Bridge: a structure spanning and providing passage over a river, chasm, road, or the like. A connecting, transitional, or intermediate route or phase...
--Random House Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2009.
When construction on the Long Biên Bridge was completed in 1903, it was considered a technological marvel. Utilizing Gustave Eiffel's innovative engineering concepts (Wikipedia erroneously credits Eiffel with the bridge's design), the bridge, with a span of 1,682 meters, was the longest in Asia, and the fourth-largest in the world. The main purpose of the bridge, which spans the Red River, was to provide continuous rail transport between Hanoi and the important port of Haiphong. Apart from its functional purpose, the bridge provided turn-of-the-century Indochine with a potent symbol of modernity, proof of European technological sophistication, and a demonstration of the supposed benefits of French colonial rule.
In the 106 years since the bridge opened to traffic, it has metamorphosed from an icon of French fin-de-siecle modernity, into an enduring symbol of Vietnamese strength. As a silent gatekeeper to the city, the Long Biên Bridge not only witnessed, but was central to, many of the historic events that transformed 20th century Vietnam. Recently, I was privileged to spend a morning exploring the bridge with historian and photographer Douglas Jardine, whose dramatic black-and-white photographs of the bridge can be seen in a current exhibition in Hanoi's Maison des Arts Gallery. A professor at Hanoi University, Doug has been exploring, writing about, and photographing the bridge since 2006.
Originally named after Paul Doumer, the Governor-General of Indochina, the bridge was renamed Long Biên after Vietnamese independence in 1945. At that time, northern Vietnam was in the grips of a historic famine, caused by the stockpiling of rice for the Japanese-Vichy war machine. The famine killed up to two million people, and served as a rallying point for Hồ Chí Minh's independence movement. Tens of thousands of starving refugees staggered across the bridge into the city, in search of food. Doug told me that the now-bricked-up niches beneath the Long Biên Railway Station (Ga Long Biên), served as make-shift morgues; bodies were piled one atop the other. Later, during the American War, these same niches served as bomb-resistant maternity wards.
Today, the Long Biên Bridge continues to play a dual role. On its surface, a steady stream of rail, motorbike, and foot traffic pumps economic blood to and from the city. Underneath, the bridge provides shelter for Hanoi's downtrodden, a collection of semi-visible constituencies who, in Vietnam's economic euphoria, have been pushed to the edge of the city, in some cases all the way into the river. Behind the fruit market - the main entrepôt for fruit entering the capital city - lies a shantytown of makeshift structures and tin roofs beside a polluted canal. In this neighborhood, site of Hanoi's earliest European encampments, the drug use, criminal activity, and police shakedowns rival any third-world ghetto.
The bridge's role in providing a "powerful meridian for people's minds" (Jardine) is evidenced by the sociological divisions among the "boat people" who live on the Red River. North of the bridge are people who, for one reason or another, have been pushed onto these tin-roofed crafts. These are the poorest of Hanoi's poor, people who eke out an existence by collecting plastic bags, and other desperate measures. South of the bridge are people who have traditionally led an aquatic existence, subsisting by fishing, and towing light loads up and down the river. Despite their commonalities, these are culturally distinct communities. For all these boat dwellers, the bridge provides a clear physical and sociological divide.
During the American War, the bridge was the U.S.'s highest-priority target in North Vietnam. The reasons were obvious: all supplies moving by rail from China and Haiphong crossed into the city over the bridge. The first bombing raids, in August, 1967, dropped three of the bridge's 19 spans into the river. From that date until January, 1973, the bridge was repeatedly bombed and repaired, sometimes by American POWs, acting as human shields. But despite putting the bridge out of commission for long periods of time, the U.S. never succeeded in fully halting the flow of supplies into the city, which continued to move over an improvised network of pontoons, bamboo rafts, and other makeshift devices.
Underneath the bridge, on the low-lying island of Bãi Giữa (Middle Bank), is where the real story of the American War is told. Makeshift supports dating back more than forty years - some as basic as a box of rocks - continue to support the bridge. Bomb craters have left perfectly round ponds where the bridge touches land. An overview of the terrain shows a clear bow to the island - low in the middle, higher on the sides. This bow is the direct result of thousands of U.S. bombs over time displacing the soil from the middle to the edge of the island. That the bridge continues to stand over this bomb-warped terrain is something of a miracle.
Today, Bãi Giữa houses a fascinating array of subcultures, most of them unknown even to native Hanoians. The most visible group is made up of around twenty migrant families, who live on floating houses and farm the island. Additionally, a group of orphaned boys lives alongside the island's western edge. The darkest subculture is comprised of the heroin addicts, who arrive in early evening and set up camp for the night, under the bridge. That all this exists in the heart of booming Hanoi is testament to the bridge's power to define the city's imaginative as well as physical geography; the bridge provides a line over which some people dare not cross.
But this may be an inevitable function of bridges. Bridges serve as powerful tropes for the geographical imagination. Metaphorically, we conceive of them as objects of unification - we speak of "bridging gaps," or bridging phases of our lives - but they may just as easily be seen as barriers, the final point after which one is truly no longer "home." Bridges also represent conquest: the subjugation of rivers or chasms, or of a colonized people. Perhaps it is in the nature of bridges to mutate over time. At one time, the Long Biên Bridge represented the future of Indochine. Now, the bridge stands as a reminder of the city's traumatic and glorious past - a network of rusted beams and rivets over a bomb-scarred terrain, sheltering farmers, junkies, and orphaned boys.
Total Length: 1,682.60 m
Main Span: 106.20 m
Function: Railroad and foot traffic
Built by Daydé and Pillé, 1899-1903