Story:Do Quang Tuan Hoang

Photos: Khanh Phan

Ho Chi Minh City has over 200 bridges of all sizes, some with connections to this city’s founding. Each bridge is a cultural destination.

On our river tour of the city, we disembarked at Nuoc Len Bridge, An Lac Ward, Vo Van Kiet Street, Binh Tan District, Ho Chi Minh City. We had hopped onto a boat in the inner canal, roasted freshly-caught snakehead fish, enjoyed a few sips of rice wine, and sang as we went along. Late in the afternoon, when the water level rose, we pulled anchor and traveled along the Tau Hu Canal toward the city’s dazzling downtown…

The Vo Van Kiet – Mai Chi Tho arterial road stretches 21.89 km along the Tau Hu – Ben Nghe Canal, running from east to west in the city. It passes through eight districts and four large areas: the Thu Thiem new urban area; the long-standing financial center of District 1; the traditionally ethnic-Chinese trade center in District 5; and the river-scape with prominent imprints of Southwestern Vietnam’s “dock and boat” landscape in districts 6 and 8. The “dock and boat” scenery, a distinctive feature of the area’s river-based trading culture, claims the spotlight along the Tau Hu – Ben Nghe Canal.

On this tour, we passed under many bridges, the most mesmerizing of which was Y Bridge. This bridge was built at the end of 1938 by the French and completed in 1941. It connects Districts 5 and 8 with three branches to form a Y-shape. Two of the branches run westward into District 8. Starting from Nguyen Bieu Street, the Y Bridge extends across Ben Nghe Canal and Te Canal into the Rach Ong Market and Chanh Hung Isle areas. The bridge earned its folk name from its shape. Eventually, that became its official name. Standing on the bridge, we enjoyed a panoramic view of Saigon Port and parts of the city within a 3-km radius. The Y Bridge looks especially festive in the run-up to the Lunar New Year. At this time, traders from the Western provinces arrive at the familiar “dock and boat” sites with their boats full of flowers and ornamental plants. The entire Tau Hu – Ben Nghe Canal is transformed into a silky tapestry woven from colorful flowers.

New Binh Loi Bridge

Another iconic bridge in Ho Chi Minh City is Binh Loi Bridge. In 2019, the Ministry of Transport agreed to keep half of the Binh Loi Railway Bridge, thus preserving a relic long associated with the city’s riverscape. Binh Loi Bridge was built in February 1902 as part of the Saigon – Nha Trang railway route. It was the first railway bridge to cross the Saigon River. The bridge had steel arches, riveted joints, and wooden decks to support the railway track that connected Saigon and Bien Hoa. The turning span of the bridge was constructed by contractor Levallois Perret. Having a length of 276m with six spans and low clearance, the bridge had a span on the Thu Duc District side that opened to allow boats to pass. To the right of the pier in the direction of Thu Duc District and Binh Thanh District stands a watchtower. On its wall facing the riverbank is a box clearly embossed with words in French: “Binh Loi Octobre 1948” (Binh Loi, October 1948).

Regarding this 117-year-old bridge, architect Cao Thanh Nghiep said: “For heritage conservationists, Hanoi evokes the image of Long Bien Bridge while Hue automatically reminds them of Trang Tien Bridge. By the same token, Binh Loi Bridge has entered the memories of many Southerners who came to Saigon in search of a career and a prosperous life.

Not to mention, it is an urban bridge with distinctive architecture, being the only steel bridge to reach over 100 years of age and be characterized by a turning span. Such unique architectural qualities make Binh Loi Railway Bridge an urban heritage.”

Saigon is also home to a fluid and poetic bridge: Thi Nghe Bridge. This bridge extends across the Nhieu Loc Canal (near the section that flows into the Saigon River). It connects District 1 and Binh Thanh District. Thi Nghe Bridge is 105.2m-long, 17.6m-wide and has four lanes. In the section about Phien An Citadel in the “Unified Gazetteer of Gia Dinh Citadel”, Trinh Hoai Duc wrote:      

“The Lady’s husband held a secretarial position, so her contemporaries called her “Madam Nghe” (which translates as ‘Madam High-ranking Mandarin’) instead of by her given name. While reclaiming the land for settlement, she built a bridge across the river to facilitate transport. Hence, people named it Ba Nghe Bridge and the river the Ba Nghe River.”

Thi Nghe Bridge

The bridge was rebuilt with iron in 1867 and again in 1970 with concrete. In the middle of the 19th century, its name was changed from Ba Nghe to Thi Nghe (“Thị” was another old term for “woman”). This name remains to this day. Whether it was an act of love to ease her husband’s arduous commute from Gia Dinh to Saigon, or an act of benevolence for the public good, the story of the kind lady who built this bridge endures.

Mr. Pascal Floch recently visited Vietnam with his family from Paris, France. From Vo Van Kiet Street in District 1, his family passed over the bridges of Ca Tre, Cha Va, Ong Lanh, Lo Gom, and Nuoc Len (Ho Chi Minh City), Kho (Vinh Long Province), Cai Rang, Cai Da, and Dau Sau (Can Tho City), Chac Ca Dao (An Giang Province), etc.  to explore the waterscape of the Southwest region in four days. Crossing over 300 bridges, he took photos wherever possible and learned the meaning of the bridges’ names. Returning to France, he wrote to me saying that the trip to Vietnam had been superb and he was working on a picture book with stories about the bridges.

Indeed, every bridge and every landmark is a fascinating cultural stopover.