Strength and grace

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

Long Bien Bridge in the early 20th century.
Photo supplied by Nguyen Anh Tuan

Many articles in various publications** have acclaimed Alexandre Gustave Eiffel, who designed the Eiffel tower, in Paris, for having designed Long Bien Bridge in Hanoi. In order to provide the public with a better understanding of the bridge’s history, I would like to cite some more information found at the National Archives Centre.
After having obtained control over Indochina, the French focused on strengthening governance and started colonial exploitation. In a report to the French Minister for the Colonies on the first project of colonial exploitation, Governor-General of French Indochina Paul Doumer, in office from 13 February, 1897, to 3 March, 1902, introduced his idea of constructing a new system of railways, roads and seaports in Indochina. Long Bien Bridge was included in the program and was built at the time to meet the demand of growing traffic, to solve the problem of crossing the Red River in the flood season. It was a strategic bridge linking the northern part and the southern part of Northern Vietnam. It was also built to carry the railways that ran from Hanoi to the Vietnam-China border and from Hanoi to Hai Phong seaport.

Red River the

Governor-General Paul Doumer’s idea of the construction of Long Bien Bridge faced opposition from a lot of sources. ‘Building a bridge over the Red River? That is crazy! It is like putting mountains on top mountains to climb up to heaven.’ ‘How can you build a bridge across such a wide and deep river?’ Indochine hebdomadaire illustré(1) reported.

From the engineers’ plans. Vietnamese National Archive Centre I in Hanoi.
Image: Le Huy Tuan

An article in Le Courrier d’ Hai Phong criticized Doumer’s idea: ‘When thinking of building a bridge, people care about what benefits it will bring and if it can span the river. [Paul Doumer] does not bother to think of that. He pays no heed to the ferocious currents of the Red River. He is completely ignorant of the fact that very often this erratic river changes its course. Yet, as anyone does, this man should know that the river had no trouble wiping out the legation office in Hung Yen Province; and people in Son Tay Province had to move five kilometres further away from the river [because the river changed its course]. He should be realistic enough to know that on a good morning when the river changes it course, people would see a bridge on the land, hundreds of metres away from the waterside?’ This is citing Indochine hebdomadaire illustré(2).
Ignoring all the criticism from the public, the tradespeople, the colonists and the French government officials, Doumer went ahead and decided for the 1,682-metre bridge to be built across the Red River.
On 4 June, 1897, the project got the official approval from the Indochina Governor-General. In November the same year a tender was held with six participant companies, Société de Construction Lavallois-Perret, Baudet-Daunon et Cie, Société du Creusot, Société des Ponts en fer, Cie de Fives-Lille and Daydé & Pillé tendering against one another. Each bidder was to propose two projects, project A and project B. The Indochina Governor-General issued decree No 7-11-1897, in accordance with which a committee was founded to review the projects. Mr Foures, Resident Superior of Tonkin, chaired the committee(3). On 15 December, 1897 the Committee opened tendering files to evaluate the technical advantages of each project. The committee set up a technology department, composed of Mr Renaud, head of the Transport and Public Works Department, Mr Borreil, chief engineer in charge of the construction of the railway which ran from Hanoi to the Vietnam-China border, Mr Josheph, commander of Public Works, and Mr Poutet, commander of the Navy. Most of the bidders proposed high prices and plain designs. Two companies offered lowest prices, project A by Lavallois Perret Company with 5,387,540.60 francs and project B by Daydé & Pillé Company with 5,390,794 francs. Daydé & Pillé won after 15 days of evaluation and consideration. On 30 December, 1897, the tender committee proposed to the Indochina Governor-General to adopt Daydé & Pillé’s project. The reason the committee gave was, ‘According to the technology department, it is a strong bridge, more graceful than that by Lavallois Perret. The difference of 3,253.40 francs is too small for us to sacrifice the technical advantages of the project by Daydé & Pillé’. In addition, the report by the Technology Department noted, ‘The design uses modern and unique steel.’

Long Bien Bridge, in 2011.
Photo: Dan Ton

At the tender committee’s request, on 27 January, 1898, Indochina Governor-General Paul Doumer issued the decree (5) choosing Daydé & Pillé Company, which had been established on 31 December, 1885, in Creteil, France, as the official contractor with the construction budget of 5,900,000 francs, after having altered some technical details.
On 12 September, 1898 a ceremony (6) was held to start the construction of ‘the bridge of the century’ with the attendance of government officials and the public from the neighbouring region. Even though the time budget was five years, the construction went quite smoothly, no obstacle in terms of finance or workforce; consequently, the bridge was finished after three years and nine months.
Three thousand local workers and about 40 French engineers, experts and supervisors were employed for the construction of the bridge. More than 30,000 cubic metres of stone and 6,000 tons of metal and a total capital of 6,200,000 francs(7) were used, a little over budget.
On 3 February, 1902, Long Bien Bridge was completed. On 28 February, 1902, at 8.30 the Vietnamese King, Thanh Thai, Indochina Governor-General, Paul Doumer, and other officials rode a train from Hanoi Railway Station to the bridge to open the biggest bridge in Indochina. The bridge was named Doumer, after the person who allowed the bridge to be built and cut the ribbon. After the French withdrew in 1954 it was renamed Long Bien. With its beauty and grandeur, Doumer Bridge held the mandarins as well as the common people stunned. As the speech by Nguyen Trong Hop in the grand opening went, ‘The bridge resembles a dragon lying across the water, a rainbow supporting the sky above, which dazzles the eyes.’(8)
Following the inauguration of Doumer Bridge, the Governor-General’s decree No 953, issued on 28 March, 1902, allowed the Hanoi-Gia Lam [Gia Lam is a outlying district of Hanoi] railway route to come into operation from 8 April, 1902.(9)
In the beginning, the bridge was open only to trains, pedestrians and small livestock. In 1922, it was upgraded and in April, 1924, motor vehicles were allowed.
Today, information on the starting and completion time, and the author of the bridge, can still be seen on a panel on the end of the bridge, the side facing the downtown Hanoi. It reads, ‘1899-1902– Daydé & Pillé – Paris’.(10)
To those who suspect that Alexandre Gustave Eiffel designed the bridge for Daydé & Pillé, I can say for sure that drawings reserved in the Vietnamese National Archives Centres in Hanoi were all signed Daydé & Pillé; second, at the time, Eiffel himself had a construction company in Indochina, which also participated in the tendering, under the name Société de construction Levallois-Perret. His company was involved in the constructing several bridges in Vietnam, including the Ha Ly Bridge in Hai Phong and Ben Luc Bridge in Ho Chi Minh City and some railway bridges in Hue.

Long Bien Bridge, in 2011.
Photo: Dan Ton

1, 2. Indochine hebdomadaire illustré, issue 184 on 9-3-1944.
3. Journal Officiel de l’ Indochine, issue No 91, on 15 November, 1897, page 878.
4. Quote from report No 2E 3 January 1898 by Résident supérieur du Tonkin to the Superior General of Indochina. Vietnam National Archive I, fonds de la Résidence supérieure au Tonkin, profile No 6532: A/s de la construction d’un pont sur le Fleuve rouge (pont Doumer) 1897 – 1898 (Về việc xây dựng một cây cầu trên sông Hồng 1897 – 1898).
5. Journal Officiel de l' Indochine issues No 10 and No 11, 3 February and 7 February 1898, page 115.
6. The National Archive, profile No 80464: Fêtes données à I’occasion de la réunion du Conseil Supérieur de I’Indochine. Pose de la première pierre du pont sur le fleuve rouge 1898.
7. Decree on 13 March, 1902 by the superior General Paul Doumer assigned the additional money invested in the project of building a bridge across the Red River (Journal Officiel de l' Indochine issue No 27 3 April, 1902, page 282).
8. Vietnamese National Archive I-Hanoi, RST, profile No 38723: Inauguration du pont Paul Doumer à Hanoi.
9. Vietnamese National Archive I-Hanoi, RST, profile No 7861: A/s de I’ouverture de I’exploitation de la section de Hanoi à Gialam de la ligne du chemin de fer de Hanoi à la frontière de Chine 1902.
* Vu Van Thuyen wrote this article in 2001 when he was working for Vietnamese National Archives Centre I in Hanoi
** The same statements were cited in several recent articles on Dantri.com.vn of 13 July, 2008, Giadinh.net.vn of 18 July, 2008, television channel VTV3 in October 2008, and Hà Nội Cuối Tuần (Hanoi weekend) of 4 December, 2008.

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