Long Bien: Historic Hanoi bridge with an uncertain future

Long Bien bridge

Reminders of Hanoi's French past can be found on every street. But one colonial-era construction is particularly revered by residents of Vietnam's capital.

There are not many pedestrians on Long Bien Bridge.

A man in a panama hat walks briskly, as if he has an important meeting.

He is wearing a pair of shorts made of cotton, printed with headlines from the London Times.

An old lady sporting a non la, the classic conical Vietnamese hat walks a third of the way across, and then turns back.

I am the only other person on foot, getting strange looks from the scores of motorcyclists that speed past me every minute.

Building work started on Long Bien Bridge at the very end of the 19th Century.

The colonial government built it as a way of showing the people of Vietnam that they were here to stay.

One-and-a-half miles (2.4 km) across, it was one of the most spectacular bridges in the world when it opened in 1903.

As my walk begins, I cross over the reclaimed banks of the Red River, mineral rich land, planted by dozens of small-scale market gardeners.

One of the farmers has built an impromptu picnic area for himself and his friends, with a faded coca-cola umbrella and few rattan chairs.

Pedestrians must negotiate their way along a narrow walkway made of thin concrete slabs resting in steel frames.

Where the frames have rusted, or the concrete chipped, you get a clear - and vertiginous - view of what is happening below.

Soon I am above the river with its constant flow of barges filled with sand.

They lie improbably low in the water as they are towed down-stream.

Half way across, a sandy, overgrown island, that provides a refuge for some of the city's destitute citizens.

I have just passed the ramps down to the island, when I hear a strange thudding sound.

The bridge begins to vibrate, and then shake.

A train rumbles along the track in the middle, dirty exhaust belching from its diesel engine.

This is the railway line that links Hanoi with the port city of Haiphong, meaning the bridge was once strategically vital, first helping swell the economic prosperity of Indochina, and then later as a supply route for beleaguered French soldiers fighting Vietnamese nationalists.

In time it became key to communist North Vietnam's fate - the subject of patriotic songs and poems, and an all too visible target for American bombing raids.

While some of the bridge is original, much of it has been rebuilt since the war.

It looks battered all over, a riveted rag-tag of different styles and materials.

Today the train is only carrying passengers - most of the freight seems to be balanced on the back of motorcycles.

A lady carries bunches of the Thai Basil used to garnish bowls of Pho, the national noodle dish.

A man carries reams of white A4 paper, several of them torn open, the sheets flapping in the breeze.

There are loads of pineapples, electrical equipment, anonymous boxes.

One rider loses control of his cargo of a dozen empty plastic water-cooler bottles. Horns blow as bikes swerve out of the way of the loose containers.

Some of the riders are out for pleasure, a smartly dressed young couple, the woman riding side-saddle, an older man going against the flow, one hand on the handlebars, the other clutching a fresh baguette.

I have come at a quiet time. At the weekends, and at sunset, Hanoians flock to the bridge, and photograph each other against the backdrop of their city.

The hand-rails are covered in declarations of love, made in white correction fluid. Some are more ominous than others.

"I'll be waiting for you," one person has written. "Tell me why," asks another.

The future of this much-cherished landmark is up for debate.

Half a dozen bridges cross the river now, and there is talk of tunnels as well - growing wealth means the traffic-flow on the city's roads gets ever busier.

Vietnamese Railways want to reroute their track. One architect won support for his idea to turn the bridge into a museum, covered in glass, with the central island made into a pleasure garden.

At the end of last year Vietnamese officials even asked the French if they would help finance the restoration of the bridge.

Walking back towards the city, I try to count the tower blocks through the thick haze.

Fifteen, 20, maybe a few more. But unlike Saigon and Bangkok, this is still a relatively low rise city, colonial-era buildings seeming to define the shape of the skyline.

Many of those old buildings have been brought back to life, the roofs fixed, walls painted yellow, green shutters restored.

While over the fast flowing Red River, the great Long Bien Bridge waits patiently for its loving makeover.

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