Dien Bien Phu: Past and Present

On May 7th 1954, Vietnamese forces achieved a stunning victory against French colonial troops at Dien Bien Phu, a remote town in Vietnam’s norteastern mountains. 55 years later, Hoai Thanh visits the town where Vietnam’s independence was won.

The moment my Vietnam Airlines’ ATR72 plane touched down at Dien Bien Airport I was overcome by emotion. Until that point, as a young man born after the war, my knowledge of the historic events at Dien Bien Phu had been gleaned from newspapers and films.

As the 55th anniversary of the victory against Fench colonial forces at Dien Bien Phu approached, the town’s streets became increasingly crowded with domestic and foreign visitors. I was so moved to meet veterans with sparkling medals pinned onto their shirts, these elderly men smiling proudly. Guides at the Dien Bien Phu Victory Museum seemed happy to recount stories about the hardships endured by the soldiers at Dien Bien Phu, who had faced incredibly harsh conditions and huge challenges.

Dien Bien Phu offers mountain views and a fascinating history.

Dien Bien Phu offers mountain views and a fascinating history.

Using only small spades and forced to crouch low to avoid being hit by enemy fire, these soldiers had dug tunnels through mountains and forests. Their sacrifices had allowed Vietnamese armed forces to get close enough to the French bases to launch a surprise attack and secure their world-famous victory.

Leading up to the anniversary, Dien Bien Phu resembled a giant construction site. Young people and students were practicing songs; soldiers were practicing parade marches; and so on. Streets and markets were full of shoppers. Crews were working to complete the Muong Phang Victory Park Project, the Cannon Battlefield and Route Conservation Project, the Him Lam Hill Historic Site Upgrading Project, and Phase 2 of the Dien Bien Phu Victory Statue. Historic sites such as Hill A1, General de Castries’ bunker, and the Dien Bien Phu Victory Museum were being renovated.

At 300m above sea level, the Dien Bien Valley is surrounded by mountains, Muong Thanh paddy fields and the Nam Ron River. Eminent historic sites include Hills A1, C1, C2, D1; the Hong Cum, Him Lam and Doc Lap Strongholds, Muong Thanh Bridge, and Muong Thanh Airport. The A1 Stronghold was the most important fortification of the French. A French tank destroyed by Vietnamese forces and statues of four Vietnamese soldiers who died in that incident are displayed there.

At the Dien Bien Phu cemetery visitors will find more than 600 graves, most of which are anonymous. A bronze plaque bears the names of many martyrs. I read their names one by one: Phan Dinh Giot, Be Van Dan, To Vinh Dien, etc. and seemed to hear them calling for the battle to start. Although the enemy’s guns were approaching, these young men continued their brave advance. They died 55 years ago to secure their nation’s independence and freedom.

The Dien Bien Phu Headquarters are located in Muong Phang Commune about 30 km from Dien Bien Phu City. Tourists can travel there by coach, past the dangerous sloping road of Ta Loi and many bendy sections. Located at 1,000m above sea level, the command camp was the base of General Vo Nguyen Giap, Hoang Van Thai and others. From here it is possible to see the whole of the Dien Bien Phu and Muong Thanh Valleys. When I visited, all tunnels and work offices were being restored.

Next to the command camp lies Pa Khoang Lake, a man-made reservoir and the starting point of Dien Bien’s vital irrigation system. It also serves as a recreational area. Along with stunning scenery, Dien Bien Phu offers fascinating cultural diversity. While the clothes worn by people of Kinh, Thai, H’mong and other ethnic descents vary, everyone I met was hospitable. People in a range of traditional clothes may be seen all over town.

While Dien Bien Phu is quiet after dark, I attended a rousing cultural show in the Thai village of Co My about 1km from the city center. Thai women wearing traditional clothes served local fare. After the meal, both the villagers and the visitors sang, danced and drank rice wine by the fire. We all held hands as we sang and danced, the atmosphere warm and exciting.

My visit to Dien Bien Phu made a deep impression on me. As well as being a national historic site, Dien Bien Phu is home to diverse and special cultural identities. Its people, its beautiful landscape and its heroic history are major attractions.

VNA offers direct flights between Hanoi and Dien Bien Phu. During the town’s 2009 celebrations, 2 or 3 daily flights are on offer.

Leave a Reply