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An Ancestral History of Northern Vietnam’s Railway Construction

We often see archival images of old Hanoi, but these photos are different - they are personal. The following shots, which come from a collection of five photo albums, are the only surviving record of my two great-great-grandfathers’ presence in what was then Indochina.

I don’t know when exactly they arrived, but it was around 1880, right in the midst of the French colonization of Tonkin. One, named Vézin, was an entrepreneur or a contractor; the other, Louis Vola, was a civil engineer for the colonial administration. 

The most remarkable subject in these albums is the documentation of early railway construction. We can see land being leveled, bridges being built, locomotives at train stations and workers toiling in the mountains.  

After gathering some information from my father and uncle, it seems more than likely that both my ancestors worked together on the railway from Phu Lang Thuong, which is just outside Hanoi, to beside the Chinese border at Lang Son.

Neither of the two men has gone down in history; their names are almost completely forgotten. And it might be for the best. As Tim Doling explains in his book The Railways and Tramways of Việt Nam, Vézin was not known for his kindness:

On 18 March 1887, a technical commission nominated by Resident General Paul Bert approved the construction of a 98km military line leading from Phủ Lạng Thương (Bắc Giang), 50km northeast of Hà Nội, to the strategic border town of Lạng Sơn. This ligne de la porte de Chine (China gateway line) was conceived primarily to improve lines of communication between the border region and the Red River Delta and to facilitate the movement of troops and supplies to and from Lạng Sơn fortress during the Tonkin campaign.

The Department of Public Works entrusted the construction of the line to the Entreprise des chemins de fer du Tonkin, ligne de Phu Lang Thuong–Lang Son, which in turn engaged two sub-contractors—Entreprise Vézin and Entreprise Daniel—to carry out the work. However, the project was blighted from the start by poor management, cost over-runs and frequent attacks by roaming bands of brigands, who inflicted considerable damage on the chantiers during the difficult four-year construction period.

When initial attempts at voluntary recruitment failed to provide enough workers, thousands were forcibly requisitioned from neighbouring provinces to carry out the work. Treated brutally by overseers and obliged to work from dawn to dusk in difficult terrain and intense tropical heat, many succumbed to dysentery and cerebral malaria, while others deserted en masse.

Kidnappings were a regular occurrence on the construction sites of the Phủ Lạng Thương–Lạng Sơn railway. Monsieur Vézin himself was kidnapped in July 1892 by a band that included many of his own workers, who then demanded money for his safe return.

While it can be hard for me to read about such a troubled and immoral family history, it at least seems clear that Vézin eventually received the treatment he deserved. 

Have a look at the railway’s construction below:

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