The colour of time

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

My paternal grandfather was a worker at Bridge Company No5. [in the mid-1960s] He and his colleagues repaired the damage left by the American bombings. After the [Vietnam] war was over [in 1975], he and his co-workers were in charge of the maintenance of the bridge. They manually painted every inch of it with little brushes, removed rust manually. To them the bridge was like a child, made of their own blood, flesh and bone.
In the afternoon, my paternal grandmother carried a basket to the market on the sidewalks of the bridge. Her commodities were sometimes several bunches of vegetables or a handful of fruit picked from the garden. Sometimes she sold a little fish or shrimp my father caught from the Red River.
My father’s childhood was attached to that wonderful bridge. Whenever my grandfather and his co-workers went to work on the bridge, my father would follow, just to watch them do the job. He did that day in day out without getting tired.
The love story between my grandfather and my grandmother began on the bridge. So did that of my father and my mother. My father lived in Ngoc Lam Street. Twice a day, in the morning and afternoon, he would jog through the bridge. My mother was from Hang Dau Street, in the old quarter. On the weekend, she and her friends would bike to Long Bien Bridge. Her traditional white long dress and the long hair flying in the wind struck the boy at first sight. And it was where they came into each other’s lives.
My grandfather passed away when I was 13. His last wish was that his funeral procession should pass through Long Bien Bridge, the bridge he had gone back and forth across countless times in his life. Our family did as he asked. The service took place at 3 a.m. to avoid traffic. It was a drizzly cold autumnal morning. The steel frames suddenly aged and became solitude, and sorrowful. Long Bien Bridge was mourning over one of the most skilled painters of the bridge. Never before had I been so sad. Under the bridge the Red River rushed and roared. Alluvium turned the water bloody red. My grandfather rested on the Bãi Giữa, a tiny island under the bridge. Not long later reeds covered up his grave.

In 2010 a competition was held by Thể Thao Văn Hóa weekly newspaper and Maison des Arts in which people would tell their stories about Long Bien Bridge. This article is one of the entries. Last month Vietnam Heritage published an entry by Douglas Jardine

At that age of 13, for the first time I crossed Long Bien Bridge barefoot as if I were walking past a turning point of my life. My childhood’s dream came true; it felt so strange. Later on, I had the chance to cross quite a number of famous bridges in the world, such as the Brooklyn Bridge, the Garabit Viaduct, the Bosporus Bridge. Yet, nowhere did I have the special feeling as on Long Bien Bridge on that day. I thought I was getting to heaven.
Seen from down on the island, Long Bien Bridge was like a huge comb gently gliding through the milky pink hair of dawn. It is a masterpiece of architecture in a great harmony with surrounding nature. The huge steel girders, the long iron spans linking the northern bank with the southern bank create an elegant and lively look, something different from other steel structures at the time. When on the bridge I thought I was standing on a recumbent dragon.
To some people Long Bien Bridge might only mean a structure spanning the watery gap between downtown Hanoi and the outlying Gia Lam District. However, to my family, it is a bridge that links hearts. Long Bien’s 19 spans symbolize 19 spans of happiness. It is where Cupid’s arrow zapped me and my wife-to-be. It was at the 100th anniversary of the bridge, in 2002, a warm early spring morning. The student girl from Hue National High School was visiting Hanoi for the first time. She came to the bridge and gave me a crush, which stayed for months. Luckily, I had asked for her address and we exchanged letters. Her interest in the bridge added to her love for the capital city. Finishing high school, she decided to attend a university in Hanoi. Upon her graduation, I immediately proposed to her. It was a drizzly afternoon, the bridal car carried the bride from the ancient capital through the spans of Long Bien Bridge to Hanoi. For many reasons, nothing can stand the comparison with my love for Long Bien Bridge. It occupies an irreplaceable place in my heart whenever I go.
Now in the morning my mother takes my first-born daughter under Long Bien Bridge to get fresh air. My baby learnt to love the bridge right from the cradle. When she learnt to walk, her first steps were on the bridge. When she learnt to speak, she spoke the first words there too. Now my daughter is three. On week days I take her through the bridge to the kindergarten.

Present-day Long Biên Bridge
Photo: Nguyen Anh Tuan

The bridge does not only link the two banks of the Red River, it links Vietnam with the outside world as well, as a proud symbol of culture and history. Over the passage of time, despite all the ups and downs of history, in spite of all the repairs, changes, or remodelling, I still want it to keep its own initial look. I cannot agree more with this saying about the project of remodelling the bridge, ‘Do not repaint the colour of time’.

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