written by Todd DePastino
One click from our Le Jardin Hotel & Spa in Hanoi, where our travel group arrived last week, is a neglected relic of French Indochina glory, the Long Bien Bridge. We caught a glimpse of it when we rode in from Noi Bai airport.
The Long Bien Bridge is a misshapen rusted out hulk so dilapidated that motor vehicles aren’t supposed to use it. It’s hard to imagine that it was considered a wonder of the world when the French christened it with great fanfare in 1903.
Designed by Gustave Eiffel (of Eiffel Tower fame), the 1-mile bridge was the longest in Asia, and the first to cross Hanoi’s Red River and connect the capital to the port of Haiphong. It was just one of many roads, ports, railways, electric grids and other infrastructure projects the French launched to move raw materials (rice, tea, rubber, coal, tin, zinc) out of Vietnam, to the detriment of the Vietnamese people.
The Long Bien Bridge symbolized French oppression, but to a perceptive few Vietnamese, it also represented an opportunity for liberation by tying together far-flung parts of the country and unifying the forces of resistance. Anti-French activists like Phan Boi Chau (pictured above)—a nationalist predecessor of Ho Chi Minh— believed the Long Bien Bridge would help Vietnam in the long run achieve and maintain its independence. It’s fitting that when the French Army finally departed the country at the end of the First Indochina War in 1954, it did so across the Long Bien Bridge, crossing paths with Ho Chi Minh’s Vietminh forces coming to occupy Hanoi.
The Long Bien Bridge was hit by the first use of laser-guided bombs in Vietnam. (Flickr)
The bridge’s importance made it a target in the American War of the 1960s. During Operation Rolling Thunder (the first sustained bombing campaign against North Vietnam), the US Air Force struck the bridge repeatedly in 1967. Subsequent attacks on the bridge came in 1972 during the Linebacker I and Linebacker II bombing campaigns (the latter known as the “Christmas Bombings”). Each time, the Vietnamese rapidly repaired and rebuilt the bridge (with lots of help from two Chinese army engineering battalions). To keep traffic moving during repairs, the Vietnamese used ferries and also pontoon bridges, which could be sunk during the day to elude detection from the air.