Written by Nguyen Manh Quoc Trung
When I was in junior high school, I had a friend who lived in Rail Town.
He called it Rail Town, but it was more like a street. On the two sides of that street lay two rows of houses standing parallel with each other, and between them, in place of a road lay a long steel train track, hence the name. So imagine, on a sunny day in the capital of Vietnam, you were riding your motorcycle on the busy highway under the name of Kham Thien when you suddenly noticed a small and seemingly hidden alley on your right hand side – a gap between two tall buildings. The alley was dark and narrow, and filled with a sense of loneliness due to it being cut off from the busier and livelier highway, but probably still enough for a motorcycle to pass through. Beyond that alley lay the Rail Town of Kham Thien with all of its glory, just one of the many neighborhoods in Hanoi that formed around the more-neglected parts of the rail road track that cut through the city, as land price there was usually cheaper than most. The “town” stretched for more than a kilometer, and had no gates or barriers that separate itself from the outside world; it just lay there, hidden in plain sight. Its inhabitants went out frequently, but no strangers ever came in.
The houses there reflected the income and life situation of those inhabited it – poor and underdeveloped. They were mostly one-storied; though there were still those with a second floor and higher they were not any newer than the rest, and just by looking at time you could clearly see the sign of time like a thousand years have passed. The paint was once brightly white, but now had faded significantly, showing the dull grey color of concrete underneath. The walls looked like they could crumble any time soon; their feet were caked with green moss, and at several houses the paint was even completely washed away, leaving only bare bricks. Wet laundry hung lonely outside their doors, the typical cheap and mass-marketed type of clothes that came in every shapes and sizes. There were no graffiti, and I liked to think that the place was so remote that even the most bored “graffiti artists” would not bother coming, but there are were old advertisement flyers and posters on some of the walls, flapping in the wind. The rusty hinges hung loosely on rusty doors, and the doors were rarely opened; it seemed like everyone in the Town preferred their own solitude rather than interacting too much with others. The old inhabitants still got together during afternoons and talked about their days, although when the horn roared mightily and the train slowly approached, everyone voluntarily stepped aside, almost like a reflex. Sometimes you may even find a syringe lying by itself on the side of track, if you have a keen eye.
All the houses looked poor and dirty, but my friend’s most of all; it was more of a shack than an actual place that you can live and thrive in comfortably. It lay on the further end of the Town, and was one of the closest to the train track; my friend usually joked that his house earned a nickname of “three steps to heaven” because that was literally the distance from the house’s door to the train track: three human steps. The outside looked shabby enough with old crumbling walls and broken-glassed windows, but the inside felt even smaller and confined. The whole house was perhaps only one-third the size of a regular classroom, and it had to fit in three people, a bunkbed and a kitchen, with the possibility of opening up some spaces in case of visitors. Cracks ran across the ceiling like rivers on a map, and sometimes the rain dripped down from the rusty corrugated iron roof, drenching the whole floor. Yet my friend and his family endured, just like all the other residents in the Town; the place was filled with the rare sense of calm and served as an escape from the busy life outside. It was also in that house, and in Rail Town that I came and played for all my junior-high years, whilst slowly observing the slow stream of life that flowed in this magnificent yet estranged neighborhood, where a part of me grew up.
That was the tale of more than six years ago. Some people realized that the Town’s unique feature of having a train track right in the middle could be a possible tourist attraction, so the place has been slowly opening up and renovating, with some houses turning in to cafes and small shops to serve the needs of curious people wanting to see the train passes by right in front of their face, without any barriers. Still, the question of safety remained.
This ethographic vignette was originally written as an assignment for the class Urban Sociology, by Dr. Miyagawa Haruna, Autumn, 2019.
Source of the photo: Unsplash