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Long Bien Bridge: heritage preservation and city development

Published: 20 März 2014
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Plans put forward by the Ministry of Transport for the rebuild/repair of Long Bien Bridge, a historical witness of the capital city,

have drawn much criticism from the public who are concerned that this iconic symbol could be sacrificed to development. Report by Nhan dan newspaper.

Hanoi is changing fast and new infrastructure is needed to deal with the city’s rapid growth but when it comes to a heritage, such as Long Bien Bridge, so treasured by many, how does Hanoi find the balance? The public is looking to authorised agencies and the authorities for the solution which harmonises urban development with preservation.

Long Bien, the first bridge built to span the Hong (Red) River, was opened to traffic in 1902, becoming the largest construction in Indochina at that time. The masses were in awe of its imposing structural beauty.

The bridge was designed by French engineers but the sweat of more than 3,000 Vietnamese workers over three years built the gigantic steel structure that undulates like a giant dragon across the river.

Over the past 100 years, the bridge has welcomed generations of Hanoians back to the city. Many people say that Chuong Duong Bridge, also crossing the river, demonstrates the achievements of the national renewal process and Long Bien Bridge is a historical witness of the heroic city.

In February 1947, Long Bien Bridge witnessed the retreat of the legendary Capital Regiment soldiers from Military Zone 1 to the Viet Bac base (the Northernmost Vietnamese base) after days and nights of fierce fighting in Hanoi. Then in October 1954, it welcomed the victorious army back to liberate the capital city after the Dien Bien Phu victory, concluding the nine-year resistance against the French.

During the American war, bombs fell upon the bridge 14 times, damaging seven spans and four large pillars. In protection, two 11.5m air defense artillery batteries were set up on the Red River’s alluvial and soldiers used the highest points of the bridge’s structure to fight off enemy aircraft. After the war, damaged spans were replaced with semi-permanent girders on new pillars.

Today, with other bridges crossing the Red River such as Thang Long, Chuong Duong, Vinh Tuy and Thanh Tri, Long Bien is no longer the main urban transport route across the river but for Hanoians and the millions who love the city, the capital is not Hanoi without Long Bien Bridge.

However, the question is that any solution would bring the balance.

Time has worn Long Bien Bridge. It has now degraded to the point that it can hardly serve heavy transport while the city needs more than ever a modern public transport system to facilitate development. Development and heritage preservation clash when it comes to Long Bien Bridge.

In 2005, the Ministry of Transport (MoT) approved a project to upgrade the Yen Vien – Ngoc Hoi urban railway route, linking areas in the north and the south of Hanoi with downtown. Under the project, a double railway will serve the route, a section of which runs on Long Bien Bridge’s railway lane.

According to the Transport Engineering Design Company, the project’s consultant design agency, the position which meets Long Bien Bridge has been selected because it is where there is the shortest distance between the two banks of the river and requires the least amount of land clearance, minimising the impact on Hanoi.

MoT also proposed two major plans to tackle the rising transport demand, of which Long Bien is part of the story, and both received a huge amount of concern from the public and experts. The first plan is to build a new bridge exactly where the old one stands, keeping the central part with the railway track intact, while removing nine spans of the bridge, which would be preserved and displayed for tourism. The second is to construct a new bridge, with a similar design to the original, and to keep the old one for preservation.

Many people strongly oppose both plans, claiming that the bridge should “live” with Hanoi residents rather than in a museum as an exhibit. They also argued that the removal of Long Bien Bridge and the construction of its replacement would seriously damage the heritage space. According to them, the best solution is to upgrade the bridge, focusing on replicating its original beauty whilst making it safe to traffic.

According to Tran Trong Hanh, Vice President of the National Council of the Vietnamese Architects’ Association, Long Bien Bridge is not only a transport construction but a treasured heritage needing preservation. Therefore, the cultural value of the construction should come first.

He stressed that the consultancy agency should be made up of experts in traffic but also in arts and heritage so they can formulate a design which balances the two needs. Any proposal should highlight the artistic and cultural value of the bridge and be made public so other experts and the whole community can have a say, he added.

From the viewpoint of cultural researcher Phan Cam Thuong, Long Bien Bridge is important because it has not only served as an infrastructure for road and railway transport over a century but also played a great role in the cultures of Hanoi’s centre and its neighbouring area.

When it comes to road transport, Hanoi has other bridges crossing the river. For railway transport, however, it is very difficult to move the railway track running across the river through Long Bien Bridge. Thuong affirmed, though, that it is possible for the monument to be upgraded, enabling trains to continue whilst preserving its original structure and design.

Hanoi, a big urban centre with rapid growth, needs to develop an urban railway system, as it is an effective means of public transport which can help ease traffic congestion. At the same time, it is also essential to preserve and promote the cultural and historical value of the city’s heritages, including Long Bien Bridge.

MoT and the city administration need to listen to the opinions of the public, experts and scientists so as to select the best solution for the upgrade of Long Bien Bridge under the motto ‘harmonising preservation and development’ as stated by head of Office of the Hanoi Municipal People’s Committee Nguyen Thinh Thanh.-VNA

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