by Minh Thi
HA NOI (VNS)— The Ministry of Transport recently proposed a plan with three options to modify and modernise the iconic and historic Long Bien Bridge in Ha Noi.
The rationale for the plan, the ministry said, is to accommodate rapidly growing traffic between the districts of Hoan Kiem and Long Bien, situated on either side of the Red River.
The first option is to build a new bridge exactly where the old one stands, keeping the central part with the railway track intact, and removing other parts of the bridge elsewhere for preservation.
A new, modern bridge of similar design as the old one is the second option, and the third is to modernise the bridge while retaining part of the central section and the trusses.
Predictably, the plan has been greeted with dismay and the controversy is likely to heat up further in the days to come.
Most people feel that any option in the proposed plan would end up ruining a priceless national heritage.
Le Thu Trang, a resident of Cau Giay District, said she was taken by surprise when she heard the news.
"I am upset at the thought that an iconic bridge linked to our lives for a century would be changed so much.
"Whatever the excuse, any change is very likely to ruin it."
Long Bien Bridge was built from 1899-1902 by the French and opened to traffic in 1903. As the only bridge across the Red River that connected Ha Noi to the highway that led to the northern port city of Hai Phong, the bridge had a critical position and was part of many important events of the country's history, including the wars of independence.
It was heavily bombed during the American War and became a symbol of defiance against aggression. It is no exaggeration to say that the bridge is an intrinsic, indispensable part of Ha Noi history and folklore, inspiring poets and musicians through generations.
Experts and prominent intellectuals have weighed heavily against the Transport Ministry's proposal.
Professor Hoang Dao Kinh, member of the National Cultural Heritage Committee told the Thanh Nien (Young People) newspaper that he was against the plan as it would violate the principles of heritage maintenance.
"The bridge, while serving as transport infrastructure, is a cultural heritage that should be treated with care like any object of cultural preservation," Kinh said, adding that the originality of the bridge should be given absolute respect.
He said that "any interference," such as expanding the size or height, changing the original structure, shape or painting colours, can blight the beauty of the bridge, cause it to lose its originality and also its historical value.
Kinh said Ha Noi has had newer bridges crossing the Red River, like Chuong Duong, Thang Long, Thanh Tri, or Vinh Tuy, but these bridges only served the purpose of transportation and did not possess any special cultural value.
"With its position becoming more and more central in Ha Noi, the bridge helps beautify the landscape around the river," he said.
Architect Tran Viet Thang of the Ha Noi Architectural Planning Department is also of the opinion that the bridge should not be tampered with in any way.
However, he told Viet Nam News that city leaders have "their own headache" on the issue.
Thang said the development of Ha Noi, with the expansion of urban areas and the problem of traffic congestion, definitely requires a new bridge.
Yet it would be very difficult to build a whole new bridge because of the difficulties involved in land clearance and the high cost of building one with a new railway track, he noted.
Thang said there are ways to modernise a heritage site by adding new elements to it without ruining its original aesthetics, and some countries had managed to do this with their iconic sites.
However this work has to be subtle, and given Viet Nam's limited preservation capabilities, it is best to keep the bridge as it is now, Thang said.
As a Hanoian who has lived in the capital for over 20 years and have personal memories of the bridge, like many of my friends and acquaintances, I would personally be upset if any move to modernise the Long Bien Bridge is made.
This draft plan reminds me of the demolition of most of the historic Hoa Lo Prison, a war relic in mid-1990s.
The need to modernise the city and change it for future development and expansion is undeniable, but any policy that mars the originality of heritage sites and old buildings should be handled with utmost care and caution.
The Ministry of Transport should consider the opinions of architects, historians and planning experts as also the sentiments of the people and avoid making any abrupt decisions about historic and iconic sites in general and the Long Bien Bridge in particular.
Sometimes, the most creative move that can be made in preservation of cultural and historical heritages is to do nothing. — VNS