My Life as…

….a railway crossing guard

MY name is Ky and I’m a railroad worker on the Ha-Hai line (Hanoi – Hai Phong). I’m 50 now and I’ve been working this job for 20 years. I was originally an army man, but then I retired and worked building railroads before changing to my current job. My main duties are to close the barriers at the crossing when the train comes, or to alert the train to stop in case there’s a traffic jam or an accident at the crossing. My group, which has responsibility for the crossings from Bach Mai Hospital to Linh Dam Lake, has more than 100 workers. My team at this crossing has seven members in total. A normal shift, which lasts 12 hours, requires two of us to be working at once.


In general, when we’re at the crossing, we’re responsible for everything. If there’s an accident, we’re partially liable. Fortunately, there aren’t that many accidents. The government tried replacing us once with an automatic barrier-closing system but it failed because people would always try to cross the tracks while the barriers were closing, and then there’d be traffic jams. Speaking of traffic jams, it’s much easier to work in the city where all we have to do when there’s a traffic jam is to call the train conductor on the phone. When you’re out in the countryside, you’ve got to go ‘catch’ the train using lights and flags to get the conductor’s attention… it can be quite dangerous. Sometimes the conductors stop at the wrong place which results in arguments then we have to write up a report and submit it to our superiors.

The most tiring thing about this job is the way the trains don’t come on schedule. We’ve only got about 10 minutes’ notice before the train gets here, so we’ve got to stay at the crossing for the whole shift. The day shifts are a bit better because at night 12 hours without any sleep can be long and exhausting, not to mention it’s more dangerous at night.


No one appreciates our work. We’re just trying to keep people safe, but even so, people always complain when we close the barriers. We get insulted on a daily basis and sometimes fights even break out, but there’s really nothing you can do about it. To do this kind of work, you’ve got to be gentle and know how to sweet talk. If you’ve got a bad temper, even if you’re right, it will take a very long time for the police to come and solve your problems. I once had an incident with some people but some locals intervened pretty quickly and nothing really happened. That was a long time ago.


Honestly, I don’t find anything interesting about my job, but since I’ve been here for decades, I’m just trying to hang on and finish out my final years [laughs]. The railway industry’s still State-owned so us workers are considered “State people” but we’re so poor. The highest our salaries can get is a little over VND2 million. My family has a house here and both my kids are grown and in college now; we mainly live on the money my wife earns with her little shop at the market. What about people who have to rent a place to live? How are they supposed to live? Me and my co-workers have also started selling prepaid mobile phone cards to earn a little extra cash. But if you’re working outside the city, that’s not an option. That’s why the industry lacks workers… we don’t even want our children to work here. I’ve got about five years left before retirement and I haven’t thought of anything to do after. I’m pretty sure that I wouldn’t continue working here no matter how high a salary they offered me. It could kill you at any moment! [Laughs]

Interviewed by Colleen Thuy Tien Ngo, Josh Mayhew, Mai Lan and Mai Quang Huy

Images by Neil Featherstone

Additional editing by Gerard Sasges Excerpted from It’s a Living: Work and Life in Vietnam Today, available in paperback on Amazon or as an e-book on iTunes. 

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