Historians, architects insist Hanoi bridge icon be left alone

Thanh Nien News. With reporting by Trinh Nguyen

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Long Bien Bridge is scheduled to be rebuilt according to a Transport Ministry plan but architects call it a precious urban heritage of the capital that should be preserved. Photo by Binh Minh
They say that the steel cantilever bridge, which first connected the north-south railway across the Red River and then opened for cars and motorbikes, should be preserved and saved only for tourism purposes, while an entirely new bridge should be built to connect to major roads nearby.
Long Bien was built by the French from 1889 to 1902 and was first named Paul Doumer after the then-French president and General Governor of Indochina. It was originally 1,800 meters long with a single-track railway in the middle with car and pedestrian lanes on both sides.
The bridge was severely damaged in several American bombings including final ones in 1972 due to its critical position at the time as the only bridge across the Red River connecting Hanoi to the main port city of Hai Phong. Rebuilding took until 1973 and only half of the bridge retained its original shape.
The ministry has proposed either moving the undamaged part to a different section of the river and building a new bridge over the remainder, or removing the entire bridge and building a new one for between VND8,849-10,378 billion (US$420-492 million).
But experts said changing the bridge or moving it out of its historical location would both be disrespectful.
Bygone era
Architect Tran Huy Anh told news website Dan Tri that Long Bien reminds people of the golden days of Vietnamese industry as it was modern bridge in the southern hemisphere until the Sydney Harbor Bridge opened in 1932, and was one of the longest bridges in Asia.
Anh said Hanoi was one of only a few lucky urban areas in Southeast Asia that has still managed to keep part of its urban architecture from the early 1900s intact. He said Long Bien is an “undetachable” part of this heritage.
It is still now among the best-designed bridges in the region, he said.
The bridge played a special role in boosting trade and industry in the capital when it was built. A group of workers that made the bridge railings soon formed the famous Lo Ren (Blacksmith) Street in the Old Quarter.
Long Bien is not officially protected under Vietnam heritage regulations and the country so far has no plans to do so.
But experts say official recognition isn’t needed and the bridge should be treated as a landmark no matter what, for what it is and what it has gone through.
“It’s not a matter of a bridge, but a matter of all of our shared history,” said architect Le Thanh Vinh, head of the Institute for Conservation of Heritages.
“Any Vietnamese who has ever heard about it or seen it will agree to that.”
Reconsidering the consideration
After such widespread criticism of the idea, the ministry has reportedly agreed with a proposal by the Hanoi Transport Department to keep the bridge’s structure intact while only renovating parts of it to improve its “transport capability.”
But Vinh said faulted the authorities’ plan for putting transport purposes first, arguing that the approach should be from a historical heritage perspective.
He said the bridge should be left alone so people can share in its 100-plus years of history without changing its design at all.
“If we need a path for more vehicles, let’s build new bridges at other positions.”
What’s in a bridge?
Prof. Hoang Dao Kinh from the National Heritage Council also said the bridge’s transport role should be reduced in time and replaced by a historical and cultural role.
“We will have to move the railway out of downtown sooner or later, so a plan to refurbish the bridge will not be effective.
“It should be saved for motorbikes, and even that only for a short time, and bicycles and pedestrians.”
Kinh said the bridge should be treated like a cultural heritage that needs preserving, “meaning we have to absolutely respect the original version.”
It is a part of history, he said, and any intervention can damage it.
A living museum
Dao Ngoc Nghiem, a leading Hanoi architect and now vice chairman of Hanoi Urban Planning and Development Association, also told Lao Dong (Labor) newspaper that the bridge’s prominent value should be as an artifact, an architectural relic.
“We first need to evaluate the value and meaning of Long Bien Bridge so that we can act suitably [when deciding what to do with it].”
Nghiem said the ministry was not acting suitably as Hanoians were proud of the bridge and it was designed by Gustave Eiffel who designed the Eiffel Tower, another famous heritage site.
The long and short beams create a dragon shape that suits the history of Hanoi, which was first named Thang Long (Ascending Dragon) when King Ly Thai To, who founded the Ly Dynasty, moved the capital there in 1010, claiming he had seen a dragon ascending from the Red River.
The bridge has been written into many poems and songs as a dragon expanding Hanoi to the other side of the Red River.
“Long Bien Bridge is an important milestone in the development of Hanoi,” Nghiem said.
It is also a historical witness, he said, as it saw French troops leaving Hanoi after their defeat and also amazingly withstood the US bombardment of the capital and its citizenry during the Vietnam War.
Nguyen Nga, a Hanoi-based urban planning architect, said: “Long Bien Bridge deserves to be a living museum.”
Nga is board chairwoman of a company established to preserve and develop the bridge and is working with French architects to restore the beams damaged during the war to their original design and turn the bridge into a tourism destination, using a sponsorship of 60 million euro (US$82.60 million) promised by the French government at a conference in France in 2001 that marked the bridge’s 100th birthday, she told Lao Dong.
Carriages will be used as coffee shops and restaurants and glass will be used for the floor so visitors can see through the bridge to the water below, she said. The plan has been presented at several conferences and has received approval from several leading Vietnamese experts.
Architect Nguyen Hong Thuc, who was a Vietnamese representative at the 2001 conference, had presented plans there to make the Red River more a part of the capital like the Seine in Paris or Danube in Budapest, and he said Long Bien Bridge could play an important role in that.
“It will carry a new mission of creating urban scenery, Thuc said, calling the bridge a “precious” heritage.
As the matter is about urban scenery and not just the bridge itself, experts said the ministry should not build new bridges too close to it or they will overshadow it.
“Any construction methods concerning the Long Bien Bridge need to be implemented systematically instead of fragmentarily, or the risk of Hanoi losing the bridge and its meaningful heritage will come true,” Kinh said.

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