Those living near railway tracks in Hanoi simply go about their business when trains rattle through.

on January 10,2018 04:26 PM


Huy Hoang looks happy as he learns how to ride his bicycle near his house, as any three-year-old kid would. But his ‘training ground’ is a little on the rough side, covered with gravel. It’s also not always available, so sometimes he must wait. The reason? He lives on ‘railway street’, a residential area next to a section of railway line that crosses nearby Le Duan and Dien Bien Phu streets in the centre of Hanoi. It’s home to dozens of families, whose members have grown up the sound of a train whistle and rattling tracks.

While Hoang passionately rode his bike along the tracks, his mother, 30-year-old Ngoc Linh, sat nearby washing clothes before preparing dinner. With a fire, pots, a chopping board and some knives, the kitchen is out in the open, as is the washing area. Her house is about a metre or so from the railway line, and there’s no fence. ‘It’s so close because the house has been extended as much as possible,’ she said.

The house was allotted to Linh’s father-in-law in the 1990s by the government, as he worked at the nearby Hanoi Railway Station. At that time, all of the local residents worked with the railways. Only many years later did some move out and others, not connected to the railways, move in. Like his neighbours, Linh’s father-in-law also took advantage of the corridor along the railway line to extend his 20 sq m house.


When Linh got married and moved in with her husband’s family, as is the tradition, she dared not walk along the railway track. But now she enjoys walking in the corridor, because, except for the trains, it’s vehicle-free. She calmly sits next to the line and goes about her daily activities. ‘When the train comes through, I just stand up against the walls of the house and it’s safe. I also know the train timetable,’ she said.

‘Day: three, night: seven; odd: departing, even: arriving’ used to be a saying all people in the little corridor learned by heart, according to 55-year-old Thu Huong, a neighbour of Linh’s, who was washing her hair as she spoke. Translation: three trains during the day, seven in the evening, with the train number revealing its direction. Today, there are fewer trains, as a result of the development of other transport, especially aviation. Nonetheless, trains are still a part of everyday life for local people. ‘In the beginning, I couldn’t sleep because of the train noise,’ said Huong. ‘But I got used to it. Now, when the whistle sounds, it’s like a clock striking the hour, telling us what time it is. It’s become our “Big Ben”. If there is a late or postponed train, we sort of miss it and look forward to it passing through.’

As each train takes about a minute to pass, it’s not too much of an inconvenience. ‘There’s just a quick pause on everything, so we move around a little after sitting for too long,’ Huong smiled.

Sometimes, though, the trains inspire a change of life. Huong’s daughter grew up waving to the train and its passengers every day before and after school. Sometimes she and her friends would dream about getting on board and heading down to HCMC one day. Fulfilling her childhood dream, she did indeed move south, just recently.

While her daughter explores a new life in a new place, Huong still enjoys her familiar life next to the tracks. After drying her hair, she then dried her pots and pans on the tracks. This is another ‘function’ of the railway line, as the tracks heat up under the sun and are good for getting things dry.

Huong then watered the flower pots next to her window, which provide a poetic colour to the vintage image of a house next to a railway line. This is her favourite thing to do each day, even before her second favourite: getting together with the neighbours.


The traditional ‘village’ custom of neighbours gathering together has been largely lost by the appearance of tall residential buildings and also the internet. In this part of Hanoi, the railway line is also an ‘open-air communal house’. Late every afternoon, Huong takes a chair and joins a group of middle-aged women sitting right by the tracks, where they enjoy the warmth of sunlight in winter or a cool breeze in summer while sharing some local gossip and the latest antics of their grandchildren. The odd tourist passes by, and more and more young people come to take photos of trains or just the tracks.

Not far away is the male equivalent of their get-together, with husbands and sons bearing serious looks. Nothing to do with life, though: they’re focusing on the next move to make in the ubiquitous game of chess. The two players are surrounded by a host of ‘advisers’.

When the game finished, some returned home for dinner. Local people sometimes take their tables and chairs outside and sit by the tracks, for a change of scenery. Others remained outside a little longer to discuss chess or just sip on some tea. There was talk of opening a small shop serving drinks and cigarettes, which they have to go elsewhere to buy. Some small businesses are already in the corridor, such as barber and an eatery or two, making the narrow corridor as animated as any other common area in the capital.

Having a coffee in a nearby café, Daniele Di Leva from Italy said he was impressed by the ambiance the railway line provides, adding he’d also seen ‘railway line life’ in Thailand and India. ‘It’s different here,’ he said. ‘It’s a part of daily life, like anywhere in Hanoi. In Thailand, the line ran through a market, so people didn’t spend all day there or live nearby. In India, similar places are found in the countryside, and the houses aren’t as close to the railway line as they are here.’

As yet another whistle rings out announcing the passing of yet another train, Daniele followed the lead of those around him and stood up. After the train passed by, he sat back down and continued to watch the world go by.

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