British Train Street pioneer reflects on site's closing

By Tu Nguyen   October 4, 2023 | 08:19 pm PT
British Train Street pioneer reflects on site's closing
Irish photographer Colm Pierce takes foreign visitors to visit Hanoi's train street in 2013. Photo courtesy of Vietnam in Focus
As one of the first guides to offer travel experiences at Hanoi's Train Street before its international fame, British travel company head Alex Sheal laments the tourist attraction's closing.

Sheal, 43, founder of Vietnam In Focus company, which specializes in providing photography tours of Vietnam, was one of the first people to begin guiding foreign tourists to Train Street.

During his early years living in Vietnam from 2007 to 2012, he lived on Cao Ba Quat Street, right around the corner from the train line. He grew fond of wandering along the railway tracks through residential areas. Back then, there were not any tourists or eye-catching coffee shops inches from the tracks like there are now.

People cooked, did laundry, bathed their children, and read newspapers beside the railway and the appearance of foreigners like Sheal was "strange" to them.

"Life along the railroad tracks at that time was very slow. I loved the feeling of walking on the tracks, especially in a city like Hanoi," he said.

Alex Sheal (L) talks to a locla man during his trip to Dien Bien. Photo courtesy of Alex Sheal

Alex Sheal (L) talks to a local man during his trip to Dien Bien Province in the northern highlands. Photo courtesy of Alex Sheal

After falling in love with the capital city, Sheal and his friend, Irish photographer Colm Pierce, established Vietnam In Focus in 2012.

Their first tour product was called "Hanoi Encounter" and took foreigners to visit Hanoi's Old Quarter and Long Bien Bridge. Although the tour was well-received by foreign tourists at the time, Sheal and his colleague still wanted to create a more unique sightseeing experience.

One day he saw a train coming down the tracks and he watched the people who were going on about their daily lives move quickly out of the way. At that moment, he knew he had an idea for a special tour - "Hanoi Train Street."

Sheal said foreigners coming to Hanoi want to seek authentic experiences and discover new things in the small and narrow alleys of the Old Quarter. For him, a tour for foreigners to watch the train run looked promising.

"It's a real and unique experience of life in Hanoi that's more interesting than art shows."

When he started to sell Train Street tours, Sheal was not sure tourists would want to learn about such a poor area of Hanoi. But his doubt quickly disappeared when the customers kept coming.

One of the first customers was Kana Baroda, an Indian photographer.

Baroda's tour in 2013 was not complete when Colm, the tour leader, had to give up the journey midway because his wife gave birth to their first child. However, Baroda still gave good reviews of the tour and even spoke well of the experience to the British tabloid newspaper Daily Mail in 2014.

Very soon after that, the tour became popular and Sheal's company began receiving constant inquiries about train times. With the "On the Tracks" tour, visitors were guaranteed to be able to see at least one train passing through the residential area. However, the focus of the product was to experience, learn about and photograph the daily lives of people in the neighborhood.

Train Street became famous in 2014, when the sight of a train running right through the heart of a densely packed residential area was published in foreign newspapers and magazines, especially in the U.S and U.K.

Many foreign tourists began sharing photos of Train Street on Instagram, making it quickly become a must-see destination in Hanoi.

Sheal said cafes began to appear, meaning poor people renting there had to move out. People began to see opportunities to make money doing business on Train Street.

"We noticed changes along the tracks – cafes springing up, other tour companies leading large groups along our route. A trickle became a flood, and soon we could only run our early morning tour because of the crowds during the day," Sheal said.

In 2019, a National Geographic film crew took Sheal's tour and Train Street was catapulted to global fame.

But after the National Geographic trip, Hanoi authorities soon banned tourists from entering Train Street, citing safety concerns.

Sheal said it was no surprise that the ban had finally come. In 2018, he had already begun to witness hazards, such as crowds drinking beer right next to the train tracks.

He said Vietnam could actually do better by taking advantage of Train Street properly instead of closing it. After the pandemic, he said, competition to attract foreign tourists among Southeast Asian countries became fiercer, while Hanoi, the country's capital, does not have many unique sightseeing experiences. He argued that tourists can visit temples, museums or markets in many other countries without coming to Vietnam.

But the Train Street is more unique.

"I think it would be better to turn the Train Street into a tourist attraction with specific safety regulations, such as limiting the number of cafes and the number of visitors," Alex said, citing how the U.S. is earning money from tours to the Grand Canyon that attract five million visitors each year.

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