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Icons of Old Saigon: The Pont Tournant (Swing Bridge)

Many people are familiar with Eiffel's Pont des Messageries Maritimes (Cầu Mống), yet few remember its neighbor, the Pont Tournant (Swing Bridge), which was built by Eiffel's successor company Levallois-Perret in 1902-1903 and stood close to the entrance to the Bến Nghé Creek for nearly 60 years.

In the early colonial period, the need to permit unimpeded access to the Arroyo Chinois (Bến Nghé Creek) by freight barges of all sizes precluded the construction of a street-level bridge. Instead, the authorities commissioned the construction of a grand arched bridge, Eiffel’s Pont des Messageries Maritimes, to connect the port with the city (see Eiffel's Pont de Messageries Maritimes, 1882). Though praised for its elegant design, Eiffel’s bridge was disliked by “malabar” drivers, who complained that the access ramps were too steep and dangerous for their horses.

Saigon's "Malabar" drivers found the ramps of Eiffel's pont des Messageries maritimes too steep and dangerous for their horses.

In 1895, plans were drawn up to install a flat swing bridge close to the mouth of the creek. However, in the following year these plans were abandoned in the face of vehement opposition from Chợ Lớn's merchant ship owners, who feared that the new bridge would block shipping access.

The swing bridge project was revived in 1900, when the French authorities began planning the new Canal de Dérivation (the Tẻ Canal in Khánh Hội) to provide merchant shipping with an alternative entrance to the Arroyo Chinois. At this juncture, the Saigon-Mỹ Tho railway line operator Société Générale des Tramways à Vapeur de Cochinchine offered to part-fund the construction of the bridge in exchange for permission to install on it a railway track to carry freight trains across the creek to the port.

The Swing Bridge in the early 20th century.

In the second volume of his Situation de l’Indo-Chine de 1902 à 1907 (1908), Jean Baptiste Paul Beau describes the events which followed:

“The Pont Tournant (Swing Bridge) over the Arroyo Chinois in Saigon was included in the program of work set out in the decree of November 12, 1900 to improve the commercial port of Saigon. It was built by the Société de Constructions de Levallois-Perret, under the terms of a contract approved on July 6, 1901.

Set a little above street level, it connects the city with the port. It gives passage to a railway, carriages and pedestrians, while ensuring river traffic on the Arroyo Chinois by means of a turning span measuring 49.20 meters in length, supported by and pivoting horizontally on a central pillar. Each of the two fixed sections at either side measure 19.194 meters in length.

The 7.10-meter-wide bridge incorporates a 5.10-meter road flanked by two pedestrian lanes of one meter each.

The work began in January 1902 and was completed in July 1903.

Expenditure amounted to 382,755.12 francs for the work by the company and 11,166.12 francs for associated works. These included, notably, the demolition of part of the Customs warehouse and its reconstruction in another part of the quayside, as well as the development of approach roads to the bridge.”

A “colorized” view of the Swing Bridge from the Pont des Messageries Maritimes in the 1920s.

From the outset, the new bridge, known in Vietnamese as Cầu Bắc Bình Vương, attracted much criticism. Despite the opening of the Canal de Dérivation in 1905, many merchant ships still used the original entrance to the Arroyo Chinois. They found the central pier hazardous to navigate and the channels either side of it too narrow to accommodate the large number of vessels entering and leaving the creek.

However, most complaints about the new bridge focused on its pivoting mechanism.

In his 1911 book Ma Chère Cochinchine, Trente Années d'Impressions et de Souvenirs, Février 1881-1910, George Dürrwell comments:

“The bridge swings very badly. Some even claim that it doesn’t work at all, but those are grumpy and biased people who deserve no credit. I can say, indeed, that I saw it open at least once, at a practical time which permitted the free movement of the public. But, as the saying goes, ‘One swallow doesn’t make a summer.’ This unfortunate bridge has thus acquired, from its inception, a true local celebrity; and the rivers of ink that have been spilled talking about it are certainly more tumultuous than the waves of dirty water which agitate the river over which it was thrown.”

The Quai de Belgique side of the Swing Bridge in the 1920s.

Twelve years later, the Swing Bridge was still the talk of Saigon. The following is taken from an editorial of January 14, 1923 in the newspaper L'Eveil Économique de l'Indochine:

“A by-law prescribes that the Swing Bridge must be open from two hours before until two hours after the arrival of maritime courier vessels. Why then yesterday, despite the arrival of the Cordillère at 1pm, did the swing bridge remain stubbornly closed to road traffic until 3pm?

Who doesn’t know about this famous Swing Bridge? Whenever one wants to cross it by car, it’s open to boats, and whenever a boat appears, it’s open to cars.”

Another early 20th century view of the Swing Bridge.

The editorial went on to suggest the demolition of both the Pont des Messageries Maritimes and the Swing Bridge, and their replacement by “a transporter bridge, built strong enough to carry heavier trucks and trams.”

Another “colorized” view of the Swing Bridge from the Pont des Messageries Maritimes, taken after it was transformed into a fixed bridge in 1930.

By this time, the Canal de Dérivation had long taken over as the main water gateway to Chợ Lớn, and in 1930 the authorities devoted 4,100 piastres to transform the Swing Bridge into a fixed structure. Thereafter, only the smallest of boats could pass underneath it.

One of the most famous pictures of the now-fixed Swing Bridge was taken in July 1941 when, after landing at the port, occupying Japanese forces crossed it on bicycles to enter Saigon.

Japanese forces crossing the bridge to Saigon on bicycles in July 1941.

Following the return of the French after World War II, a new separate rail lane was added to the east side of the bridge in order to keep rail traffic away from the road vehicles using the central lane.

The former Swing Bridge survived until 1961, when it was demolished and replaced by the reinforced concrete Khánh Hội Bridge (Cầu Khánh Hội). That, in its turn, was demolished in 2009 to make way for the current structure.

An early 1930s view of the Swing Bridge after it was transformed into a fixed bridge.

The former Swing Bridge in the early 1950s.

The Khánh Hội Bridge which replaced the former Swing Bridge in 1961.

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Tim Doling is the author of the walking tour book Exploring Hồ Chí Minh City (Nhà Xuất Bản Thế Giới, Hà Nội, 2014) and also conducts Heritage Tours of Saigon and Chợ Lớn - see www.historicvietnam.com.

[Top photo by Jack Birns]


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