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The Lost Railway That Once Connected Da Nang and Hoi An

One hundred years ago, visitors to Tourane (Đa Nẵng) could alight from their train right outside the Hàn Market and, after crossing the Hàn River by ferry, take a steam train all the way to Hội An.

When the French secured control over Tourane (Đà Nẵng) in 1888, the nearby port town of Faifo (Hội An) was still an important trans-shipment point for all kinds of trading goods, and its long-established community of Chinese merchants continued to play an important intermediary role between the French and the people of the interior.

For centuries, the Cổ Cò River had provided merchants with a sheltered inland route between the two ports, but the steady silting of that waterway during the 19th century made the transportation of goods by boat between Faifo and the main Tiên Sa Port area increasingly difficult.

In 1902, with the support of the Tourane Municipal Trade Office, a consortium led by tea merchant Dérobert lobbied the Indochina government to build a 0.6-meter gauge steam tramway between Tourane and Faifo to replace the fast-disappearing Cổ Cò River. The project was subsequently taken forward by the Société Anonyme des Docks et Houillères de Tourane (Tourane Docks and Coal Mine Company, SADHT), which mapped out a 35.5-kilometer route from the “Îlot de l’Observatoire” at the northwest tip of the Sơn Trà peninsula along the east bank of the Hàn River to Faifo.

A map of the “Tramway de l'Îlot de l’Observatoire” while it was still under construction.

In 1903, the colonial authorities authorized SADHT to proceed with the construction of the line, granting the company a 60-year concession and also donating a large quantity of redundant track, signalling, rolling stock and other equipment from the Phủ Lạng Thương–Lạng Sơn railway line in Tonkin, which had been upgraded in 1899-1902 from a 0.6-meter gauge Decauville tramway into a one-meter gauge railway. However, delivery of this equipment was delayed, and when it did arrive it was found to be in very poor condition.

A preliminary 9.5-kilometer stretch of tramway line from the Îlot de l’Observatoire to Tourane Mỹ Khê was inaugurated by SADHT on November 9, 1905, but soon after that the company was declared bankrupt. The partly built tramway then lay abandoned for nearly a year, during which time it was devastated by a typhoon.

The track plan of the Îlot de l’Observatoire station and depot at Tiên Sa Port.

In October 1906, after extensive discussion, the line was placed under the control of the Chemins de Fer de l’Indochine (CFI). It immediately set to work laying the remaining 26-kilometer of track, refurbishing the rolling stock, building new stations and adding a short spur from Tourane Mỹ Khê to Tourane Fleuve on the east bank of the Hàn River, which provided ferry access to the Tourane Marché main line terminus.

The “Tramway de l’Îlot de l’Observatoire” finally opened to the public on October 1, 1907. The line incorporated 10 stations: l’Îlot de l’Observatoire (km 0), Tien Sha (Tiên Sa, km 1), Plantation Guérin (km 5), Tourane Mỹ Khê (km 9.5, with a 0.5-kilometer spur to Tourane Fleuve Wharf), Montagne de Marbre (Marble Mountain, km 17.5), Cẩm Sa (km 26), Có Lưu (km 28), Thanh Hà (km 31) and Faifo (km 35.5). A depot was built at Tien Sha. Three roundtrip train services were offered daily – two in the morning and one in the afternoon.

The track bed around Marble Mountain was destroyed by a typhoon on October 27, 1915.

Steam trams entered Hội An along what are now Nguyễn Tất Thành and Lý Thương Kiệt Streets, terminating at a tramway station on the northeast corner of the modern Lý Thương Kiệt-Nguyễn Trường Tộ junction, just across the road from what was then the spacious compound of the Résidence de France in Quảng Nam. Though very convenient for the handful of French administrators who worked there, this terminus was some distance from the wharf area, the final destination for much of the freight carried by the tramway.

However, the inconvenient location of the Faifo terminus was the least of its problems. Like other Decauville lines in Indochina, the Tramway de l’Îlot de l’Observatoire was beset by technical problems, and its frequent failures soon made the tramway something of a laughingstock.

In subsequent years, as road transportation became increasingly popular, the quantity of freight transported by the line grew smaller and smaller. Passenger travel alone proved insufficient to sustain the branch, and when the track bed around Marble Mountain was destroyed by another typhoon on October 27, 1915, the government of Annam suspended operations. The line was closed permanently on December 31, 1915 after just eight years of service. Soon after, the track was removed and the rolling stock and other equipment placed on the market.

However, that wasn’t quite the end of the story. In 1955-1956, the South Vietnamese railway company Hỏa Xa Việt Nam (HXVN) rerouted the main North-South line by building the “Déviation de Phông Lê” west of Đà Nẵng city center (see: A Relic of the Steam Age in Đà Nẵng). Part of the original main line was then repurposed to create a new freight branch across the Trịnh Minh Thế (now Nguyễn Văn Trỗi) Bridge to the Sơn Trà peninsula, where rails were relaid along the northernmost section of the old tramway track bed as far as Tiên Sa Port. This freight spur from Đà Nẵng Central Station to Tiên Sa continued in existence until the mid-1990s, when it was definitively abandoned.

Tim Doling is the author of the book of walking tours entitled Exploring Hồ Chí Minh City (Nhà Xuất Bản Thế Giới, Hà Nội, 2014) and also conducts four-hour Heritage Tours of Historic Saigon and Cholon. For more information about Saigon history and Tim's tours, visit his website, www.historicvietnam.com.


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