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BRIDGES THAT DISTILL THE LOVE OF THE NATIVE LAND

(No.3, Vol.9, Jun-Jul 2019 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)

By Prof. Trinh Sinh

Photos by Le Bich

Every Vietnamese has a bridge to be nostalgic about. They connect roads and riversides. They also witness dates, vows and love stories:

“Lovingly, longingly, and tenderly

Thrice a day out to the bridge, waiting”

Flimsy skewed bamboo bridges, tottery monkey bridges, shaky coconut bridges, or stronger wooden or stone bridges, they all connect villages together; they all expand the vision and feelings of Vietnamese souls. But there is one special kind of bridge, not only painstaking to build, but also one that beautifies emotions and memories, the tile-roofed ones.

According to official numbers, there remain 12 tile-roofed bridges in the whole country. Nam Dinh has Co Le, Luong Kermis, Upper Kermis, and the Roofed Bridges. Hanoi has Nhat Tien Kieu, Nguyet Tien Kieu (at Thay Pagoda), Binh Vong and Khum Bridges. Ninh Binh has one at Phat Ziem. Hue has Thanh Toan Bridge. Quang Nam has the Pagoda Bridge at Hoi An.

However, 200 years ago there used to be many more tile-roofed bridges. The “Dai Nam Unified Records” book described many famous ones. Those historians of the Nguyen Dynasty era must have noted the special charm of this kind of bridges, because they put them in a distinct class.

Very few, if any, know that there used to be a famous tile-roofed bridge standing where today modern fly-overs top one another: Cau Giay (Paper Bridge). This nearly 15m long bridge across To Lich River used to be called Yen Quyet Bridge. At the time, the water in the river was still clear. Many such tile-roofed bridges have disappeared without trace in the same fashion, such as Do Bridge at the center of today’s Ha Dong District, or Tay Dang Bridge at Ba Vi District, Van Tu Bridge at Thuong Phuc (today’s Thuong Tin district) of Hanoi etc. Outside of Hanoi, there was Soc Dang (or Te) Bridge at Doan Hung (Phu Tho Province), and Bau (also called An Nhan) bridge in Hai Zuong Province.

Dozens of such tile-roofed bridges listed by Nguyen era historians have been destroyed to be replaced by new ones. The remaining ones are truly a valuable heritage of the nation. Some of them even have benches and handrails installed. They are multi-dimensional, physically and spiritually. They are not just bridges for people to pass through without noticing them. Travelers stop there for a brief rest. Villagers stop there to enjoy a breeze and even a blissful cup of tea on the way home from a hard day working in the fields. Young people go on dates there. These bridges strengthen community bonds and adorn the localities and the heart of those who live near them.

These bridges sometimes even serve spiritual purposes. Hoi An’s Pagoda Bridge is a typical example, with an altar and a statue of Northern King, the Tamer of the Storms inside. The forms of the structure, especially the curved lines of the roofs intentionally remind everyone of the temples elsewhere, Buddhist and Taoist. It couldn’t be more suitable to stand above water and pray to the Water Tamer for good weather and good crops. Nothing can be more important than the harmony of the circulation of water in a land of rice cultivation. 

Some of the most beautiful tile-roofed bridges have become big tourist attractions. Take for example the Binh Vong bridge in the Thuong Tin district of Hanoi. It’s a wooden bridge with five compartments and tiled roofs. The rooftop is decorated with sacred animals, the dragons are at two ends and at the base of the pillars. Inside, it has benches and handrails along the sides for everyone to sit. The walls have windows with the Buddhist symbol of “Being and not being.” The bridge looks like a pagoda hovering over water.

Another example is Hoi An’s famous “Lai Vien Kieu” (A bridge to receive guests from afar). It was built in the 17th century (during the era of Nguyen Lords expanding southward) by Japanese merchants, who came here and set an outpost for commerce and who wanted to mark the presence of Japan. The roof tiles are Japanese with typical patterns. Monkeys and dogs, which are Japanese sacred animals, guard the two ends of the bridge. Several centuries after it was built, the bridge still receive tourists from all over the world, serving well the purpose expressed by its name.

It is worth mentioning the unique bridge at Luong Kermis, Hai Hau District of Nam Dinh Province. Its roof looks like a capsized boat. It also has benches along both sides for passers to take a rest and enjoy a cool breeze. The bridge was built in the 16th century, among the oldest.

Thay Pagoda, in Quoc Oai District of Hanoi has two tile-roofed bridges. The one named Nhat Tien (Sun Angel) leads to an islet in a pond, and the other, named Nguyet Tien (Moon Angel) leads to the mountain behind. Both of them were built by Phung Khac Khoan the Top Scholar from Bung himself.

Visitors to dreamy Hue often come to see the bridge of Thanh Toan, about 7-8 km from the city. The enameled roof tiles here are of the pipe shaped kind. The bridge has seven compartments, and the middle one has an altar for the bridge builder.

The bridge of Phat Ziem, Ninh Binh, built in the era of Nguyen Dynasty is also a remarkable heritage beside the local famous stone church. This 36m long bridge is perhaps the longest one, having as many as 12 compartments.

Each tile-roofed bridge is a unique architectural masterpiece. Ancient people have really blown a soul into the bridges that crossed rivers and connected human hearts:

I wish the river be no wider than a palm span

So I could bridge it with my brassier for you to come…”

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