Hanoi’s Historic Long Bien Bridge

Hanoi’s Historic Long Bien Bridge

The Long Bien Bridge over the Red River in Hanoi is a slice of Vietnamese history. It tells a tale of colonialism, of war and destruction, and of the resilience of the Vietnamese people.

Visitors who take a walk across the 115-year old steel bridge have an opportunity to delve into the country’s often turbulent past. For senior travellers who recall the tumultuous years of America’s involvement in Vietnam, it may bring back haunting memories.

At the same, crossing the bridge offers glimpses into aspects of modern Hanoi life that most tourists don’t get the chance to see.

Four-wheeled vehicles have long since been banned on the bridge. Today it’s restricted to trains, motorcycles, bicycles and pedestrians.

A diesel locomotive on the Long Bien Bridge. Image: © Alan Williams

On each side of the bridge is a narrow pedestrian walkway made of concrete slabs held in place by metal frames, with a handrail on the outer side. Next to each is a lane for motorcycles and bicycles, and in the centre is the railway line. Motorcycles make up most of the traffic these days, some bearing heavy loads.

When I walked across the bridge on a Thursday morning, there were few other pedestrians, but the bridge is busier on weekends, when local people flock to it. 

The first part of the walk takes you above fruit and vegetable patches leading down the bank to the river. 

You pass a plaque attached to a girder stating that Daydé and Pillé of Paris built the bridge between 1899 and 1902. When it opened in 1903, it was one of the longest bridges in Asia, with 19 spans. Estimates of its length vary from 1.6 to 2.4 kilometres (1 to 1.5 miles).

Constructor’s plaque on a bridge girder. Image: © Alan Williams

The bridge’s main purpose was to provide rail transport between Hanoi and the important port of Haiphong on the South China Sea, 120 km to the east. It also served as a symbol of French know-how and the supposed advantages of colonial rule.

It was originally named after Paul Doumer, the Governor-General of French Indochina, and was renamed the Long Bien Bridge after Vietnam declared independence in 1945.

As you continue walking, you notice that some of the spans are of different designs and made of different materials. The Americans repeatedly bombed the bridge in the 1960s and 70s, and the Vietnamese repaired it using whatever materials they could get their hands on. 

When the Americans entered the war in support of the South, the bridge became one of their main targets because of its strategic importance. All supplies from Haiphong crossed it.  

A cyclist carrying produce across the bridge. Image © Alan Williams

The first bombing raid in August 1967 badly damaged parts of the bridge, and from then until early 1973, they repeatedly bombed it. The bridge was knocked out of commission at times but the flow of supplies to Hanoi continued, using rafts and pontoons on the river.

Today the bridge has a battered look, rusty and misshapen in places. Some original sections remain but a lot of it has been rebuilt since the war.

Half-way across the river, the bridge passes above a large island, Bai Giua. It’s home to some of the downtrodden of Hanoi, people who have been left behind in Vietnam’s rapid economic growth. They include some who live in small houseboats alongside the island and grow fruit and vegetables to get by.

Walkways lead from the bridge down to the island. From here you can see the underside of the bridge and some of its makeshift support structures built over the years.

A woman tends to her crops on Bai Guia island. Image: © Alan Williams

You can go walking on the island, through banana plantations and cultivated fields. It’s worth bearing in mind, though, that many of the people here are among the city’s poor and may want to keep their distance from outsiders.

At some stage of your walk across the bridge, a train is likely to rumble by. In my case it was a diesel locomotive painted in the green and yellow colours of Vietnam Railways. I made a note of its number – D9E-216 – and did a little research later.

The locomotive was built in the US by General Electric and delivered to South Vietnam in the early 1960s. It was part of GE’s Universal Series, known among train fans as U-Boats. More than 50 years and a world of change later, it was still going strong. What stories it could tell.

Barges filled with sand and gravel ply the river, passing under the bridge.

Painted on the bridge you see declarations of love from Vietnamese couples, with hearts and phrases like “One & Forever”.

Vendors on the Long Bien Bridge. Image: © Alan Williams

In places the bridge widens a little, allowing room for vendors to operate. Women wearing the traditional conical hat, the non la, sell trays of fruit and vegetables. A man sells balloons, holding a big, colourful collection above his head.

On the east side of the bridge are some of Hanoi’s newer residential areas. If you choose, you can walk back from here on the other side of the bridge for different views of the river and island. 

What of the bridge’s future? Several modern bridges now span the Red River in the Hanoi area and more are planned. The Long Bien Bridge requires constant maintenance to keep the trains running.

There have been suggestions that Vietnam Railways reroute its line and that Long Bien Bridge be turned into a museum, with the island converted into a park.

Whatever decision is eventually taken, the bridge remains a powerful symbol today of Vietnam’s ability to withstand and overcome hardship, an enduring link between the present and days gone by.  

Header image: Aoshivn | Dreamstime

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