Railway transport was first introduced to Vietnam during the 1880s under the guidance of the French Colonial Administration. The first railway line was built for use by trams in 1881. The tram line ran from Sai Gon (officially now known as Ho Chi Minh city, but called Sai Gon by people living there) to Cholon – a nearby town some 10.1 km away.
Trams Came Before Trains
Before railways transport options were limited in Vietnam
This first tram line became very popular very quickly and it was not long before the construction of a railway line between Sai Gon and the city of My Tho 69.8 km away, making it Vietnam’s first intercity train service. This line became operational in 1885.
The pace of railway construction in Vietnam then increased rapidly in 1897 when the Paris based French Government approved an ambitious plan proposed by the then French Governor-General of French Indochina, Paul Doumer, for the construction of a railway network linking Yunnan province in China to Ha Noi, in Vietnam, and then carrying on down to Sai Gon. The railway line from Dong Dang (on the Chinese border) to Ha Noi was completed in 1902 although the section of railway track from Ha Noi to Sai Gon was not fully operational until 1936, nearly 40 years after construction began.
Early Progress Got Hampered by War
40 years of earnest construction work on the Vietnamese railway system was then to be followed by a 40 years of disruption. First World War II, then the destruction of last sections of the railway line by insurgents against French colonial control, and finally by both sides during the Vietnam war.
Japanese forces invaded Vietnam in 1940 primarily because the Vietnamese railway network was being used to transport arms and food to the forces of the Kuomintang in China, against whom the Japanese had been at war since 1937. The Japanese invaders used Vietnam’s strategically important railway network to supply its own troops in China, which in turn led to significant bombing of railway line by the Allied Forces.
After World War II the problems carried on
At the end of World War II, the French colonial authorities managed to get the railway network functioning again with a colossal effort to repair track, bridges and tunnels. However, a new problem then emerged in 1947, with an increasingly capable and active Vietnam resistance group, the Viet Minh, attacking the railway network with mines and even taking large sections of track to create its own secret railway network running 300 km though jungle and mountains.
French Control Broke Down
In 1954, despite the best efforts of the French Foreign Legion, the French colonial administration divided the railway network into North and South sections thereby relinquishing control of Vietnam’s most significant infrastructure asset. A major victory for the Viet Minh.
The Vietnam War also took a heavy toll on the railway network, particularly the three major aerial bombing campaigns the USA undertook against North Vietnam: Operation Rolling Thunder (1965 to 1968), Operation Linebacker (October 1972) and Operation Linebacker II (December 1972).
Back on track with Chinese help
With help from the Chinese Government the North-South line, linking Sai Gon and Ha Noi, was reopened in 1976, just one year after the ‘Fall of Sai Gon’ and the end of the Vietnam War, and renamed the Reunification Line in celebration of the joining of North and South Vietnam into a single country.