Part 1: The first railway route in Vietnam
Part 2: Hanoi – Lang Son railway route costs blood, labor
Part 3: Bright outlook conceived with trans-Vietnam route
Besides the route, Paul Doumer, the governor general of French Indochina -- which includes Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia -- planed another railways project running along the Mekong River in southern Vietnam to cross borders into Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand. However, in the end it existed only on paper.
It is the name of Paul Doumer that forever goes along with the trans-Viet route and the historic steel-made cantilever Long Bien Bridge, which was the first crossing of the Hong River to connect two parts of Hanoi. Before being renamed, the bridge was named after him - the Paul Doumer Bridge.
He is the founder of the project that ultimately benefits transport for both civil and military purposes.
The first stones for the construction of the railway route were laid down in 1900 in the Hanoi terminal. But in reality, the birth of the project should be dated two years earlier, to 1898, when the landmark Long Bien or Paul Doumer Bridge was built for use of both road vehicles and trains.
He was determined to build the railway in Vietnam after his field trip in 1897 to survey life and society of the Vietnamese people. During his first visit he saw large amounts of locals in flood-prone areas suffering in desperate difficulty and starvation due to poor transport infrastructure, according to French researcher Frederic Hulot.
Initially, both of the railway route projects were taken to the desks of Doumer and other officials so they could weigh the benefits.
The proposed first line would connect strings of urban residential centers along the coast of Vietnam, but the biggest challenge was flash floods and landslides pouring down from the steep sides of the Truong Son mountain chain. This remains a regular threat today, over a century later.
The trans-Viet route also received the approval of the Vietnamese kingdom in Hue then.
But the Mekong route had its value. It would have connected nations in the region to help the French authorities to lay bigger influence on Cambodia and Laos than Thai authorities, who were also in the political race.
Yet it would have also gone through many deserted areas.
Though aspiring to build both, financial feasibility forced Doumer to give priority to the trans-Viet route first, before setting out to work on the second one.
So, the French colonial authorities aimed for a comprehensive railway system to cover the whole of Indochina for both military and civil purposes in the early 20th century.
Map of railway routes running along Vietnam (Archived photo)
In a study of the French railways system abroad, Hulot writes that, “The ambitious railways project was easily voted for in 1898. Doumer was so clever that he arranged the vote on Christmas Day to conquer prissy voters.”
To gain investment for building the longest railway route outside of France, the French colonial administration issued government bonds worth 200 million franc for a time limit of 75 years.
In his diary written in 1903, Doumer wrote, “Hanoi is separated by the 1,700m wide Hong River. It is dangerous for locals to cross it on boats. Without a bridge, the railway route has to stop 3 kilometers before reaching Hanoi, and thus it can’t reach China.”
“It’s unimaginable to see the route disconnected by a river. We need a bridge.”
Doumer wrote in detail in his diary of how he defeated those critics who objected to the bridge thanks to its cost. French contractor Dayde & Pille won the bid to build the bridge. Steel was imported from France while the cement, limestone and stone were domestic.
Iconic Vietnamese entrepreneur Bach Thai Buoi won a bid to supply the needed wood.
The bridge piles went 30 meters deep into the water, and the remaining 13.5 meter rose above water level.
Doumer offered great praise to domestic laborers in his diary, “It was terribly hard work, but local workers in small stature are brave. They displayed no fear in descending to such a depth as the river bottom.
“Sturdy workers from China were gradually replaced by Vietnamese workers as they proved to be more effective and clever at work. Our engineers favor them.”
The Long Bien, or Doumer, Bridge was inaugurated in 1902 to allow the first train crossing the river to enter Hanoi, while the whole trans-Vietnam railways route was only completed 34 years later, with a party of congratulations in Saigon in 1936.