Revered by the people of Hanoi, Long Bien Bridge is living historical evidence of the courage of the capital throughout the ups and downs of the 20th century.
Construction began in 1899 and when completed, in 1902, the bridge was named after Paul Doumer, the French Governor General of Indochina. At that time it was the fourth-longest bridge in the world and the only steel bridge spanning the Red River. In 1954, it was renamed Long Bien Bridge.
At 1,648 metres in length, including 19 spans, its main purpose was a strategically vital one as a direct rail link between Hanoi and the port of Hai Phong.
For many people, Long Bien Bridge is a reminder of French technological innovation at that time. However, it would be an oversight not to mention the more than 3,000 Vietnamese workers who undertook the challenge of building the bridge, using cement from Hai Phong, lime from Hue, and thousands of cubic metres of wood from Thanh Hoa, Phu Tho and Yen Bai provinces.
The bridge has been a major witness of national history and has stood firm throughout two wars against the French and Americans. During the French War (1946-1954), the French used the Hanoi - Hai Phong railway line to evacuate their civilians and troops. It was across the Doumer Bridge that the final contingent of French soldiers walked on the afternoon of 9 October, 1954, after withdrawing from Hanoi Citadel. Vietnamese soldiers then took possession of the bridge, officially renaming it Long Bien Bridge. On the morning of 10 October, 1954, troops entered the city and declared it liberated.
Later on, during the American War (1955-1975), the bridge became a key target of US bombers. In March 1965, as the Americans unleashed their sustained aerial bombardment known as ‘Rolling Thunder’, anti-aircraft guns were installed on the central bridge towers. From May to October 1972, President Nixon’s ‘Operation Linebacker’ inflicted further damage on the bridge by hitting it on four occasions, demolishing three more spans and once more severing the vital rail link between the capital and the coast. Altogether, seven spans and four support columns were destroyed during the American War.
After the Paris Peace Accords, work began to rebuild the bridge using steel supplied by the USSR, and by March 1973 trains were once again running from the centre of Hanoi to the Gia Lam junction. But this reconstruction left only half of the bridge with its original shape.
Long Bien Bridge is now over 100 years old and remains an important part of daily life for residents of the capital. The bridge is one of five now crossing the Red River and the only one where traffic moves on the left-hand side. Young teenagers, expats and tourists alike love to walk across it on the weekend, buying boiled glutinous corn or charcoal-grilled sweet potatoes from vendors. The bridge is also the best place in town to watch the sunrise or sunset. Many brides and grooms as well as hip young local people choose Long Bien Bridge as the backdrop for their photos. In the afternoon, people in Ngoc Thuy village and Ngoc Thuy ward pick up fresh vegetables or fish for dinner from the small open-air afternoon market on the bridge.
Despite the repairs, however, the bridge is seriously degraded. There have been several proposals put forward recently to modify and modernise the bridge, so that the city can tackle the increasing amount of traffic between the districts of Hoan Kiem and Long Bien.
The first plan was to build a new bridge on the site of the Long Bien Bridge, keeping the central part in place and retaining the railway track but moving other sections of the bridge elsewhere for preservation.
The second option was to construct a new bridge with a similar design and preserve the old one.
The third proposal was to upgrade the bridge while keeping its central part and framework.
The biggest challenge for Hanoian authorities is identifying the best solution to deal with the architecturally-important bridge, a treasured heritage site with cultural and historical significance.
So far, every proposal to change the image of Long Bien Bridge has had its share of supporters and detractors, but one plan has truly sparked controversy. A project to transform the bridge into a cultural and arts space was put forward by Vietnamese-French architect, Nguyen Nga, in a recent interview on RFI (Radio France Internationale).
‘Instead of reminding us of wartime, which resulted in so many losses, the bridge could be a symbol of hope and culture, beautifying Hanoi, the city of peace,’ she said.
Under her plans, the damaged spans of the bridge would be repaired and the whole bridge then converted into a giant Contemporary Arts Museum.
‘A large space would be built on the bridge’s structure to exhibit old steam locomotives and antique carriages would become cafés and restaurants and the bridge covered with transparent glass panels,’ she explained. ‘This would will give the bridge a new appearance while maintaining its structural integrity.’
The central rail track would become a new space dedicated to creative and cultural activities and trees and streetlights would be incorporated to create a romantic walking path.
The highlight of the project would be redesigning the Middle Bank (Bai Giua), an island under the bridge, turning it into an Art Park with gardens and orchards, cycling paths, a skating rink and a climbing wall. One idea is to also have a mulberry plantation and to build a silk weaving village.
Nga has also suggested building a Lotus Tower Contemporary Arts Museum on the right bank of the Red River, where 2.5 ha of land is currently used for light industry.
The tower would be in the shape of a flowering lotus, the national flower of Vietnam, and made from metal and wood. It would house contemporary works of art, as well as new technology from Vietnam and other countries.
Besides housing short-term and permanent exhibitions, the museum would also be a cultural space, with a library, a concert hall, cafés and restaurants and, on the top (ninth) floor, an open space with panoramic views over Hanoi.
‘The project would help improve the living environment of Hanoi residents, gradually changing the urban space around the capital’s green walking routes and adding more green spaces to Hanoi,’ Nga emphasised.
While there is currently no agreement on the future of the project, it is still a positive and bold idea for the development of Hanoi and the country.