The Hanoi street train
The Hanoi street train is one of those special authentic experiences that feels deeply embedded in the heart of a culture.
Put simply, it’s a train line that is active only a few times a day, and the interesting part is the community and culture that surrounds it.
It’s not an uncommon sight to see children playing on the tracks, people using the tracks to help them in their chores, communities just hanging out and using the tracks as seats.
People live there, you see.
The entire upper stretch of the Hanoi street train is surrounded by homes literally feet away from the track. This means the usual mundanities of life – clothes hanging to dry, people washing themselves outside, finding little places to park scooters – they’re all here, and they all give a texture and a cultural depth to understanding the lives of the locals here and how they go about their daily activities.
What’s bewildering about this place is that the train is actually live. It runs just a few times a day, back and forth between Hanoi Railway Station and out of the city. Unlike what you’ll find in the Maeklong Railway Market in Thailand, this train moves faster, with the potential to do fatal damage if you don’t heed the advice of the locals and move out of the way.
The experience is worth it though. When was the last time you had a train come just inches from your face in a foreign country? =P
In terms of tourists, expect to see some. It’s not tour bus heavy or anything like that, but there will be some, especially mid afternoons. They mostly congregate around the upper area, so feel free to explore the rest of the track too where most tourists don’t go.
How to get to Hanoi Street Train
From just about anywhere in the Old Quarter, it’s an easy walk and easy find (mind all the motorbikes).
From Ga Ha Noi (Hanoi Railway Station), it’s about a 10 minute walk.
In the map above, the part you can explore doesn’t stretch that far – it’s about a non-stop 5-10 minute walk in total. The parts in red are the most common areas – the spots where you’ll see tourists and the local cafes on the line.
Hanoi Street Train Timetable
Time your experience here to catch the train. Here’s an image of the timetable one of the local shops has put up. Of course, it’s Vietnamese time, so expect it to come earlier or later by 10 or 20 minutes.
You have just 4 opportunities on weekdays, 6am, 6:15am in the morning 7:10pm and 9:10pm in the evening.
8 opportunities on weekends: 8:46am, 9:47am, 11:25am in the morning, 3:20pm, 5:30pm, 6:15pm, 7:10pm and 9:10pm in the afternoon and evening.
Capturing the Hanoi Street Train
For most people, I recommend to catch the 3:20pm train on the weekend. This will allow you to get light and shadows to fall onto the track itself. Even though there’s plenty of light there, the dynamic look of the shadows will give more interest to your images. Also, depending on the time of year, sunset is around 6:20pm, so the 5:30pm and 6:15pm trains are great options too.
For the dedicated, I recommend capturing the 6am train that runs every day. Sunrise is at 5:38am so the light will still be gentle at this time, with a few shadows depending on where you shoot. There will also be far less tourists, although you’ll also get less locals out and about.