A tale of two cities


ʻMemories of a stationʼ

This is what you’ll encounter coming from Hanoi by train and entering the station of Haiphong; a Mediterranean atmosphere. Back to the past and seen what’s left of a once mighty French colonial empire called: Indo-China. They brought the railways, an unknown mode of transportation by that time for locals mostly living in middle aged circumstances but happily under the sun. Vietnam; a turbulent history especially in more modern times; a severe war and the pain still lingers on though the struggle for own vision and decision in the end triumphed.
The Vietnam Railways (DSVN) and some of her structures definitely erected in French style and architecture in this part of Southeast Asia. This station and once the base of the CIY – Chemin de fer de l’Indo-Chine et du Yunnan (Indo-China – Yunnan Railroad) 滇越铁路 A railway (855 kilometres in length) build during 1904-1910 and connecting the harbour city Haiphong with Kunming (by that time called: Yunnan-Fou) the capital of the province Yunnan in China. On Vietnamese soil the line measured 399 km and the Chinese section from the boarder station Hekou (Lao Cai on the Vietnamese side) 466 km. The Nam Thi (Green River, a tributary of the Red River) forms a natural boundary spanned by a bridge.
It’s the Chinese section that caused French engineers a lot of headache, building a railway in an inhospitable terrain along the Nam Thi valley with steep climbing, sharp corners, viaducts and tunnels but providing one of the most scenic rides possible. It was built on meter gauge (1000 mm) and for China it’s the only railway in this gauge till today and still (partly) in use mainly for goods. Through trains (Kunming – Hanoi) that’s to say a few coaches attached to the train Kunming – Hekou lived a rather short live after reopening (and rebuilding) the boarder bridge (destroyed during clashes between China and Vietnam in the seventies) at the end of 1992. Meter gauge is a stranger in Chinese midst and they want get ride of it or replacement by standard (1435 mm) along the same or different alignment and such is in full swing today as part of a plan building a rail corridor between Singapore and Kunming. However, if there’ll be much progress beyond the boarder during the coming years remains a big question. Talks are there but China for the moment seems to be the only nation really pushing forwards in terms of railroad building.
Anyway crossing the boarder on foot is less problematic these days and from Lao Cai one can catch an ordinary meter gauge train towards Hanoi and there change for the one to Haiphong. Old fashion style riding, slowly but sure in arriving and does it matter an hour more or less in a living full of rush? A building keeps the memory alive, how lovely it must have been entering the station, boarding the train and disembarks a couple days later in Kunming. I’ve been lucky enough making the ride Kunming – Hekou twice, also once to and from Haiphong and Hanoi – Lao Cai but all with different trains nonetheless an extra ordinary experience.


The building and her foreground. The quest for forlorn times but after the arrival of a train especially the foreign traveller is ensnared by pushy cab drivers willing to take him where he wants or going astray. I like to stay foot and enjoy the sighting; it takes a while before they understand the situation and leaving without a client. The building can breathe her history and being exactly what it is: a relict of the past kept for many reasons except awareness for colonial heritage, people in Vietnam do have other things on their mind and lets be frank not that many swear by all that a station building is holy.


Ten o’clock in the morning and nothing more relaxed than waiting till the crowd is gone before finding your own way. A view from the street side and on the corner you’ll stay for a while inhaling the impression of an unmistakable other life though with a certain touch of the past albeit no longer coble stones whereupon a regiment French soldiers marching on the sound of the ‘Marseillaise’ (national hymn) and homeland proud in their banner. This is Vietnam, a nation with a past but moreover with a future wherein a lot of French reminiscences will fall apart or be seen as pure Vietnamese. Like this building if not replaced by nondescript modern architecture.

Two pictures chosen for this article were used before in another story about Haiphong but there unmodified. Sometimes there’s an urge to remove modern things to get a sphere of yesteryear even if you can’t forbid a nation to come forwards. For more pictures of the DSVN see the set: Vietnam Rail, click and you’re there.


About Robert von Hirschhorn

Author / Performer or in Dutch: schrijver / dichter
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