Vietnam's remote war
A visit to the famed battlefield of Dien Bien Phu, where French forces finally lost their fight for Indochina
Published on December 8, 2007
Vietnam's remote war
The Command bunker of De Castries lies at the heart of the entrenched camp of Dien Bien Phu in the middle of the Muong Thanh Field.
Ringed by high mountains in the northwestern corner of Vietnam, Dien Bien Phu is a tough place to reach. Opt for a car and you face a three-day journey from Bangkok. A little less daunting is the hour on the plane to Hanoi followed by a 16-hour drive.
The closest Vietnamese city to Laos, Dien Bien Phu, the capital of Lai Chau province, lies just 35 kilometres along a well-paved highway from the border. The road runs through a scenic valley and wild jungle terrain before reaching a wide street in the middle of the city centre.
On my first night in Dien Bien Phu I discover its main thoroughfare splashed with garish colours from neon signs, bringing a big-city atmosphere to this remote outpost. The wilderness is never far away though. Walking in the market the following afternoon I see a small tiger in a cage for sale.
Thai visitors might feel at home with all the rice paddies in the surrounding fields and mountain terraces. The scenery is a reminder that Vietnam is a strong rival when it comes to the export of rice.
The people of Lao know this city as Mouang Thanh, and ethnic groups of Thai, Mong, Dao, Day, Kinh have made it their home for centuries. They all arrived long before the French decided to make it their main stronghold during the Indochina War.
Few visitors to Vietnam venture beyond the streets of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City to the wide boulevards of Dien Bien Phu. But for those who do, the story of the climactic battle in the 20th-century war between the French colonial government and the communist Vietnamese forces, the Viet Minh, is unavoidable.
Landmarks of the Battle of Dien Bien Phu are all around: Him Lam Hill, the hills of Eliane, D1 and C1, the Muong Thanh Bridge, the Vietnamese generals' command post, the A1 Hero's cemetery, the Museum of Dien Bien Phu Victory. Together they constitute a big picture of the great battle that ended the first Indochina War (1946-1954), known to the Vietnamese as the "French War".
We have two guides to show us round the Dien Bien Phu Victory Museum: Our local Vietnamese-speaking guide gives explanations which are then translated by his Laos colleague into Thai. It's a bit difficult, but we do our best to adjust our ears as we go.
With its exhibition of documents and objects relating to the arduous 55 days of fighting that resulted in victory for the Vietnamese on May 7, 1954, the war museum is the place to learn about the Battle of Dien Bien Phu.
In fact, the roots of the battle go back to 1953 when French military commanders led by general Henri Navarre chose Dien Bien Phu, then a small village in northwestern Vietnam close to the Laotian and Chinese borders, as the place to pick a fight with the Viet Minh, led by general Vo Nguyen Giap.
Half a century ago, the French believed that establishing a base deep in northern mountainous territory and supplying it by air would ensure them victory against the Vietnamese insurgency.
In the museum we're pointed to a military map showing the location of the French stronghold, in a river valley about 16 kilometres long. Most French troops and supplies entered Dien Bien Phu from the air - either landing at the fort's airstrip or dropping in via parachute. The French began to build up their garrison here, paratroopers and legionnaires supplied with an armoury of modern weapons and armoured vehicles and given air cover by fighter-bombers in preparation for a battle in the alien environment.
But the museum's highlights deal with Vietnamese forces they faced, peasants equipped with primitive weapons and pitched into a modern war.
Historical artefacts litter the museum along with photographic records. Objects captured in the French command bunkers on display here include a general's bathtub.
But the many photographs give insights into the hardships faced by the Viet Minh soldiers and their enemy on this remote battlefield. The 50-year-old black-and-white scenes tell the story of the battle siege in a way that words could never capture.
The rugged landscape that the first French forces parachuting in met in 1953 is here. On one wall is a scene immediately following a massive explosion inside the French fortress of A1 hill, which has been blown to smithereens. There are photographs of the tough Viet Minh troops in convoys of volunteer civilians and bike carriers transporting provisions, weapons and munitions amid the rice paddy fields of Dien Bien Phu.
War relics have been placed outside the building and visitors get up close to examine them before moving on to tour the nearby battlefield. Hill A1, as it's known, still bears the scars of the war in the form of the network of trenches dug by the French and the massive crater we had seen earlier in the photograph, left when Vietnamese forces hit the French fortification with 1 ton of TNT.
When Dien Bien Phu finally fell to the Viet Minh, at least 2,200 French soldiers had been killed during the siege and thousands more taken prisoner. Of the 50,000 or so Vietnamese who besieged the garrison, there were around 23,000 casualties - including an estimated 8,000 killed.
Dien Bien Phu has added a recent attraction in town, the statue - regarded as the largest in Vietnam - erected in 2004 to commemorate the anniversary of the victory. The monument is a popular spot for both Vietnamese and visitors from further afield, and there's spacious parking and a long line of souvenir stalls.
If you want to see more military artefacts, they're not hard to find elsewhere in Dien Bien Phu. But those drawn by majestic scenery and the diversity of ethnic cultures have plenty to see close by. For a panoramic view of northern Vietnam, you don't have to travel nine hours by bus through the Tram Ton Pass to Sapa. It's just a short trip of 35km from the centre of Dien Bien Phu City to Muong Phang Commune, home to the command post of General Giap but also great for encounters with ethnic people.
The journey along a winding mountainous road takes less than an hour and passes through the ancient Muong Phang forest in the Muong Phan commune of Dien Bien District to the east of the city. We arrive to find what was once Giap's underground command bunker beneath a forest where conservation work to protect the many rare plant and animal species is now being undertaken.
Five decades ago the Viet Minh generals met here to forge the battle plan that would bring them victory over the French. We walk along a tree-lined path toward the legendary tunnel that leads to General Giap's headquarters. Around us above ground are small huts, one that housed the reconnaissance operation, another that was Chief of Staff Hoang Van Thai's headquarters. From here, the 96-metre tunnel through the mountain leads to General Giap's hut.
Surrounding the command post in the paddy fields and lush forest are clusters of beautiful stilt houses, the villages of ethnic Thai. Clad in their comfortable-looking traditional dress, the villagers spy us and race over. We're met with beaming smiles and handicrafts proffered with both hands, a familiar scene in any tourist spot, whether city or remote tribal village. But after all the war exhibits, it's entertaining to choose homespun scarves from these exotic fellow Thais, listen to the way they talk and discover some bridges across the language barrier.
Special to The Nation