An Active Railway Cutting Through the Motorbike Capital of the World

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Living in an age of (Vietnam) railways

Living alongside a railway that is in active use is no easy feat, but for tourists, visiting it is the first step in understanding Hanoi's history, future, and how these have been inextricably tied to Vietnam’s trains.

 The look outwards from Ga Ha Noi - the Central Railway Station of Hanoi

The look outwards from Ga Ha Noi - the Central Railway Station of Hanoi

It seems like a staple for South East Asian cities to be built along crossroads. The success of Jakarta has always been contingent on its ability to access the vast hinterland of Java just as Hua Lamphong and its trains fuel the movement of people and goods in and out of Bangkok. 

Hanoi is no exception, especially if you look at the country's flagship route from Ho Chi Minh to Hanoi. The motorbike capital of the world has found itself embedded in a transport system that heavily relies on the Vietnamese Railways network. The city’s primary mode of transport, its iconic motorbikes also plug themselves into Hanoi’s rail transport infrastructure via Long Bien Station and the main Hanoi train station at Ga Ha Noi.

 
 Railside living along Hanoi's Train Street

Railside living along Hanoi's Train Street

Taking things in their stride

In Hanoi’s Old Quarter, a speeding train passes through twice a day, disrupting road traffic and forcing residents to ensure that their belongings (clothes and bikes alike) are safely kept out of the way. Fascinatingly, this all happens like clockwork as residents have the train’s timetable etched into their daily routine. After passing through, the train then proceeds southwards to the cities of Hue and Hoi An. You can literally follow the tracks and walk all the way into Ga Ha Noi (Hanoi’s railway station) but just make sure you’re walking in the correct direction. 

The train whizzes by the street at 1530h and 1930h daily, be sure to catch it in the day if you’re intent on taking photos. However, a word of caution - these are not slowly moving leisure trains for tourists, but are the country’s intercity express services. Please get out of the way when the train arrives, #instawanderlust (gross) is not worth getting in the way of Vietnam's trains as they whisk cargo and passengers to Hanoi's train stations.

In space-scarce Hanoi, the accessible part of the railway (the Hanoi Railway Street) is bounded on both sides by low-rise houses. Visiting the rail street in September (hot hot hot) led me to think that the train street doesn’t see much locals (or visitors) but I think that it should become more lively towards the end of the year when temperatures become more favourable. Go during lunchtime and I’m sure that the few rail-side eateries will be actively courting passersby to try their fare. 

 
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Unlikely partners in an uncertain environment

Locals take their living circumstances in their stride but see the train as an inconvenience more than anything else. For tourists, it is rather peculiar to see people living directly in harm's way. After all, it's one thing to walk on train tracks for a holiday but really another to be living next to it day in and day out. Railway deaths account for 2% of all fatalities across the country as illegally constructed and unprotected ground level crossings result in many collisions. Along the existing route, rickety bridges limit speeds to a crawling 50km/h and derailments are becoming increasingly common.

Needless to say, the entire system suffers from a lack of investment. Fortunately, changes are afoot. With China pursuing its OBOR initiative and as the Sino-Japanese competition for rail projects in South East Asia heats up, Vietnam seems poised to alleviate some of its transport bottlenecks. 

However, the benefits of embedding Vietnamese rail development into OBOR is counterbalanced by the tenuous situation it is in. As a relic of history and due to the current South China Sea dispute, Vietnam’s relations with China can be described to be strained at best and downright belligerent at worst.

Furthermore, it is unlikely that the high speed rail will do much to speed up Vietnam’s economic growth as it is a form of technology that is incompatible with the stage of development Vietnam finds itself in. Vietnam Railways should do better at what it does now instead of chasing big projects.

Vietnam’s new niche in the global economy lies in its ability to provide companies with low labour costs at a time when manufacturers are leaving China due to the rising costs of production there. Hence, if companies use the expensive high speed rail to move goods, transport costs will make Vietnamese goods uncompetitive in comparison to other foreign alternatives. Thus, the high speed rail might hurt the country more than it helps as building the entire line is projected to cost 33% of its annual GDP.

If the high speed rail adopts a passenger-only model, it is unlikely that it will even achieve breakeven yields as most of the population will deem it an unpalatable transport option due to high ticket prices. Additionally, those affluent enough to afford high speed rail travel, will likely opt for the more expeditious and comfortable business class seats that can be found on the country’s flag carrier.

 
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What then is future for rail travel in Vietnam?

Developing intracity transport is another primary objective of the Vietnamese government, especially for the Ho Chi Minh to Hanoi route operated by Vietnam Railways. 

This is because both cities are facing existential traffic problems as the growing population (on their motorbikes) are causing roads to become choked with traffic and exhaust. There is therefore, a critical need for effective public transit in these two cities - the Vietnamese government has already expressed its wish to ban motorbikes in the capital by 2030. 

In the backdrop, the government has already commissioned massive metro projects to be built with funding coming Chinese, Japanese and European sources. In the future, tourists will be treated to 10 new metro lines in Hanoi and a further 10 in Ho Chih Minh as well. 

If you find yourself on the country’s flagship Reunification Express (Hanoi - Saigon), look out for the Hanoi Train Street whilst your train chugs out of the capital. Though the line is likely to remain for the foreseeable future, a more developed Vietnam might phase it out once it inks and constructs its high speed rail dreams.

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