Long Bien Bridge
Reminders of Hanoi’s French past might be found on every street. But one colonial-era construction is especially revered by inhabitants of Vietnam’s capital.
There are not a lot of pedestrians on Long Bien Bridge.
A man in a Panama hat walks briskly as if he had an important meeting.
He was wearing a pair of shorts made of cotton and printed with headlines from the London Times.
A lady sporting a “Non La”, which is the classic conical Vietnamese hat walked a third of the way across and then turned back.
I was the only person on foot, getting strange looks from the scores of motorcyclists that speeded past me every minute.
The building work which started on Long Bien Bridge at the end of 19th century.
The French colonial government built it to show the people of Vietnam that they were here to stay.
1.5 Miles (2.4 km) across, it was one of the most spectacular bridges in the world in 1903 when it opened.
When my walk begins, I cross over the reclaimed banks of the Red River, which is mineral-rich land, planted by dozens of small-scale market gardeners.
One of the farmers built an impromptu picnic area for himself and his friends, with a faded coca-cola umbrella and some rattan chairs.
Pedestrians have to negotiate their way along a narrow walkway which was made of thin concrete slabs resting in steel frames.
Where the concrete chipped, or the frames have rusted, you would get a clear and vertiginous view of what is happening below.
I am above the river with its continuous flow of barges filled with sand.
They lie low in the water as they are towed downstream.
Half way across, a sandy, overgrown island, which provides a refuge for some of the city’s poor citizens.
When I have just passed the ramps down to the island, I hear a strange thudding sound. Then the bridge begins to vibrate and then shake.
There is a train rumbling along the track in the middle of Long Bien Bridge, dirty exhaust belching from its diesel engine.
That is the railway line linking Hanoi with the port city of Hai Phong, meaning the bridge was once strategically vital. Firstly, it helps swell the economic prosperity of Indochina, and the second one is as a supply route for beleaguered French soldiers which fought Vietnamese nationalists.
In the time it became the key to communist North Vietnam’s fate, the subject of patriotic poems and songs and an all too visible target for American bombing raids as well.
While some of Long Bien Bridge is original, much of it has been rebuilt since the war.
Nowadays, it looks battered all over, a riveted rag-tag of various styles and materials. The train is only carrying passengers, most of the freight might be balanced on the back of motorcycles.
A lady is carrying bunches of the Thai Basil which is used to garnish bowls of Pho, the national noodle dish.
A man is taking reams of white A4 paper, several of them torn open, the sheets flapping in the breeze.
There are a lot of loads of pineapples, anonymous boxes, electrical equipment.
Some of the riders are out for pleasure, the woman riding side-saddle, a smartly dressed young couple, an elder man going against the flow, one hand on the handlebars, the other one clutching a fresh baguette.
I have come at a quiet time. At the weekend, and at sunset, Hanoians flock to the Long Bien bridge, and photograph each other against the backdrop of the city.
The handrails may be covered in declarations of love of a lot of couples, made in white correction fluid. Some are much more ominous than the others.
“I’ll be waiting for you,” one person has written. “Tell me why,” asks another.
The future of that much-cherished landmark is up for debate.
Nowadays, half a dozen bridges cross the river, and there is the talk of tunnels as well – growing wealth means the traffic flow on roads of the city gets ever busier.
Vietnamese railways would like to reroute their track. An architect won support for his idea to turn the Long Bien Bridge into a museum, and covered in glass, with the central island made into a pleasure garden.
Vietnamese officials even asked the French if they could help finance the restoration of this bridge.
When walking back towards the city, I tried to count the tower blocks through the thick haze.
Fifteen, twenty, maybe a few more. But unlike Saigon or Bangkok, this is still a relatively low rise city, colonial-era buildings seeming to define the shape of the skyline.
Some of those old buildings have been brought back to our life, the roofs are fixed, green shutters restored and walls painted yellow.
Once over the fast flowing Red River, the famous Long Bien Bridge waits patiently for its loving makeover.