An undulating dragon

(No.4, Vol.2 Apr 2012 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)

Historian Duong Trung Quoc said in the Dan Tri Newspaper of 13 November, 2009, ‘The Long Bien Bridge is like the Eiffel tower spanning the Hong [Red] River. It is a beautiful symbol in the heart and mind of the Vietnamese.’
Dr Vu Manh Ha, deputy director of National Museum of Vietnamese History, said during a seminar about Long Bien Bridge in Hanoi last year that it was ‘a work of art in the shape of a dragon undulating across Hong River. That goes very well with Thăng Long [the former name of Hanoi which means the ascending dragon].’
In 2010 a competition was held by Thể Thao Văn Hóa newspaper and the Maison des Arts, a centre for art exhibitions and exchanges in Hanoi, for writing about Long Bien Bridge. Two hundred entries were received, with hundreds of photos, video clips and drawings, according to Thể Thao Văn Hóa.
Thể Thao Văn Hóa said, ‘Most participants believe the bridge has a soul.’
Architect Tran Huy Anh, in his competition entry, wrote, ‘If one day Hanoians woke up and could not see the Long Bien Bridge they would be stunned, just as Parisians would if they could not see the Eiffel tower.’
Writer Vi Thuy Linh, wrote, ‘Long Bien Bridge is a symbol of history and art.’
Cao Manh Tuan, from Hanoi, wrote ‘Any Hanoi boy who has not been to Long Bien Bridge is useless.’
Nhat Vu called the bridge a musical note.
Others called it ‘the old father’, ‘the poor mother’, ‘a patched-up war veteran’ and ‘a symbol of Vietnamese resolve in the face of war’.
Architect Tran Huy Anh, referring to opinions at the time that no bridge could be built across such a turbulent river as the Hong, wrote that Long Bien Bridge ‘bridges doubts and ridicule’.
Opened in 1902, Long Bien Bridge connected Hanoi with far-northern provinces and China. Historian Duong Trung Quoc, referring to the big market that China represented, said, ‘It linked Hai Phong port [then a major port in the north] . . . with China, allowing [the French] to attend the “China party” along with other western countries.’
The bridge, according to 1,000 Years of Thang Long, Hanoi, by Nguyen Vinh Phuc, Tre Publishing House, 2009, is 1,682 m long and has 19 spans on 20 supporting columns more than 40 m high.
Hoang Dao Kinh, a well-known conservation architect, said, ‘Long Bien Bridge, along with other infrastructure built by the French, is a typical part of Vietnam’s first phase of integration with the modern world.’
In 1946, as the French came back to Vietnam after being ousted by the Japanese, soldiers of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (the predecessor of the current Socialist Republic of Vietnam, which was founded just one year earlier) withdrew under the Long Bien Bridge at night, while French soldiers were patrolling above. The Vietnamese soldiers were on their way to the far-northern forests.
In 1954, Long Bien Bridge carried the last French soldiers to leave after nearly a century of French rule.
During the American war, which started in the early 1960s and ended in 1975, Long Bien Bridge carried Chinese supplies that came overland and Russian supplies that came via Hai Phong port to northern Communists fighting an American-backed regime in the south.
Tran Cong Huyen, a soldier in an air-defence company stationed next to the bridge in late 1960s, told Vietnam Heritage that in the 1960s the Americans had bombed the bridge many times, despite 12.7 mm anti-aircraft guns mounted on top of it. According to 1,000 Years of Thang Long, Hanoi, during 14 bombing raids 1,500 m of the bridge was damaged, nine (out of 19) spans crippled and four (out of 20) supporting columns heavily damaged.
Writer Nguyen Bac Son told Vietnam Heritage that when temporary steel cables had been installed over broken parts of the bridge, to test them a driver with his truck had volunteered. A funeral service had been held for him. The truck had carried no load and its front door had been removed [so the driver could jump out if necessary]. ‘The cables moved and he braked and the truck immediately fell into the river.’ The cables had then been adjusted and carried thousands of trucks.
For 83 years, Long Bien Bridge was Hanoi’s only bridge over the Hong River.
Now, Hanoi’s seventh bridge over the Hong river is being planned.
The old bridge is still used for trains, motorcycles, bicycles and pedestrians. Bigger vehicles use nearby bridges.
The bridge is a favourite place for locals and visitors to view the city, take breezes and absorb natural beauty.
Student Dang Thi Thu Ha, another
participant in the competition, wrote, ‘Sunset on Long Bien Bridge is a sweet memory.’
As on the Ponte Milvio in Rome, and at least one bridge over the Seine, in Paris, lovers write their names on a padlock, chain it to the bridge and throw the key in the river, as a symbol of foreverness.
Many have their wedding photos taken on the bridge.
The bridge is mentioned in Vietnamese language and literature text books and poems and has inspired many photographers and painters.
‘Long’ means dragon and ‘biên’ means ‘edge’. Hanoi used to be called Thăng Long, which means ‘ascending dragon’. Long Bien Bridge connects downtown Hanoi with Long Bien District.
On each side of present-day Long Bien Bridge there is a one-way lane for pedestrians and a one-way lane for bikes and pushbikes. In the middle is the single-lane railway.
But unlike on most bridges in Vietnam, people crossing Long Bien Bridge are supposed to take the left side. Historian Le Van Lan, from Hanoi, said this unusual characteristic of Long Bien Bridge could be due to problems with building connectors between the bridge and the existing road system. He believed the situation had always existed, because he saw no sign that connectors had been built recently.

‘The dragon’ in the early 20th century. Photo: Pierre Dieulefils, from the archive of The Gioi Publishers and provided by Nguyen Anh Tuan

What the train sees in travelling the gut of the dragon.
Photo: Dan Ton

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