BackSociety » Parks & Rec » Tiny Tracks, Big Passion: Inside the Miniature World of Vietnam's Model Train Enthusiasts

Tiny Tracks, Big Passion: Inside the Miniature World of Vietnam's Model Train Enthusiasts

“When you turn it on, the train is not only moving, but it can make sounds too. The sounds are so authentic that when I listen to it, I feel like I am sitting on a real train right now,” Minh Tú, a Saigon-based model train aficionado, shares with me the satisfied feeling every time he gets a mini train to run.

An impressive display of miniature trains.

In the early 2010s, a community of like-minded train model enthusiasts started taking shape in Vietnam’s cybersphere, consisting of about 10 to 15 members from all across the country. Over time, this family of locomotion fans would grow bigger, blossoming into a Facebook group called Vietnam Model Railroader with more than 2,000 members. How one practices the hobby can be wildly different even amongst members of the community, ranging from as simple as keeping them as collectibles to the creation of small-scale functional train tracks with high levels of details that require a lot of artisanal skills and effort.

Minh Tú's journey with model trains began in 2011.

Full steam ahead, from online to offline

Minh Tú has been a member since the group’s early days, and even though it’s been many years, he still dedicates a large portion of time to the hobby to this day. To learn more about the train model scene in Saigon, we met Tú at a cafe on Alexandre de Rhodes Street. Upon arriving, it was apparent that the venue is not just any regular cafe, because there are miniature trains on display in every corner of the restaurant.

“I always have a thing for tiny scale models, they have a certain cuteness and the small details are interesting to look at,” Tú said. He can still recall falling in love with these tiny vehicles at a hobby center while traveling in Australia. “I was taken aback by how they built massive scale models that recreate a scenery or part of a city. It was unbelievable.”

Tú started his journey with railway scale modeling around 2011. He would eventually get to know other people sharing the same interest when he hopped around online Internet forums for people who like miniatures. What is it about train models that capture his interest? I was about to ask him that when our conversation was interrupted by a staff member informing us that the first floor was available.

The cafe hosts an expansive display of train models.

On the upper area, there is a big glass cabinet housing over 50 scale models, most of them miniature rail carriages. Framed covers of multiple rail-related magazines hang on the pink walls. Tú led us further into a room where he kept model locomotives — a train’s most attractive part — in an expansive display that fills up a whole wall.

To own a locomotive scale model like this, one may need to shell out US$200–600. While it is a bit pricey, a closer look into Tú’s collection can explain why they are valued that way. These models have a significant amount of details, and the best part is, “every detail, even the little ones like the printed texts, are made to look as accurate as possible to the real train,” he shared.

The cafe was previously owned by a friend of Tú named Tuấn Anh, also a railroad model hobbyist who played a major role in holding the community’s first-ever offline meetup. After Tuấn Anh moved to the US, Tú took over. They then decided to turn the cafe into a space to showcase their love for the railway.

“We have members from many places [like] Saigon, Hanoi, Đà Nẵng, etc. Back then, our community mostly connected via the internet,” he reminisced. “But we managed to have our [in-person] community meetup for the first time in 2013, almost ten years ago. And it happened right here, in this cafe.”

A mini-world with life-sized fun

Scale-wise, the miniatures in Tú’s cabinet are 87 times smaller than their real-life counterparts. In more technical terms, this is called an “HO” scale ratio (1:87.1). The ratio is an essential aspect of scale modeling, as it directly influences how hobbyists build their “dioramas” for these models.

“Dioramas” are three-dimensional miniature scenes or locations. The goal in building a diorama is to make it look as authentic as possible, so if a creator is using an HO scale train model, then the miniature versions of the tracks, trees, bridges, etc. need to follow that same ratio too. Once the tracks are wired with electricity that allows the trains to automatically move, the entire scene will come to life.

“Building a diorama is a way for me to be creative in thinking about creating scenery,” Tú said. “It’s a learning-by-doing process. Sometimes when I think I have finished a project, a couple of days later, I want to tinker with it.” While Tú has made a diorama by himself, it's not on display anymore because he disassembled it a while ago to make some changes. Fortunately for us, we could feast our eyes on Tuấn Anh's diorama project right in the flesh.

Tuấn Anh’s diorama is a replica of a European town. Railway dioramas based on European scenery are popular, because the market for these miniatures is big in Europe, especially Germany. Many top manufacturers for railway miniatures are based in Germany, like Trix, Fleischmann, Piko, or Märklin, which is the oldest model railways company in the world. Germany is also the place that holds the largest HO scale model railway system in the world called the Miniatur Wunderland.

While landscape modeling requires one to buy many suitable scale models, some elements such as terrain can be handmade. “Personally I like making the rocky, mountainous areas. These terrains require lime cast to shape and create texture, and then color, by using paint. It requires a lot of artisanal skills to do that,” Tú said.

Building a diorama can be a time-consuming process, he usually spends his free time working on one: “It can take months, or even years. But you can never ‘finish’ a diorama though, because we are replicating the world around us, and the world around us changes all the time. So we enjoy the work in progress.” 

Many adult hobbies can begin from the simplest memories of our childhood, Tú's passion for trains and miniature models is no exception. “Maybe it’s because I was able to experience them a lot when I was young. My first train trip was with my father on the steam-engine train from Hải Phòng to Hanoi,” Tú recalled. “An amusing thing I can remember is how I my eyes hurt afterwards because the soot and cinders flew into my eyes.”

When he was a teenager, Tú left Hải Phòng to go to school in Hanoi. During this time, he would return to Hải Phòng every couple of months to visit his family by train. “In those moments of farewell, when I said goodbye to my family and hopped on the train, looking through the window and seeing their silhouettes moving away from me, I always had an indescribable emotion. My connection with trains probably started taking root from that.”

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