t), about the locals who live “right on the tracks and only move moments before the train arrives” (they don’t) and about how “crazy it all is” (it isn’t) and you start dreaming about it and wanting to see it and so on and so forth. I mean, let’s face it - it sounds absolutely tantalising and amazing - the antithesis between the fragile human with the massive metal beast that is the modern locomotive, especially in this day and age of political correctness and safety-above-all. So, if you’re in Vietnam for something more than cheap booze and party, Train Street is a must see, right?
Right. Well, sort of. Reality, as with a lot of things, tends to be quite different - no matter how open-minded you want to be, Train Street is not what you’ve been “sold”. Yes, you will see two lengths of track, one small, sandwiched between two major arteries (and this is by far the more interesting - please read below) and another, longer one, curving out into the distance. There are, indeed, houses (some 2-3 stories high) on both sides and train tracks in the middle and yes, the “street” is indeed very narrow. If you’re very lucky (think Lottery chances) you might even see a couple of locals trying (and this is the operative word) to perform normal, daily tasks alongside the train tracks.
Chances however are that you far more likely to see tourists than locals, tourist cafes and bars (of which more are being built as I’m writing this), small plastic and bamboo chairs and tables than old women hanging their clothes to dry. More than 100 meters of the curved part of the street are no longer the houses or workshops they once were - they are cafes and bars catering almost exclusively to tourists (being too expensive for locals), targeting those who somehow think that sitting next to the train tracks and having a beer is somehow “cool” or “interesting”. And before you rise in anger and shout “having a beer next to a roaring train IS cool”, let me let you into a little secret: trains, on a weekday, do NOT go by at 3pm or 6pm as you may have read! There is a train going by at 6:20pm but that only happens on Saturday or Sunday and by then it’s actually quite dark and, guess what, most tourists have left! So, reserve your indignation a bit and read on - there’s a point in this article.
started by saying that the combination of social media and photography - in other words this monster of the “Like” hunting generation of mindless influencers - has ruined Train Street, so let me explain how. You see, the tracks and the spaces around them no longer belong to them - the belong to the hordes of “photographers” (and yes, the quotation marks are fully intentional) who, armed with selfie sticks and mobile phone tripods (yes, they are a thing!) crowd every inch of the place vying for the same Instagram pictures - think “girl walking while looking back and smiling, with hand holding the unseen camera behind her”, “boy balancing on a beam, arms stretched out”, “couple forming heart with their arms while standing on the two sides of the track”. A ny stereotype you can come up with will play out before you within 10 minutes of being there - there is literally no escaping it…or them. And herein lies the problem.
Let me be clear - the tourists lining the cafes are not the problem. Most of them are just sitting around, chilling and having fun. True, their very presence there is both a cause and a result of the fact that Train Street is no longer a traditional Vietnamese street, but as a whole, they are not as disruptive in a typical asian way, Hanoi has adapted and absorbed them. These days, unfortunately, it is the social media photographers who turn Train Street into abject misery! All these “new media creators” who somehow assume that the whole world should adjust to accommodate their “creative” urges - because, honestly, they cannot be described as anything more than “urges” since they contain little to no creativity, very little fore or afterthought and absolutely no consideration for anyone else other than their “followers” and friends.
With dozens of people lining the tracks and jostling for position, almost every single image is absolutely filled with all the other “influencers” shooting exactly the same pictures just a couple of feet away, in exactly the same poses, again and again and again. There are moments when there’s actually a line of people waiting to shoot the exact same shot in the exact same spot - I was present when a couple set up a mobile phone tripod and spent 20’ (yes, that’s 20’ in a really busy spot in the middle of the tracks) shooting the same Instagram-“worthy” photo, insanely frustrated that there were dozens of people all around them on every shot. I stopped to watch out of sheer morbid fascination, wondering just how long they would insist - the answer is 20’ until eventually they were asked to move on by the next couple of influencers waiting to take the exact same picture!
I understand if you’re laughing by now - I did (once I got over my initial frustration at the situation), but try, for a moment if you can, think like a local: what was once your front (or back) yard is now, for more than 8 hours a day, is inundated by young people (mostly), laughing, giggling and sometimes even arguing, all adopting the same poses, snapping the same pictures (I mean, how many million times would you be able to see the “smiling girl with hand held behind her” pose in front of your window before you lost it?) while you’re trying to live your life? Go out for groceries? Do normal, household chores? Trust me, it can get very, very infuriating - you can actually see it in the people’s faces when you approach them.
As a photographer I tried to find original local life along the tracks so I went there at different times of the day, including the actual time when trains go by (just FYI, there are three trains going by every morning, between 5:30 and 6:30am - and that includes the weekends), and while there is some, mostly before the hordes of tourists descend (which is around 10am), most locals living on Train Street are these days are bar and cafe owners and, as such, they mostly live somewhere else and simply come to work at Train Street.
Now, arguably, all the above is a more purist approach to tourism (and photography) - there’s no denying this. It would have been amazing if Train Street had remained as it once was - if we, as tourists, chose to preserve rather than change to suit our holiday requirements of a good time and beer, but I guess the world changes all the time and not always the way we may want it. Future generations will only be able to read about Train Street and how it used to be rather than experience it and my biggest regret and worry is that their view of Train Street will be mainly what they will see on Instagram and Facebook and that is very poor indeed. I also worry about what this means for other “train streets” across the world as more and more of the Instagram influencer generation discover them - how long before they are irrevocably changed? How long before people in some other beautiful part of the world have to changer so they can “accommodate” more identical shots (see above)? And how long before we run out of small secret corners of the world which are still original? How much poorer will the world be then?
I’m leaving you with a few pieces of practical information:
There are NO trains going by train street in the early or mid-afternoon, no matter what the hotels or any guide will tell you. Some of the cafes along the tracks even perpetuate the myth by putting up timetables of the trains - most are largely inaccurate and designed to keep misinformed tourists sitting and waiting there longer - the longer you wait, the more you consume.
During the weekdays, there are three (3) trains in the early morning: 05:30, 06:00 and 06:30 going in both directions. If you try to go then (which is thoroughly recommended), make sure you arrive earlier as there are actually railway staff there manning the barriers and they are very strict. There is another train at 7pm, but that is usually delayed, so by the time it goes by, it is quite dark. Schedules are different in the weekends and even those tend to change a lot (this comes from the railway guard), so please check with the station staff before you go.
Do not expect any meaningful or interesting shots between 3pm and 6:30pm - there are so many people there which makes it virtually impossible. IF you find yourself there and it’s your only chance, choose the smaller, straight part of the street, not the curved one - your chances are better there.
You may hear of another train street (as opposed to the more known, “famous” one) - I would not put too much credence on this. I have tried and failed to find one which approaches the known one in terms of visuals.
I have added the map of the street below - hopefully this will help. Google and Maps.Me also helps!