We arrived in Hanoi with low expectations, however left yearning for more time in the amazing city. Hanoi for us was only serving as a stop over point, opting to only spend 1 day exploring the city before transferring to Ha Long the next day. We initially thought there wouldn’t be much to see and experience in Hanoi, but boy were we wrong!
Walking out of the airport’s cold air-conditioning we were hit with a wave of warmth and humidity, the rain was biblical, lashing the floor. We got into our awaiting grab car (the South-East Asian equivalent to Uber) to take us to our accommodation, roughly a half an hour drive.
This was the first time whilst riding in a car with a local that we have feared for our lives and Tom was seriously trying to work out if he was twice over the UK’s drink drive limit or if he was genuinely that bad a driver! During the entire journey we straddled lanes, swerved from one side of the road to the other and drove at 50 km/h on a 100+ km/h main road! All in the pitch black and the heaviest rain we have ever experienced! It’s a miracle we made it in one piece, but the driver was a laugh and a big fan of Alan Shearer so we’ll let him off.
After a night in our highly questionable accommodation we headed straight for the main attraction and top of Tom’s to do list: the terrifying Train Street.
The old phrase ‘does what it says on the tin’ is completely apt for Train Street, this small ally way set back off one of the main routes through Hanoi has a unique attraction – it could kill you! When we arrived we were shocked, the narrow street just did not seem wide enough to fit a train through here despite the tracks winding their way through the centre of the street. It is easy to be lured into a false sense of security, locals sitting on the rails and cafes setting out tables in the tracks, it’s easy to forget these tracks are a main line and not just a disused tourist attraction!
We arrived early since online timetables for these trains passing through here is a bit of an enigma, most suggest every day at 3pm and 7pm, however we found this isn’t necessarily the case. The only reliable timetable is the locals who live and work on this street. Megan asked the worker in the tiny “Train Track Cafe” who suggested a train was only 30 minutes away, and it was only 11am! Excited, we purchased drinks from the cafe and prepared ourselves for the arrival of the train.
Obviously we should state here that this street is dangerous. It is well known that many tourists do not quite understand the dangers which standing on this street poses when a train comes barrelling through. There are stories of tourists being clipped by carriages, bags being run over, tourist motorbikes left too near the tracks and so on… We recommend utilising the cafe as a safe place to retreat to when the the train comes and leave bags inside to avoid any potentially disastrous situations from occurring!
Tom was outside the cafe with his camera as the train passed, having confirmed with the cafe worker where he intended to stand was safe. Although it was indeed safe, there was less than a metre between Tom’s shoulder and the speeding passing train! So definitely a little disconcerting, but an amazing experience all the same!
As you can see, the train takes up the entire street, passing the houses and objects trackside by mere inches at times! We were also expecting the train to come through slowly in case there was some dozy westerner taking a selfie on the track, but nope, it was flying! So get clear early.
After our amazing experience at the train street we took a stroll around the neighbouring local streets. Hanoi is street photography heaven, every street has amazing opportunities and Tom didn’t know which way to point his camera!
Next on our-whistle stop tour was the Hoa Lo Prison, once the largest and most high security prison in Vietnam. The prison has been made into a well curated museum, but that didn’t detract showing the horrors the incarcerated prisoners must have endured. The majority of inmates were political prisoners and revolutionists against the French Colonialists. The Prison became a production line producing revolutionary soldiers and for the very few who escaped they ended up fighting in the resistance once again.
The conditions the inmates were subjected to were horrendous, up to 30 in one cell room all shackled to the floor by their ankles for 23 hours of every day and beaten by the guards regularly. Further through the prison was one of the two guillotines actually used on the prisons death row. A very eerie room to be in, with a distinctly colder feel than the rest of the building.
In its later years the prison was used to house captured USA prisoners of war during the Vietnam War. The museum holds several artefacts from the war and captured pilots which were extremely interesting, such as wreckage from a downed B52 Bomber and the actual flight suit of one of the captured pilots. However it is worth noting the American troops lived a life of luxury in the prison compared to the Vietnamese under the French rule, they were allowed to keep livestock for food, had beds, and played sports out in the courtyard.
After the horrors of the Hoa Lo Prison we made our way back to the area of our homestay to explore the surrounding streets. A very local and poor area, it was bustling with industry. Welders on every other corner, fishmongers unloading huge amounts of fish and people carting giant blocks of ice down the street. However amongst the chaos of these streets we spotted a street side barber shop, with two seats and two mirrors propped up against a wall. Tom was desperate for a haircut and decided to take the the plunge.
The barber shop is where we got our first taste of what was to come whilst here in Vietnam, we are unintentional celebrities! (read more about this here!)
The haircut itself was filmed start to finish by the barber, he wanted to be able to say that white westerners come to him for haircuts. Which we imagine is a big claim for anyone’s business around these parts of Hanoi. Tom can’t complain however, the cut was superb!
We went back to our questionable accommodation and spent another uncomfortable night. We transferred to Ha Long in a limo bus the next morning. The next blog on our adventures in Ha long so far is on it’s way!
Megan & Tom