A Road to the Man Bridge
The railway line gradually rises along the high side of the valley then hooks back onto the other side. The Man Bridge is almost inaccessible, especially for our big bus, and after a 30 kilometre drive from Pingbian we reach a junction where an old road of cobblestones and dirt takes you another 30 kilometres back up the valley floor to the bridge. We exchange our big bus for three small mini vans and pile in. These small Chinese-made vehicles are cramped; knees against the dash and the road very bumpy. One of our guests comments how attentive our local driver is as he points out highlights along the way, albeit in Mandarin. We all agreed he was dressed in his best clothes for the occasion (an LA Lakers singlet and sparkling new shoes). Not many foreigners have ventured into these parts. We follow the Sicha River that is flowing strongly, the water green and looking very clean. There is little habitation in these parts; a few small farm houses and steep fields of banana plantations. Along the road locals wander, all ethnic people of the Yi, Hani and Dai groups, indigenous people from 2000 years before. Wherever they are going it will take a long time I mused.
We bump along and come to a mini hydro station and I understand why the river looks so good. Water is gushing from a huge pipe and filling the river. On our right-hand side we can see the railway high on the side of the valley. We pass through a Hun Chinese village, always easy to identify with a CPP flag fluttering over an innocuous administration building, with the usual assortment of Chinese shops and average looking restaurants. The road is temporarily better and the bemused locals give us a stare and the odd wave, friendly enough once you engage. We push on halfway to the bridge and the road returns to one of bad repair; there is little conversation in our vehicle, the two guests with me are probably thinking ‘where the hell are we going?’
After ninety minutes on this dusty old road our small convoy of Chinese mini vans rounds a bend and crosses the river, which is now much smaller upstream from the hydro station. We are at the end of the valley and ‘there she blows’, the Man Bridge, also known as the Inverted V Bridge, or more correctly the Wujiazhai Railway Bridge of steel girders. In between two sheer limestone cliffs, the steel structure is a beautiful sight. It has an elegance and charm about it; you cannot help but gaze at its remarkable form, impossible to tear your eyes away. Construction of the bridge began in March 1907 and was completed by December 1908. The bridge is double structured with three main hinges and a V arch to support its 179 tonnes of steel. It is now classified by the Chinese government as part of their ‘key cultural relics protection unit’.
We spend some time photographing the bridge and marvelling at the engineering skill and the tenacity of the French construction company, before returning along the same road to the junction. Back on our big bus we continue down the valley descending from 600 metres to just 70 metres at the border town of Hekou, still on the Chinese side. Here we meet customs officials, complete formalities and walk across another bridge into Vietnam, the Sino-French railway on one side, the Red River on the other.
The Old Quarter of Hanoi
I checked into my small hotel, located in Hang Mang St, the very heart of the Old Quarter in Hanoi. My room is on the third floor with a small balcony and some well kept pot plants for decoration. I look straight into various houses across the way. Rain stained, yellow walls, tiny windows, washing hanging wherever it is protected from the elements. The traffic and general noise of the street below fills my room but not disturbingly. I am aware at some stage during the night of total silence.
Each day in the Old Quarter the merchants come out to trade. You can get anything you need in this congested labyrinth of streets. It is mid February and everything is damp, the air thick with moisture, seeping and a clammy feeling overtakes. But the street life goes on. Down small alleyways I see vegetables for sale, women crowded over woven baskets stacked with pineapples and water chestnuts. Old ladies in worn, faded tunics carry plastic buckets full of swill and left over produce, perhaps to be recycled or for some poor soul to dump a little further up the street, in the gutter flows the aftermath of each day. They look at me briefly, expression unchanged, everyday is the same. There is a continual chatter that goes on amongst people on the street, constant beckoning from cyclo drivers and motorbike taxis searching for business from wide-eyed Europeans who seek the sanctuary of western style cafés. Here they can sip latte and eat toasted sandwiches, a moments relief from noodles, rice and fish. Back on the street the locals stand, sit and recline in shop doors, open entrances to long corridors or tunnels into quaint courtyards where potted plants flourish and flower, old ones talking with young ones, chatting and gossiping.
The noise is constant, the smell unpredictable, all senses are tested in the Old Quarter. There are small street stalls with miniature tables and plastic chairs just centimetres from the ground. Some boys sit around, clad in jackets and scarves, sipping tea and smoking bamboo pipes of tobacco, the ever present shop owner hovering ready to respond to any opportunity for a sale.
Walking on the road seems to be the best way to negotiate the myriad of bikes, cars and vegetable carrying coolies, their bamboo shoulder poles straining under the weight of their goods, attractive faces smiling but their eyes distant. I can sense a community aspect to this part of the city; although it is big and urban there is a familiarity between its inhabitants. I feel I could not be in a more interesting place, a thousand year old city full of the energy of millions of past lives. They seem to float in the air, down the long alley ways, mirrored in the faces of the old women on the chaos of the street.
The Lost Bunker – Sofitel Legend Metropole Hotel in Hanoi
“Forgotten for decades until its rediscovery in 2011, the bomb shelter has been preserved in its original condition, with the unobtrusive addition of new mechanical and electrical installations to allow the space to be accessible and safe for public viewing. Through its sensitive approach and thoughtful interpretation, the project provides a rare glimpse into an important chapter of Vietnamese contemporary history.” From 2013 UNESCO Asia-Pacific Heritage Awards for Cultural Heritage Conservation.
During the American war in Vietnam (1965-1975) 7.6 million tonnes of ordinance were dropped on what was then North Vietnam in the largest air campaign in military history. In March 1965 then Chief of Staff of the American Air force Curtis Lemay stated that “we’re going to bomb them back into the Stone Age”. In two campaigns from 1965 to 1968 then again in 1972 the bombing campaign was intended to force North Vietnam to cease its support for the NLF (National Liberation Front) by threatening to destroy North Vietnam’s air defenses and industrial infrastructure. As well, it was aimed at bolstering the morale of the South Vietnamese.
In Hanoi bomb shelters were hastily constructed. At The Sofitel Legend Metropole Hotel in central Hanoi a bunker was built that now lies beneath the bamboo bar in the hotels courtyard. Originally called The Metropole, the hotel was built during the French time opening its doors in 1903. Amongst many illustrious guests were Charlie Chaplin, Graeme Greene, Somerset Maugham and a host of political leaders including Bill Clinton. The first shots of the French/Vietnamese Indochina war were fired across the road from the Metropole foyer. For the last ten years Goddard & Howse guests have enjoyed the services of this classic hotel on our Vietnam small world journeys.
At the end of the Vietnam War the hotel was closed to visitors and used alternatively as a diplomatic guest house and office for government. In 1996 with some extensive restoration work the hotel was returned to its former glory and opened its doors once again. Mysteriously the bunker that had existed since the 1960’s was not noticed. It was not until 2011 that further renovations revealed the underground shelter and the stories that it held.
You enter the shelter from the bamboo bar and descend into two narrow corridors that are constructed with reinforced concrete. Taller visitors need to stoop, a meter of sand then more concrete lies above to absorb the impact of high explosive. Water runs along the floor and steel doors with air filters seal the two compartments. There would be not much room for more than 20 people.
There is a curious inscription on the inside wall. The name of an Australian diplomat, Mr Bob Deveraux dated 1976.
Australia had established diplomatic relations with Vietnam before 1975 and had taken rooms at the government run Metropole as the embassy. Bob was a consular official who used the bunker to store wine that was sent through the diplomatic bag from Canberra. The wine was by Kaiser Stuhl. He recalled Hanoi as a peaceful city where everyone, including the Ambassador, rode a pushbike.
During the so called Christmas bombings of 1972 American folk singer Joan Baez was visiting Hanoi promoting peace and delivering food parcels to American POWs. By day she travelled around Hanoi and in the evenings took refuge in the bunker. She described the experience as ‘confronting her mortality’. Bombs rained down for 11 consecutive nights. Her experience in the bunker inspired the song ‘Where are you now my son?’ a spoken narrative over piano and recorded air raid sirens, the mournful call of a Vietnamese mother for her missing son in the background.
The Bunker tour is available to guests of the Sofitel legend Metropole and is included in all Goddard & Howse small world journeys to Vietnam.