Old dragon, new life

(No.5, Vol.2 May 2012 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)

Long Bien Bridge was designed and built in the 19th century. Not only one of the longest bridges in the world at the time, _Long Bien Bridge also reflects the then world’s level of bridge-construction techniques. Mong Bridge in Saigon, Trang Tien Bridge in Hue, Long Bien Bridge in Hanoi, Van Nien water treatment-plant in Hue, together with the metal structure of the central post office in Ho Chi Minh City and the Hang Dau fountain in Hanoi make for a technical and architectural heritage Vietnam has not yet done a thorough research on or given a sufficient position to.

In the past, for many reasons, people refused to acknowledge that Long Bien Bridge, together with the road system, the railway system, the meteorological observatories and the irrigation system built by the French were Vietnam’s first step in integration into the modern world. Though the process was not started by the Vietnamese people, without that long step Vietnam would have less to inherit, and no one knows what its overall development of today would be like.
More and more bridges have spanned the Red River, Chuong Duong Bridge, Thang Long Bridge, Thanh Tri Bridge, Vinh Tuy Bridge. However, those bridges are simply structures that provide a passage over the water. Unlike Long Bien Bridge, they do not take part in the creation of the beauty of the river and the surroundings. The One-Pillar Pagoda, the Temple of Literature, though delicate and special, are not enough to make points of impression in a panorama.
Long Bien Bridge plays the role of a witness of to contemporary history and a significant achievement of infrastructure in a then backward Vietnam. The bridge holds many memories of Hanoi’s nine years of resistance against the French (1946- 1954). At the same time, it is [what urban planners call] a very rare and precious architectural structure in a city whose landscape design has always been a problem.
How should the great crippled bridge be treated?
The best solution should be raising people’s awareness of the bridge’s values. Over time Long Bien Bridge’s role as a means of passage has shrunk in importance, giving place to the growth of the role of a cultural and historical item.
Following are some suggestions:
Long Bien Bridge is a fine work of design and technique, which must be conserved as a part of the city’s heritage. Do not, however, categorize the structure as a cultural relic according to the Cultural Heritage Law, because it is very difficult to find a way to deal with a relic.
Looking at Long Bien Bridge as a heritage construction, we can maintain it, improve it and conform it to new purposes. Putting it to good use in everyday life is the best way of maintenance.
The present role in transportation should last only for another certain period of time into the future. Sooner or later a more modern railway system has to replace the old one and be outside of the inner city. Any project study should bring only motorbikes, bicycles and pedestrians into consideration.
Hanoi has thousands of historical, cultural, and architectural works. Yet, most are small-scale designs in small spaces. Most of them still have to carry out their initial functions. It is hard to turn them into new, open, public sites or tourist attractions with multiple functions and activities. Long Bien Bridge is a structure which can provide space for various activities such as exhibitions, art salons, souvenir stalls, food services, community activities, wedding studios, walking and festivities. Long Bien Bridge, once restored, remodelled, and conformed can work as a second magnet of the capital city, after the Old Quarter, and help make Hanoi’s cultural and touristic menu less meagre and boring.
* Hoang Dao Kinh is a leading professor of heritage conservation.

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