Hanoi’s ‘train street’ cafes quietly reopen for business

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The cafes lining an old train track in Hanoi are quietly reopening for business. (Photo by Tomoya Onisihi)

The cafes lining an old but still functioning train track in Hanoi are quietly reopening for business following a closure order last autumn by the municipal government over safety concerns.

“Train street,” which has become famous on Instagram, is a tourist draw in central Hanoi. Restrictions have eased in the absence of tourists following the outbreak of the novel coronavirus.

The tourism industry wants the cafes left open to attract visitors. But operators face a dilemma because they may be ordered to close again if tourists return to train street in droves.

“The number of customers is about 5% of the year-before level, but that is better than no visitors,” one owner said, adding that the ban on tourists has been eased since February. Cafes are able to operate freely, ironically, because of the plunge in visitor numbers.

The track runs dangerously close to the cafes. Most, converted homes with only a few tables and chairs, stand a little more than a meter from the line. While the authorities tolerate local residents walking along the track, the cafes operate under the table.

In October 2019, the municipal government barred tourists from entering train street because incursions onto the tracks often forced trains to stop suddenly.

The track-side cafes began appearing about two years ago, according to local media. The rail line and nearby homes, built more than 100 years ago during the era of French colonial rule, have become popular with photographers through social media and overseas news broadcasts. Cafes then sprung up along the 300-meter track, attracting tourists, especially Americans and Europeans.

Tours to Ha Long Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage Site about three hours by car from the center of Hanoi, are popular among visitors to the capital. Compared with Ho Chi Minh City, the commercial hub of southern Vietnam, and the tourist city of Danang in the central part of the country, Hanoi has fewer attractions. Train street was shut down immediately after local cafes were added to tour routes, according to a Japanese travel agency operating in Vietnam.

Opposition to the shutdown is strong in the area. Because the track is a branch line, it carries only four or five trains a day and none at night. Train traffic is even lower on weekends. There have not been any accidents involving tourists on the track, a cafe owner said, calling the shutdown “an overreaction.”

Nhu Thi Ngan, president of travel agency Hanoi Tourism, questioned the municipal government’s approach to the issue, saying efforts are needed to allow the cafes to stay open while paying heed to safety.

Decision-making in Vietnam’s one-party state is often opaque. Laws and regulations can be vague and interpretations vary, depending on who is enforcing them.

Read the full article at Nikkei Asia: https://asia.nikkei.com/Economy/Hanoi-s-train-street-cafes-quietly-reopen-for-business

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