By: Ngo Quang Minh
Photo: Nguyen Hai
Perhaps no bridge in Vietnam has a stranger and more special history than Hien Luong Bridge, which spans the Ben Hai River in Quang Tri Province. Along with nostalgic feelings of separation and reunification, this bridge evokes love. It serves as a symbol of peace and our national spirit.
When driving north to south on National Highway 1A, upon leaving Vinh Linh and crossing the Ben Hai River to Gio Linh, look left to see a unique green and yellow seven-span iron bridge with an iron-wood floor stretching across the blue river.
This river was once known as “Ben Hoi”, which means “a small river”. This was later mispronounced as “Ben Hai”. The river is not wide but long, originating from the foothills of the Truong Son mountains and flowing more than 100km from west to east to the Cua Tung Sea. The old riverside village was originally named Minh Luong. This name was changed to Hien Luong during the Nguyen Dynasty to avoid coinciding with the name of King Minh Mang.
In 1928, Hien Luong Bridge was erected over a stretch of the river that was under 100m-wide. It was built of wood and iron piles. In 1931, the bridge was widened but vehicles still had to cross the river by ferry. It was not until 1950 that Hien Luong Bridge was upgraded with reinforced concrete. In 1952 it collapsed after being bombed in the war but was rebuilt that same year.
The bridge is best-remembered thanks to what happened in 1954. That year, Vietnam was temporarily divided into two regions, using the 17th parallel north and the natural river as the boundary line for the demilitarized zone. This temporary separation was expected to last for two years, at which time the two regions would be unified and there would be a general election. In fact, this separation lasted for two decades! When peace was finally achieved, the old bridge was also restored based on its original design. Each plank was numbered, standing steadfastly against the sun and wind of the Central region, like a timeless witness to history.
During the period from 1954 to 1975, many non-violent battles of wits took place over this historic bridge. The most famous was a fierce “flag battle” that lasted for 14 years, as each side hoisted larger and larger flags and raised the heights of their flagpoles. Despite cannon shells tearing those flags apart every time they were hoisted, the next morning a new flagpole would be erected.
This image was later reimagined as a painting titled “The flag-patcher of Hien Luong”, hung in The 17th Parallel North and Aspiration for Unity Museum. At the same time, a famous “speaker battle” also took place on both sides of the river. During this time, the southern side installed state-of-the-art loudspeakers to spread their propaganda so loudly that even people in Quang Binh could hear it clearly. Meanwhile, the northern side increased their loudspeakers’ power with a boost from a high-voltage power line. When the wind was blowing the right way, their loudspeakers could be heard tens of kilometers away.
The propaganda battle, rather than the sound of gunfire, is remembered by history, with restored versions of these loudspeakers on display in the museum. Today, when visiting this historic site, you can also marvel at an iconic site on the former northern frontier: a 28m-high 5-pointed yellow star flagpole that stands firmly on top of a round base, its feet decorated with images of a unified country. Not far away, on the former southern frontier stands the “Aspiration for a Unified Country” monument, which takes the shape of a young woman and her child standing on the southern river bank looking northward, awaiting her husband’s return during the period of division.
Over time, images of Hien Luong Bridge and the Ben Hai River graced the silver screen, appearing in the legendary movie “17th Parallel, Nights and Days” by director Hai Ninh. Released in 1972, this film told the story of a female party cell secretary traveling from the South to the North to work. The film’s two writers, Hai Ninh and Hoang Tich Chi, met the woman who inspired the story on the battlefield. At that time, they didn’t know her identity because she told them: “When the country is finally reunified, I will tell you my name.”
In order to produce this masterpiece, the film crew worked diligently for five years. Braving bombs and hails of bullets, they patiently gathered material during each entry and exit from this region. Meanwhile, the woman who inspired the story – guerrilla fighter Hoang Thi Thao from Gio Linh – or Ms. Diu in the film – fell in battle before the two regions were unified. Her image, through the outstanding performance of People’s Artist Tra Giang, became an everlasting icon of Vietnamese revolutionary cinema.
A latitude split in half by a bridge, a village divided into two opposing front lines, a family separated by two ideologies: the film “17th Parallel, Nights and Days” made a big splash at the Moscow International Film Festival in Russia in 1973, surprising people with its meticulous acting, grand scenery, and story that moved hearts and minds.
Despite his great success, People’s Artist Hai Ninh humbly said: “The harsh reality of our country produced such outstanding people and events, and directors like me can only partially reflect that reality!”
Life is as unpredictable as wind and clouds, and time and space are constantly shifting. The tragic and heroic land of the past has undergone a great transition. What used to be Ms. Thao’s village is now the Quan Ngang Industrial Park. Ferry trips across the 17th parallel now exist only in memories. The Hien Luong Bridge – Ben Hai River Relic has become a significant tourist attraction, and was declared a Special National Monument in 2013.
Driving north to south, as you cross the Ben Hai River and leave the Hien Luong Bridge, you can hear the wind blowing from the beaches of Cua Viet onto the land of Gio Linh. Looking at both sides of the river you will feel a sense of tranquility. The history of our homeland has not been buried by time, perhaps thanks to the existence of these simple but epic rivers and bridges. We appreciate the worthy people we have met because “The Fatherland is not an abstract map” and Hien Luong is more than nostalgia inspired by old songs.