(No.3, Vol.2 Mar 2012 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)
The first time I saw the Long Bien Bridge was in the 1970’s – I was a young boy living in Connecticut in the United States. In my home there was a stack of old Time Magazines and dating from some years before was an article about the United States Air force bombing of Long Bien Bridge in Hanoi. I brought the magazine to my 4th grade teacher, Mr Logie. I was very lucky to have teachers like Mr Logie throughout my life – he gave me a very truthful perspective about the Vietnam War, which was still going on at the time. Mr Logie told me about the people of Hanoi’s heroic defence of the Long Bien Bridge and their city against the seemingly unstoppable might of the United States Air Force. In this Time Magazine article there was an aerial photograph of Hanoi, and I would stare at this photograph for hours, as children often do, as if they can almost enter the photograph. I remember staring at places in Hanoi which would come to mean so much to me later in life: Hoan Kiem Lake, West Lake and the Centre Island [Bãi Gi?a] in the Red River that the Long Bien Bridge touches.
Another momentous thing happened to me at this time of my life. A neighbour had taught me to take pictures and how to develop film. I soon built a darkroom in the basement of my house using old cardboard boxes and black plastic bags that I cut up for light-proofing. This was the beginning of a life in photography. The Vietnam War came to an end (for the Americans – it went on for two more years in Vietnam [until 1975]) while I was in Mr Logie’s class. Every week we would see the casualty reports on the news in our class – usually about 200 killed every week. Finally the number of killed in action dropped to one person. Mr Logie’s comment was, ‘That was one person too many.’
In 2010 Th? Thao V?n Hóa weekly newspaper and Maison
des Arts held a competition in which people would
tell their stories of Long Bien Bridge.
The present article is one of the
stories. It was sent to
Vietnam Heritage by the
In my life I have had a career as an artist and later I started a second career as a historian. After studying Asian history, culture and philosophy for some years I lived in China for one year and after that in India. I had wanted to live in Vietnam for some time as I had studied Vietnamese history and culture under Dr Bruce Franklin at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Dr Franklin taught the history of the American from a more Vietnamese perspective and under his direction we read great works of Vietnamese literature in English translation, such as Dumb Luck (by Vu Trong Phung) and The Sorrow of War (by Bao Ninh). In 2006 I was privileged to come to Hanoi and teach at Hanoi University in the Faculty of International Studies. My own research activities tended towards historical urban studies and so my long study of the history and culture of Hanoi began.
My research in China and India had prepared me for this study. I had become interested in the social and historical meanings of and memory of fixed urban structures. One of the first urban structures of Hanoi I began to investigate was, of course, the Long Bien Bridge. My childhood memory of and fascination with this bridge had never left me and it was very much in my thoughts as my plane landed at Hanoi’s Noi Bai Airport.
My first experience on the bridge was powerful. History lives on this bridge and for a historian this can be almost overwhelming. The wartime repairs still dominate the appearance of the bridge. The heroic struggle of the people of Hanoi to defend this bridge and their city still lives in graphic detail. This was a living panorama of the article in Time Magazine that I had read as a child. The most obvious remnants of the Vietnam War are the missing spans of the bridge – giving the Long Bien Bridge a ‘telegraphing’ appearance. The most meaningful remnants, however, are actually underneath the bridge and can be viewed on Centre Island (which is accessed by Long Bien Bridge).
The original support columns built by the French construction company Daydé & Pillé were made of carefully masoned stone. Most of these support columns were destroyed in the American bombing campaigns known as ‘Operation Rolling Thunder’ around 1967-68. This meant that new support columns had to be constructed. Some are made of salvaged steel ‘I’ beams. Some are made of poured concrete and one is literally a box of stones contained by a frame of steel beams. What stuck me about each of these repairs was that they were so individual – each column a unique solution. It was quite obvious that each repair team had been allotted a certain amount and kind of materials to create the replacement support columns. Each solution is unique and creative and it is a testament to the people of Hanoi, who struggled long ago, that their repairs are still in service today.
I began to return to the bridge often, maybe hundreds of times. As I stood on the bridge, and on Centre Island, I began to realize how time and space were collapsed or squashed on the bridge. Long Bien Bridge is not just a bridge between Hanoi and Gia Lam but between the past, present and even the future. Long Bien Bridge is a living example for me of how a fixed monument, like a bridge, can have many meanings for people through time. During the French period, when the bridge was built, it was a symbol and example French technological ‘superiority’. This was meant to contrast with the Vietnamese technological ‘inferiority.’ And, indeed, Paul Doumer (the original name of Long Bien Bridge) created Hanoi as the capital of French Indochina, as it was the essential communication link with Hai Phong and the north and the south of Vietnam. Memories of this time are still evident today as people often call the bridge the ‘horizontal Eiffel Tower’ even though there is no evidence that Gustave Eiffel, the French designer of the Eiffel Tower, was ever involved with Long Bien Bridge.
On Long Bien Bridege
Photo: Mai Thanh Tien
It was the French War and the Vietnam War that changed this meaning of the Long Bien Bridge for the people of Hanoi, Vietnam and the world. After the French withdrew in 1954 Paul Doumer was renamed Long Bien Bridge. It was said that Long Bien was the name of a fishing village that stood on the opposite bank of the Red River from Hanoi. This name-change is very significant as it passed ‘spiritual’ as well actual ownership from the French to the Vietnamese.
During the Vietnam War (1960-1975) the identity of the Long Bien Bridge became even more intensely Vietnamese as Hanoians fought to defend and repair the bridge in the face of American bombardment. This signalled two important realities. One, that no matter how much America bombed the north of Vietnam they could not break the will of the Vietnamese to fight and reunify their country. Two, that the Vietnamese were capable of effectively resisting a seemingly technologically superior enemy, the United States. These meanings were not only evident to the Vietnamese people but to the world, through the international media.
These are past meanings of Long Bien Bridge and they are also part of its present meanings. I discovered the meanings by very conventional means of historical investigation, by researching documents and interviewing people. I began to wonder, ‘How can I discover the new meanings, or contemporary meanings of Long Bien Bridge?’ As I experienced Long Bien Bridge I realized it was an environment, an area of Hanoi that affected many peoples lives. I decided to explore this aspect through photography and by getting to know the people who lived in the area.
Photography had been apart of my life since childhood, but actually I had not photographed seriously for many years. When I arrived in Vietnam something happened. This aspect of my life was reawakened by Vietnam itself, at first as part of my research and then as an aspect and art in its own right. I do not use digital photography, I do black-and-white film photography, as I always have. People often ask me why I don’t use digital equipment or why I use black-and-white rather colour film? There is no clear answer to this except that I feel that film and black-and-white is an art form worth preserving and practising. In addition, the medium of black and film has the effect of bringing the past into present, as often the image is reminiscent of historical photographs.
I have now been photographing the Long Bien Bridge for about three years. I have taken over a thousand images. I have documented the wartime repairs and I have tried to document the many ways of life around the bridge and the ways in which the Long Bien Bridge shapes those lives. Through photographing the bridge I have come to see it as a beautiful historical creation, a work of art that has been shaped by many hands and through time.
About a year ago I began to create panorama views of the Long Bien Bridge. I was actually inspired by Vietnamese photographers. During the Vietnam War Vietnamese photographers in Hanoi created panoramic views of the American bomb damage in Hanoi by cutting and pasting their photographs together. I instantly understood their intention; some subjects or events are too big to be contained in a single photographic frame. In a certain sense the long or expansive view of a panoramic photograph can contain this increased meaning. This was the view, or the way seeing, that I wanted to bring to Long Bien Bridge. Always, my panoramas of the Long Bien Bridge relate the bridge to its surrounding environment and show the reality of the presence of the bridge in people’s lives. The panoramic medium is ideal for this.
I visit the Long Bien Bridge once a week, sometimes more. I have found that Long Bien Bridge is a place and environment for many people who have perhaps been left behind in ??i M?i, Vietnam’s economic miracle. In this area the poorest people of Hanoi live, some on boats, some in floating houses and some on farms on the Centre Island. I have learned so much about these people in the last three years and I have seen their struggle to emerge from poverty. My experience with these people, especially those who live in the floating houses, is that they are kind and generous even though have so little. I have photographed them in good times and bad. I have photographed how beautiful days can bring many Hanoians to the centre island for recreation. At these times their lives seem peaceful and idyllic. I have also photographed how a fierce storm can wreck their lives and destroy their homes in one night. I have seen how they must struggle for the most basic comforts such as electricity and clean water.
Long Bien Bridge is ever-preset and is vital to their lives. To the people who live on the Centre Island survival is closely linked to the bridge. Long Bien Bridge serves as their main link to Hanoi proper. They must travel the bridge every day to scour the city for recyclables to wash in the Red River and then resell for cash. The Long Bien Bridge is also a platform for informal commerce, the corn, which grows on the island, the corn that is famous for its sweet taste, is purchased on the bridge by passing travellers. Beyond this the support columns that rest in the water between the Hanoi bank of the Red River and Centre Island create a great fishing ground. The people who live in the floating community can either eat the fish or sell it for additional income.
Often I take groups of students and visitors for walks on and around the Long Bien Bridge. My students at the Faculty of International Studies at Hanoi University have become very involved in these communities. They have made films of the people’s lives and created service cum learning programs to try and help the people who live in this area. One incident really stands out in my mind.
My students and I were one day carrying out research among the floating community that is on the Hanoi bank of the Red River almost directly under the Long Bien Bridge. As chance would have it a dead man washed up in the community on the shore of the river. This unfortunate man was a stranger but that did not prevent the residents of this community from taking respectful care of this stranger. The people of the community cleaned the man up and made a bed for him. They then covered him and burned incense around his body. You can tell a lot about people by how they treat a stranger. This was a powerful lesson for my students and myself about the dignity and worth of this community.
If you were to come on one of my walks to the Long Bien Bridge it would probably go something like this. First we would enter the bridge road on the Hanoi side. We might pause at the road entrance where the caves are under the road ramp. These were used as a hospital in the Vietnam War. We might also talk about how during the great famine of 1945, in which 2 million Vietnamese died, armies of starving people wandered across the bridge to try to find food and life in Hanoi. Most did not survive. The caves under the road ramp were also used to temporarily store the bodies of the famine victims as they a provided a cool environment.
As we begin to walk across the bridge we have a great view of the Hanoi Fruit Market. Here all the fruit Hanoi and the area produces arrives by truck and is wholesaled to different vendors and distributors. It is a lively scene. As we pass the Fruit Market it is also a good place to admire one of the original manufacturing plates fixed to the side of the bridge. It reads Daydé & Pillé 1899-1902, Daydé & Pillé being the French construction company that built ‘Paul Doumer’.
We arrive at open space over the channel of the Red River that lies between the Hanoi bank and Centre Island. This is a good place to talk as it is an open area and area of commerce. It’s a little noisy because the motorbikes are roaring by. Here we can talk about French colonialism, Hanoi and the Long Bien Bridge. We can also see two distinct floating communities. One right in front of us is a community of floating houses. The oldest residents have been there for ten years. On the opposite side is another floating community. These people actually live in boats and have much greater mobility. I think this gives them an economic advantage over the people in the floating houses. We can look at photographs that are one hundred years old and see similar communities in the same place. Only the hulls of their boats are different. In older times they were made of wood, today they are made of steel.
Long Bien Bridge
Photo: Mai Thanh Tien
Next we walk to the staircase that will take us to Centre Island. But before this people usually notice the missing spans of the Long Bien Bridge. This is a good place to start talking about the American bombing of Long Bien Bridge and the Vietnam War in general.
As we walk down to Centre Island I have to caution my guests. The ground in this area is littered with discarded hypodermic needles. It’s important to be careful where you step. Drug addicts come across the bridge at night and do their drugs and sleep under the bridge here. You can often find dozens of discarded needles and discarded wrappers for chips and other snack food.
From here we walk a metre to view the underside of the bridge. This is the best place to talk about the Vietnam War and the defence of the Long Bien Bridge and Hanoi. Here we can see the different replacement support columns that were fabricated in 1968 and they are placed next to one of the original French stone support columns, which makes a very graphic comparison.
At this point my group usually begins to notice how beautiful Centre Island is, and often we may see middle-class Hanoians bicycling by for nothing more than recreation. But now it is time for a walk and to meet some of the people who live on the island.
We walk along a path with the bridge to our back. There is a small community of floating houses a very short distance away on the Red River side of the Island. The people are friendly and some even invite you into their floating home for tea. It’s important to remember what a luxury this is, as the ice has had to be carried all the way from Hanoi across the Long Bien Bridge. Recently this community was devastated by a violent thunderstorm and many of these homes where destroyed. The residents now struggle to rebuild them.
Many of the people in the floating communities work for the people who have houses on the island. They work as field hands as the people who have houses on dry land are farmers and farm the island. Some of these households are in their second generation of farming here. They occupy their land by custom rather than legal ownership. They have told my students and me that life is becoming increasingly hard as the level of the Red River gets lower every year. This means less floodwater to bring the life-giving silt to their soil. Their crops are becoming poorer and poorer.
We return the bridge and begin our walk back to Hanoi. But there is one more question that haunts me, one more discussion to be had. It concerns the proposed restoration of the Long Bien Bridge. The French Government will assist in this restoration. The Eiffel Company will be involved (even though they did not build the bridge). My concern is that if they restore the Long Bien Bridge to its original design specifications, the Long Bien Bridge will become Paul Doumer again. This will erase all the wartime repairs of the bridge. This will also erase the physical memory of that heroic struggle when the Hanoians and the Vietnamese people battled and defeated the largest army in the world. I, with the boundless love to the heroic bridge and Hanoi, do believe that some elements of these war-time repairs, perhaps the grouping of support columns on the Centre Island, must be preserved and memorialized to keep this sacred memory for future generations.
Through every conceivable odds or possibility, I have grown to love the Long Bien Bridge. It entered my mind in childhood in faraway United States. I have experienced its history and the Long Bien Bridge’s impact on the everyday life of so many people who could not walk across this great structure and feel its magnificence. I was married here in Hanoi in 2009. The day before my wedding I asked my wife to get into her wedding dress and I took her photograph, the wind blowing and traffic buzzing by, on the Bridge.n