Experts, tourists face off on Hanoi Train Street closure

By Nguyen Quy, Doan Loan   October 7, 2019 | 08:28 pm PT
Experts, tourists face off on Hanoi Train Street closure
For some visitors there is a thrill in standing so close to a train as it rumbles through the old-style houses. Photo by AFP/Nhac Nguyen.
Hanoi’s decision to close down makeshift coffee shops along its iconic Train Street has ignited a debate between supporters and naysayers.

One side agrees with the decision on safety considerations and others want the unique feature preserved to promote tourism.

Following a directive from the Ministry of Transport last weekend, ordering Hanoi authorities to remove selfie hotspots and makeshift coffee shops that allow customers to sit and enjoy their drinks just a few feet away from railway tracks, travel agencies and several foreign tourists have expressed their regret over losing a ‘unique’ destination that cannot be found anywhere else in the world.

The Hanoi Train Street is formed by railway tracks running alongside Dien Bien Phu and Phung Hung streets in the heart of the Hanoi’s Old Quarter, with residential buildings just a few feet away on either side. The highly unusual sight of a train running several hundred meters on these tracks charms and fascinates hundreds of thousands of tourists from within and outside the country every year.

Nguyen Thi Huyen, director of Hanoi-based travel agency Vietrantour, said the train street is not typically included in travel itineraries of tourism agencies, but many foreign tourists still flock to the place, proving its popularity and attractiveness.

"Most international tourists want to experience things that are different and unique and this is a place where they can take photos of Hanoians’ daily lives, old trains running on the railway tracks built during the French colonial era."

"Hanoi lacks such unique tourist attractions to woo foreign tourists; therefore, the closure of coffee shops along the railway corridor would be a mistake," she said, adding that the city should instead implement plans to develop the train street, such as limiting the number of coffee shops, increasing safety measures to protect tourists and expanding business services instead of shutting down them.

Huyen cited the example of authorities in Taiwan turning its Shifen old street, where trains run through narrow alleys, into a famous travel destination.

Nguyen Tien Dat, a tourism expert, said the train running through narrow streets and residential areas is a unique feature of Hanoi that is a rarity in this world. "The tourist destination should be developed rather than prohibited."

The railway cafés on the train street need to arrange guests to sit indoors or on the terrace so that visitors can wait for the train to pass through. In order to ensure safety, the railway industry should install warning bells or warning lights at these shops to alert tourists when the train is coming, Dat added.

A transportation expert, Nguyen Van Thanh, said it was poor management by local authorities that has led to the emergence of makeshift coffee shops. "Therefore, the government should come up with a reasonable solution that ensures traffic safety and take advantage of tourism potential at the same time."

Foreign tourists pose for a group photo on the rail tracks. Photo by AFP/Nhac Nguyen.

Foreign tourists pose for a group photo on the rail tracks. Photo by AFP/Nhac Nguyen.

Some foreign tourists have also called on city authorities to consider developing the railway coffee area as a popular tourist attraction instead of removing it.

"Thailand has the same concept (of using its unique features) running for many years and it has attracted many tourists to visit. It’s easy to take the easy way out to ban it rather than work with the local store owner on the safety aspect," one foreign reader, Christian, wrote to VnExpress International.

Another reader, Barry Wright, argued that the potential danger comes from trains and an ever-increasing number of sightseers. "Maybe everything should be closed starting an hour before the trains come through but otherwise it could be left open so that the local coffee houses are able to continue their business when safety is not an issue."

Safety first

However, other experts and members of the public have backed the decision to close the coffee shops to ensure safety for locals and foreigners alike though no accident has been reported at the area so far.

Psychologist Dinh Doan said foreign visitors gather at the railway cafés because such a situation would be banned in their countries, so this is an exotic experience for them. "Promoting local tourism is important but ensuring safety is more necessary." 

Phan Le Binh, an expert with the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), said that it was improper to do business alongside an operating railway track.

Tuan Anh, a 26-year-old Hanoian who teaches at a primary school, told VnExpress International, said: "If any railroad accident happens on this train street, who will be responsible? That’s the thing everyone should care about first."

"I have witnessed some tourists risking their lives by standing on the train tracks for as long as possible, then jumping off just as the train comes near or even lie down on the tracks for perfect Instagram snaps. It is really an alarming issue that needs urgent action from local authorities," Anh said.

A tourist poses for a photo on a railway track. Photo by AFP/Nhac Nguyen.

A tourist poses for a photo on a railway track. Photo by AFP/Nhac Nguyen.

Quach Tuan Anh, manager of Hanoi Locomotive Factory, said a train departing from Hanoi railway station to the Train Street section on Phung Hung Street had to stop for more than a minute last Sunday, waiting for many tourists to move out of the tracks.

Last weekend, the number of tourists flocking to cafés along the train street was much higher than usual. This also forced the train to stop for a while, as even at a slow speed, many tourists couldn’t move out in time.

"In the Phung Hung area, the maximum train speed is 25 km per hour, but the train drivers usually go at less than 20 km, sounding the horn repeatedly to warn visitors," Anh said, stressing that it was the first time a train has had to come to a complete stop, waiting for tourists to clear the tracks.

On weekends, six trains use the relevant section of Phung Hung Street, including two in daytime. On weekdays, it only has four trains that run before 6 a.m. and after 6 p.m.

The tracks were built by the French, who used the railway to transport goods and people across Vietnam, which was then part of Indochina, along with Laos and Cambodia, more than 100 years ago.

During the Vietnam War, parts of the railway tracks were damaged by American bombs and repaired later.

Today the original meter-gauge tracks are still a regular mode of transport for locals and tourists.

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