Long Bien Bridge, celebrated in Vietnam as a symbol of military resilience, is now a haven for the poor
By Jame Durston (CNN TRAVEL)
Drug users, orphaned children and destitute families.
The reality of life under Hanoi’s Long Bien Bridge today is a world away from its image as a symbol of Vietnamese military ingenuity and resilience. The 107-year-old bridge is celebrated as one of Vietnam’s greatest ‘triumphs’ against Western imperialism, and has even inspired songwriters and poets. Guidebooks describe how the Vietnamese managed to keep the bridge open and functioning — a key supply route from the port of Haiphong into Hanoi during the Vietnam War — despite the assault by U.S. bombers. But as I discover during a film shoot for CNNGo TV, looking at this bridge through history’s glorifying lens is to take a one-dimensional view.
At one point I clamber up a riverbank made entirely of trash and emerge through a pungent cloud of smoke onto a hill of coal. A soot-smeared woman is hacking up chunks of coal with a mallet; nearby a huge pile of black sludge sends out a horrific stench. Decrepit corrugated tin huts acting as homes are crammed together on one side, like a mini shanty town. This, I now know, is the modern Long Bien Bridge, a home for some of Hanoi’s most disadvantaged people.
Heroin users are known to congregate on Bai Giua (middle island) under the bridge at dusk to indulge their habit. Orphaned children have turned to Bai Giua for shelter, and the poorest of Hanoi’s families, some of whom are forced to live on the river in floating huts, also can be seen around the bridge, pushed to the edge of the city by its burgeoning economic bubble.
It is an aspect of modern life in Hanoi that jars with the bridge’s appearance — all girders and bolts and rivets — of might and solidity. Like a wizened grandfather who can’t stop telling tales of his war-time endeavors, the bridge’s scarred and patched-up appearance seems to say, “Been there, done it, survived it.”
No doubt the events that surrounded this bridge during the 1960s and 1970s were tremendous, and it serves an important purpose as a living memorial to the people that were involved. But for the folk living there now it is simply a makeshift home they have been forced to occupy as the rest of Hanoi moves on.
The bridge is not open to car traffic, so hire a scooter taxi to drive you across the bridge, or take a taxi to Dike Road, near Gam Cau Street, where you’ll find the approach ramp.