Long Bien Bridge - Hanoi's Most Popular Areas

Long Bien Bridge (Vietnamese: Cầu Long Biên) is a historic cantilever bridge across the Red River that connects two districts, Hoan Kiem and Long Bien of the city of Hanoi, Vietnam. It was originally called Paul Doumer Bridge.

  Monday, 17/02/2020, 08:05

A Hanoi icon in all senses, the Long Bien Bridge - formerly known as the Paul Doumer Bridge - was one of the greatest engineering accomplishments of the French colony. In the Vietnam War it became a symbol of Hanoi’s resistance to relentless US bombing. A walk or cycle across the 1.7km rusting and broken span of the Long Bien Bridge has long been a personal favourite thing to do in Hanoi. Plans to demolish and replace the bridge in 2014 were scrapped after a local outcry. Hanoians love their broken bridge - we do too.

The turn of the 20th century was one of the most confident and ambitious times of the French colonial project in Indochina. That confidence was demonstrated in the creation of grand infrastructure projects and buildings by Governor General Paul Doumer. Many of the grandest buildings in the capital were constructed in the first decade of the 20th century - including the Metropole Hotel and the Governor General’s Residence (now the Presidential Palace) and the Opera House. No project was more ambitious from an engineering perspective than the 1.7 kilometre cantilevered bridge across the Red River. Governor Doumer was ready to impose all manner of hardship on the local people in taxes and forced labour to see his ambitions realised.

The bridge is often misreported to have been designed by Gustav Eiffel of Eiffel Tower fame. Historian Tim Doling assures me this is not correct. Eiffel’s former company made an unsuccessful bid to build the bridge. It was built by Dayde and Pille, as the plate still visible on the bridge attests. For reasons I don’t understand, this is the second Vietnam project to have been incorrectly attributed to Eiffel. Saigon’s grand Post Office has also been incorrectly credited to him.

The Long Bien bridge played an important role in Doumer’s plans to secure territory and expand trade into the northern reaches of the country. It opened up the colonial capital to the port of Haiphong and China. China always loomed large in France’s colonial plans.

Following his return home to France, Doumer went on to become President. He was assassinated in 1931.

After independence from France in 1954, the Paul Doumer bridge became the Long Bien Bridge and by the 1960s, it was a key piece of military infrastructure, connecting Hanoi with military supplies from the Soviet Union and China - especially via the port of Haiphong. It came under frequent US attack and was disabled in 1967 and again in 1972 in US bombing raids. It still carries the scars of numerous direct hits with large sections of the original bridge missing. In wartime, dedicated teams worked to repair the bridge after each bombing, to keep vital supply lines open.

It’s a great place for viewing the dramatic Red River summer sunset. You can take some time to wander around the rural enclave below the bridge just a few hundred metres from the intensity of Hanoi. There’s a ramp off the bridge from the pedestrian walk way.

The Long Biên Bridge was conceived primarily as part of the government-run (Chemins de fer de l’Indochine, CFI) railway line from Hà Nội to Đồng Đăng (built 1899-1902), but from the outset it was also intended as a means of connecting the capital with a second railway line then under construction. The line from Hải Phòng to Lào Cai and Yunnan (built 1901-1910), operated as a franchise by the Compagnie française des Chemins de fer de l’Indochine et du Yunnan (CIY), did not enter the capital, so a connecting service had to be provided across the river from Hà Nội to Gia Lâm. Because of its dual function, the bridge became part of a “communal” railway line administered jointly by both CFI and CIY.

The bridge was originally named after Paul Doumer, the French Governor General who championed the cause of railway construction and whose ambitious “1898 Programme” laid the groundwork for the construction of over 1,300km of railway line in Việt Nam between 1898 and 1914, followed by over 1,100km more during the period 1918–1936.

Costing just over 6 million Francs, it was built between 1899 and 1902 to an in-house design by Daydé et Pillé, following a competition which involved all of the major construction houses. The bridge was inaugurated on 2 February 1902 in the presence of Doumer himself, his successor Paul Beau and the young King Thành Thái, and the first train crossed the bridge on 28 February 1902.

The bridge’s complex 19-span, 20-column cantilever design was immediately fêted as a technological masterpiece. Arriving in Hà Nội soon after it opened, awestruck British travel writer Alfred Cunningham noted:

“It is one of the longest bridges in the world, its total length being 1,680 metres (5,505 feet). According to Doumer’s memoirs, the engineers who constructed it were Messrs Daydé et Pillé, Creil (Oise) and the superintendent engineer in charge of its erection informed us that his task had been very difficult owing to the subsidence of the soil and the bed of the river. The earthwork leading up to the bridge had sunk three times, to a total depth of three metres, but he thought that was final. The stone columns, 14 metres high, are built up on metal cylindrical piles, 30 metres deep, which are filled with cement. There are 20 stone columns and some idea of its dimensions may be gathered from the fact that it absorbed 80 tons of paint, and the total weight of the steel is 5,000 tons. It is a magnificent work of which the French colonial government may well be proud, as a feat of modern engineering skill, and as a colossal monument to their desire to improve the communications between the provinces and the capital.”

In fact, at the outset this massive structure carried just a single-track railway line bordered by pedestrian walkways, obliging those wishing to cross the Red River by motor vehicle or rickshaw to take a ferry. This has prompted some historians to suggest that the bridge, like many other French colonial structures, was conceived more for its symbolic value than as a key transport hub.

Ironically, the bridge is remembered today not as a symbol of colonial power and prestige, but rather as an icon of defiance against the Americans during the second Indochina War.

The bridge’s links with revolutionary history began in the period immediately after the First Indochina War, when the French used the Hà Nội-Hải Phòng 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 the Hà Nội Citadel. The Việt Minh then took possession of the bridge, officially renaming it Cầu Long Biên. On the morning of 10 October 1954, Việt Minh troops entered the city, declaring the capital liberated.

Its strategic function later made the bridge a key target for US bombers. In March 1965, as the Americans unleashed their sustained aerial bombardment known as “Operation Rolling Thunder,” anti-aircraft guns were installed on the central bridge towers. However, in 1966-1967 the bridge was hit on no fewer than 10 occasions. At first, running repairs succeeded in keeping it open to rail traffic, but in August 1967 the central span was destroyed, severing the vital rail link across the Red River.

During the ensuing eight-month reconstruction period, an extraordinary floating bridge known as SH1 (Sông Hồng 1) was installed to maintain rail transport between Hà Nội and Gia Lâm – barges were used to move the pontoons into place at night and then float them away again before first light.

Nixon’s “Operation Linebacker” of May–October 1972 inflicted further damage on the Long Biên Bridge by hitting it on four occasions, demolishing three more spans and once more severing the vital rail link between the capital and the north. As before, a pontoon bridge system – this time known as SH2 – was hastily installed across the Red River to reconnect Hà Nội with Gia Lâm.

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 more running through from Hà Nội to Gia Lâm junction. Since the need to ensure architectural integrity was not high on the agenda, those wartime reconstructions left only half of the bridge with its original shape.

The current debate over the bridge’s future stems from proposals elaborated nearly a decade ago to establish a fully integrated public transport system in Hà Nội, incorporating outer and central suburban railway lines run by ĐSVN, citywide bus services and a five-line Metro network. This ambitious scheme demands the provision of a multi-track railway bridge to carry the main line, Metro Line 1 and the proposed central suburban line across the Red River.

Now that the scheme to relocate or rebuild the Long Biên Bridge has been abandoned, it is likely that a new railway bridge will be built further upstream, as originally proposed. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Transport has reportedly agreed to keep the structure of the Long Biên Bridge intact, renovating parts of it “to improve its transport capability.”
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