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
Part 4: Villages desolated for forced railway labor
Part 5: Unforgettable trains
It was the serrated railway with a cog wheel. The trains were equipped with serrated wheels that hooked onto the serrated railroad below to create a firm connection between wheels and railroad, allowing the train to traverse mountains.
The trains also impressed locals with their speed and punctuality, as well as the polite ambience between passengers and train staff. It took a passenger three nights and two days to travel from Saigon to Hanoi and back to Saigon -- a record for transport in Vietnam at the time. Traveling by car took at least half a month.
Remembering the serrated railway
Ignoring the fact that the current railways technology in Vietnam is lagging decades behind the developed world, the serrated railway route from Phan Rang to Da Lat was one of the two most modern in the world at its completion, together with the route in Jungfraujoch, Switzerland that crossed 1,500 meter mountains in the Alpes.
The route linked the high city of Da Lat with the hot, low-lying coastal area of Phan Rang so that French people could more conveniently live and work for periods of time in the cooler climate of the mountains. The 84km long Da Lat-Thap Cham route included a 41km-long Thap Cham-Krong Pha section opened in 1919, and a 43km-long Krong Pha-Da Lat section, opened in 1932, the latter of which is sloping and has cog rails.
Regretfully, the route linking ‘sea’, or Phan Rang, and ‘flower’ for Da Lat, stopped its service in 1969 when Vietnam was on the brink of war. Ever since, the iconic transport system has remained an abandoned relic in the jungle.
The 8.2 km serrated section of the route, crossing Ngoan Muc Hill, was ‘a wonder’ of the global railways industry, as it could climb up Eo Gio, 200km above sea level, to Krongpha at a height of almost 1,000m. It was the toothed rack rail and cog wheel that helped trains leave behind their regular flat terrain to conquer hills.
Now the Eo Gio train station, or Bellevue in French, on the section functions as a cowshed in D’ran Town, Don Duong District, Lam Dong Province. This cowshed was once an icon of progress in the world just 85 years before, in 1927.
Tran Van Bay, 81, who worked on the route in 1953 as a railway technician, said he feels sorry for his former workplace, where lumberers and farmers now frequent the abandoned line, carrying bananas on their shoulders.
The rails, steel ties and serrated railroad disappeared and were replaced by the serried footprints of farmers’ bare feet.
After walking several kilometers deep into the forest one comes to a tunnel going through a mountain for a distance of 200 meters. It was named the No.2 tunnel, while the No.1 tunnel is at the other end of the line, Krongpha. The vaults are six meters high and remain intact despite their century-long age. The atmosphere is not wet at all, but is well aired thanks to the construction tenchiques.
Just a dozen meters after passing through the tunnel one can find a line of 30 meter-tall stone pillars. The pillars rise from the bottom of the abyss up to the hill peak to support a bridge used only by trains.
The No.2 tunnel, a part of the former serrated railway route links Phan Rang and Da Lat (Archived photo)
To build the railroad that crossed Ngoan Muc Hill to reach Da Lat, the French built a total of five tunnels going through mountains with hundreds of such stone pillars, said Bay.
It doesn’t take much imagination to picture how hard laborers struggled to build these structures, and how dangerous the work was. Bay looked thoughtful for a while before pointing towards the foot of the hill where there is a cemetery containing the tombs of workers who died on the job.
Mountain farmers and locals in Song Pha have a habit of clasping their hands to offer prayers to the late people while passing the cemetery.
Another living witness of the route is Ms. Ha Thi Nhuan, 78, who recalled the period from 1953-69 when she was a railways employee.
“The Eo Gio station was far too busy with passengers. It would be a joy if the trains were still in use. A train up to the mountains had four wagons that carried a lot fresh fish, rice and corn from the plain in Phan Rang to Da Lat, and brought back aboriginal lumber and fruits and vegetable,” Nhuan said.
“So, the Eo Gio Station and this whole Phu Thuan area were turned into a market.
“At first there were four trains a day, though later there were six. A passenger train had three different ticket prices. The two first classes were for French officials and rich businesspeople with beds and private attendants, and the last class only had seats for normal people,” she added.
Nguyen Thanh Nhan, 85 and a former chief of the Saigon railways station, said passengers and train staff were very polite back then, and the transport industry impressed locals for its speed and punctuality.
In the 1940s Vietnam had modern locomotives from manufacturers like Decauville, Corpet & Louvet, Weidknecht, Cail, Fivers – Lille, SACM – Graffenstaden, SLM – Winterhur, Hanomag, and Borsig – Berlin. But a milestone in improving the speed of trains occurred when the locomotives called Pacific and Super Pacific were imported into Vietnam.
Tugging wagons weighing, the locomotives could still run at 94km an hour, and the time to commute from Hanoi to Saigon was cut to just 40 hours.
The speed helped produce a generation of trans-Viet dealers. They mainly brought clothes, dried fish and other specialty produces from one region to another for sale.
Research by Frederic Hulot shows that the railway industry had 12 million passengers in Vietnam in 1939, while the national population was less than 20 million.
But war began in Vietnam soon after 1945, and this means oftransport means was interrupted until 1975.
A train running on the Binh Loi Bridge in Ho Chi Minh City (Archived photo)
Inside the Gia Lam railway factory in Hanoi (Archived photo)