The last steamer of Vietnam


A personal story in the wake of history. How sad it is if you were born too late to embrace the glory of the age of steam on rail. Locomotives that appeal to imagination.
By the time I was ten years old steam in the Netherlands dismissed. Elsewhere on earth this fascinating piece of engineering stay foot and till today still can be seen in working order, a reliable iron horse, even in normal service though most for industrial purpose shunting on a factory yard.
On the other hand the preservation business, museum lines, many different groups of volunteers who spent there free time in precise restoration most in rolling order and keep the engines that way. The heritage of a steamy era is well conserved though not on every spot, there are still blanks in what once rolled freely and disappeared like snow for the sun. Southeast Asia is a fine example but I am not the guy who knows everything, the one making lists, the number freak and freaking out when something missed or never seen. It’s not direct my cup of tea heated by dead steam.
First of all trying to find them and than given back their identity. A nice job unfortunate only for insiders or as a record of history. Anyway it’s not prescribed for me. I am the man or written in the limelight of history was, for coincidence.
My first Vietnam rail experience took place in 2002 and I was not on the look for steam at all more what the DSVN  – Duong sat Vietnam / State Railways – a rail transport fan had to offer. Familiar with the circumstance in Thailand there were no special expectations only seen what’s on the sleeve and it surprised me.
Where in Thailand I got used to free entrance on almost every spot, only the main workshop at Bangkok Makkasan could not be entered without a special permit, Vietnam showed the contrary. Railway workers, signal man, denying me taken pictures even on public area if the strict communistic ruling still was in power, if I could be a spy seeing something not meant for an outsider but forgotten that more modern techniques (satellite) already make a note of it.
Also in Western Europe there were times you could not take pictures of a railway subject at least in or near a station without the railway police on your back. Even on maps railway lines were left out. The early days of the cold war and completely overhauled by the technology as written before. In Eastern Europe behind the iron curtain long after and before the fall of the drape photographing railways was a risky business.


So in Vietnam, the long arm of socialism and a lost battle. The comrades at the company not used to the new freedom even when I pointed that out to them, that things were changed and don’t be afraid.
The central station ground of Hanoi was completely sealed off, no free access to the platforms nor platform tickets to buy, only when boarding short before depart.
Both entrances of the yard were closed by a gate if a train was gone or not arriving.
Frustrating anyway. However, at a nearby hotel I took the elevator to the upper floor and became the view I wanted. The complete station lay out at my feet but most surprising a row of out of order steam engines standing in what seemed to be the depot. No way to see them close let alone taking pictures of it. On the roof floor of a luxury hotel the story sprung in mind. I would write a letter to the railway and during my next visit I could see the steamers from near by.
This letter never got an answer and by the time back in Hanoi (one year later) the question arose what to do? Going to the office and saying: “Hello, do you know?”
Believe it or not, this is what happened. The first person I addressed said: “O yes, your letter, I read it.” A relieve but access to the depot… “Well, we see, let’s go.”
To make a long story short, after conversation with tea (of course) the boss let me in under strict condition. “I give you half an hour, that’s it.”
Anyone well-known with circumstances like these understands this was (almost) the happiest half hour of my life. Haste denied me the details but for the moment no care.
It looks French as France could look but with the French railway industry I never been acquainted. For sure here stood a colonial heritage waiting for the smelter I supposed. Frankly spoken I have no idea if they were recycled in the end, I never been there since but there is always someone out there better informed. Guide me if you know, it’s always nice to write a story till the end, even for locomotives although that story could be very bitter.

All pictures were taken at the depot of Hanoi central station in April 2003 only the last one was taken at Hanoi Giap Bat station were during his final days this locomotive took care of the shunting before left to wind and weather. See also album: History on rail in Vietnam.




About Robert von Hirschhorn

Author / Performer or in Dutch: schrijver / dichter
This entry was posted in dead steam, Rail rarities, steam locomotives, Viet Nam. Bookmark the permalink.

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