The Old Quarter in Vietnam’s capital city Hanoi is a bustling area of small, narrow streets packed with hundreds of buildings with charming colonial architecture, Buddhist temples and pagodas all crammed next to each other. As the name denotes, it is the oldest area of the town and has long been an important economic center. The ancient commercial streets that snake between the houses and the preserved shop-houses that lie along these roads were built a little over a century ago and were constructed in their long and narrow style to avoid being hit by high taxes. With height restrictions in place by the Government (most of the buildings in Old Quarter are no more than two stories) the city has taken to growing horizontally. In the Old Quarter area, the houses extend right up to edge of the streets and dangerously close to the railway track that cuts across the neighborhood on its way to the Long Bien Bridge.
The track is so close to buildings that locomotives, which run the line twice a day, has to practically brush past pedestrians and children playing in street. The locals know when the train is coming and move out of the way and even dismantle shop displays when the train is approaching. For them, it is part of their routine. Old men will sit on the tracks all day talking, and as the train approaches, they get up, move their chairs a meter away from the track and continue talking while the train goes past. Others start filing into the house or bring in their scooters from outside to make way for the train. When the track is clear they move back into the middle.
Adam Armstrong, who works for an adventure based community travel company, saw this peculiar scene when visiting Vietnam. “I can only imagine how many close calls and unfortunate accidents there have been over the years, but you wouldn’t be able to tell by the people living here,” he said. “As we wandered the tracks and peeked into homes, we were met by all smiles and invitations to play with babies and share a local meal. In a place where twice a day a speeding train literarily barrels through your living room it is amazing to see the people that live here at such peace”.
The Maeklong Railway Market in Thailand has a similar arrangement. Unlike in Hanoi, where people live on the edge of the tracks, the Maeklong Railway Market is actually located smack in the middle. When the train approaches, vendors will scoop up their baskets and boxes and anything that lies over the track. Once the train is gone, the vendors push back the stalls and awnings into position and everything goes back to normal as if nothing has happened.