The construction of Vietnam’s national railway route extended ferment to peaceful villages in northern areas due to the mass recruitment of locals for forced labor.
Part 1: The first railway route in VietnamPart 2: Hanoi – Lang Son railway route costs blood, laborPart 3: Bright outlook conceived with trans-Vietnam route Part 4: Villages desolated for forced railway laborPart 5: Unforgettable trainsPart 6: A mournful dealPart 7: War-torn railways after liberation day
Millions of Vietnamese people, including men and women, suffered from hard work and harsh weather conditions while building the route, which has since become the backbone of Vietnam’s railway network. Many of them died of exhaustion, while others fled to remote areas to avoid recruitment, which was initially forced, by local authorities.
Recruitment was organized several times a year, and each time the process collected thousands of locals. According to documents recorded in 1904, 10,050 people in 17 northern provinces were admitted in just one wave of recruitment.
The French colonial authorities in Indochina acknowledged the situation in a report that stated, “Mass and fatal recruitment caused many provinces become deserted.” However, it was carried out under the instruction of the Resident Superior in the North. It was he who ordered provincial leaders to provide enough local labor for the construction.
Archives kept in Hanoi discuss the method of forcefully collecting locals, though they were all paid from 30 - 45 pennies a day – a higher wage than normal work.
So, it was the promise of a high salary that drew people from poverty stricken families. Such people made up the majority of the workforce.
According to historical documents, “Mandarins appoint strong people in their villages or communes to be enrolled in the force. They usually selected people from rich families. They then would beg for a favor and permission to pay to select a replacement.
“The workload was then transferred to the second person, and kept on being extending to the man who had nothing to redeem his life. The mandarins certainly got money and even gifts for their ‘tolerance’.”
A mandarin was obliged to send replacements for any worker from his locality that escaped.
Chinese workers were present at the railway construction sites. However, they seemed to have more motivation to flee from the work.
Laborers worked for a certain amount of time before being replaced by a new recruit.
Archived files report a protest in March of 1894 when thousands of workers on the Phu Lang Thuong route went on strike to ask for higher salary, timely payment and an improvement of working conditions. French and local authorities stepped in to the case and demanded that contractors fulfill all the requests and set up better houses, deliver rice and food for workers on time, and pay extra salary for weekend work.
Historian Duong Trung Quoc said Vietnamese workers were favored by both French authorities and engineers. They were even hired to build sections of railways routes in China at the time.
The French Inspector General in Indochina, Gassier, said in his speech at the opening ceremony of the trans-Vietnam route in 1936 that, “The route was completed thanks to workers who suffered hardship and epidemic, sustained scorching sunlight and survived flash flood, and lived without conveniences.
“Many of them died of exhaustion on the construction sites, some returned home with damaged health.”
Vietnamese women at the construction site of the Hai Phong railway station in early 20th century (Archived photo)
Construction of the trans-Viet route at the Saigon terminal started a year after work began in Hanoi, in 1901. It seemed a bigger challenge in southern Vietnam since locals fled or refused to work for the project. Authorities had to encourage ethnic people of tribes in the central highland to work.
It took less than two years to finish 250km of railway from Hanoi towards Thanh Hoa. Meanwhile, in the south, it took nine years, till 1910, to build a similar section from Saigon to Phan Thiet due to workforce shortages.
Governor General Paul Doumer’s, the godfather of the trans-Vietnam route, departure from Vietnam early in 1903 contributed another difficulty to the project. His successor, Albert Sarraut, showed hesitation and reviewed the whole project. The first World War, which lasted from 1914-18, added another obstacle as well.
In 1923, construction resumed and the whole route was finished after 36 years, with a total distance of 1,729 kilometers. The route was later connected to another railway in China.
Construction of the last meters of trans-Viet railway route at Hao Son Station in Phu Yen in the central region (Archived photo)