Article: Tran Duc Anh Son
Photos: Bao Minh – Nguyen Phong
In Hue there is a folk poem:
“My six-arm twelve-span Truong Tien Bridge
Poor me, I can’t keep up with you, dear
For a long time, I endured embarrassment
If we must be apart then it is what fate has decided…”
These are the words of a young Hue woman who criticized fate for her lack of romantic success, only to shift the blame to Truong Tien Bridge – a famous bridge in the ancient capital.
The elegant bridge spans the Huong (Perfume) River like a hair clip in the tresses of a Hue-born muse. Its construction started in 1897 and was completed in 1899. It was built by the Eiffel Company of France at an astounding cost of 400 million French Indochinese piastres. The book Dai Nam nhat thong chi (The History of a Unified Đại Nam), produced by the National History Compiler of the Nguyen Dynasty, recorded:
“Truong Tien Pier: situated at the dock across the highway, southeast of Hue Citadel. The iron bridge was renovated in the 9th Thanh Thai year (1897) … The bridge consisted of six spans, each having a length of 66 thuoc 8 tac 5 phan, a width of 6 thuoc 2 tac, and a total length of 401 thuoc 1 tac. The renovation was finished in the 11th Thanh Thai year (1899) but on August 2, the 16th year (1904), four of the bridge’s six spans were destroyed by a storm and only two spans remained. In the 18th year (1906), the bridge was rebuilt”.
In 1898, in order to fund the construction of the bridge, the French colonial rulers increased taxes all over Trung Ky (the old name of Central Vietnam), causing great misery for the people. Empress Dowager Tu Du, the mother of King Tu Duc, went personally to the Resident-Superior Hall on the southern bank of the Huong River to ask the Resident-Superior of Annam to reduce taxes for the sake of her people. However, the French government in Annam refused to lower the taxes, instead responding to Empress Dowager Tu Du with a mocking verse:
“Back when Vietnamese kings reigned
Why didn’t they build the Truong Tien Bridge themselves?
Why blame Westerners for raising taxes?
Westerners aren’t building the Truong Tien Bridge only for themselves.”
At first, the bridge was called Thanh Thai Bridge because it was built during the reign of King Thanh Thai (1889 – 1907). In 1919, the bridge was officially renamed “Clémenceau Bridge” after the name of the French Prime Minister at the time. Following the Japanese coup d’état in French Indochina on March 9, 1945, the bridge’s official name changed again to “Nguyen Hoang Bridge”, after the first Nguyen Lord who ruled Dang Trong (Cochinchina).
However, for more than two centuries, the people of Hue have stuck to calling it “Truong Tien”. This name comes from Truong Tien Pier, named for the royal mint situated to the north of the Huong River. The word Truong (場) means “workshop” or “place”. Truong Tien (場錢) means “coin mint”. The word Truong also appears in a number of other places in Hue such as: Truong Sung, Truong Dong, and Truong Bia. Starting as a bridge with such a simple name, Truong Tien Bridge has become widely known. Its name is etched into history.
When Truong Tien Bridge was completed, although the people had suffered greatly and paid heavy taxes to fund its construction, the Venerable Zen-master Phuc Hau wrote a complimentary poem upon seeing the benefits of linking both sides of the Huong River:
“Great blessing from the honorable Buddha
Thank you for making this iron bridge
Guiding all even in missteps
Accompanying all in crossing the route
Talent as high as mount Kim Phung
Virtue as great as the Tuy Ba Sea
Hanging over the river and creating bliss
Vietnamese will know it for thousands of years”
Alas, the joy was short-lived as the Giap Thin year (1904) brought a huge storm. Four of the bridge’s six spans were destroyed by the storm. The ensuing flooding swept the bridge’s arms as far as Dong Ba Market.
Mourning the devastation the storm wrought upon Hue, the poet Mong Phat Ton That Diem wrote these verses:
“Pity the ships in the North Sea
Pity the Western river’s iron bridge”
Dong Ba Market was established outside Chinh Dong Gate at the start of King Gia Long’s reign. It was originally called Dong Hoa Market (東 花). Later, to avoid using the word “Hoa” (花), which was the name of Empress Ta Thien Nhan Ho Thi Hoa, the mother of King Thieu Tri, in 1841, the king decreed that all places bearing the word “Hoa“ must change their names. Therefore, Dong Hoa Market became Dong Ba Market. Since then, the people of Hue have called “hoa” (flowers) “bong” (the term for “flower” in the dialect of central and southern Vietnam).
In the 11th Thanh Thai year (1899), Dong Ba Market was relocated to its present location, then a desolate area outside the Imperial Citadel, called “giai“ by Hue people.
In 1906, Truong Tien Bridge was repaired. The bridge’s floor, originally made of ironwood, was remade with cement. Hue people composed another folk poem about this renowned bridge:
“Dong Ba Market is relocated to empty land
Truong Tien Bridge is rebuilt with cement
Those without husband and children…
You will find them in this land.”
During King Duy Tan’s reign (1907 – 1916), wishing to remind people to follow traffic rules, the protectorate government hung signs at both ends of Truong Tien Bridge that read: “Prenez votre droite, marchez au pas” (Move to the right and walk slowly). The Annam court translated the above French words into Chinese characters, which read in Vietnamese as: “Xa ma qua kieu do huu chi. Yeu nghi hoan han vat nghi tri” (Horse-drawn carriages cross the bridge on the right side. We should go slowly, not fast). This message was engraved onto signs and hung beside the signs in French.
Over the past two centuries, Truong Tien Bridge has accompanied Hue through many ups and downs. Despite having collapsed due to warfare and natural disasters, Truong Tien Bridge has always been rebuilt and remains a symbol of the ancient capital, Hue. It is a graceful, lasting architectural heritage of this beautiful city by the Huong River and Ngu Mountain.