Where is it? North West Vietnam.
What is it? A medium-sized town in a valley not far from the Laos border. The name literally translates as “Big Frontier Administrative Centre”. Not very prosaic so we’ll stick to Dien Bien Phu.
What’s it for? It is the site of one of the pivotal battles in world history . The battle was of a significance far beyond the valleys surrounding it. General Giap’s victory in 1954 ended major French involvement in Indochina and led to the partitioning Vietnam into North and South which ultimately resulted in US involvement and subsequent defeat (politically if not necessarily militarily as the real battles were lost on the college campuses of America). The battle is described by historians as “the first time that a non-European colonial independence movement had evolved through all the stages from guerrilla units to a conventionally organized and equipped army able to defeat a modern Western occupier in pitched battle.”
Of the many books on the battle I would recommend two. The first being “Hell in a Small Place” written in 1966 by Bernard Fall. When I was living in Hanoi I noticed that this was freely available in the cities few western bookshops. In the Sixties Fall was very pessimistic about US’s chances of success even before that became the popular mantra. He predicted that if the US did not learn from France’s mistakes, it too would fail in Vietnam. His negative opinions were often not taken seriously by the people who counted. In fact he caught the unwelcome attention of the FBI, which began to monitor his activities. Colin Powell wrote in his autobiography that Fall made it “painfully clear that we had almost no understanding of what we had gotten ourselves into. I cannot help thinking that if Presidents Kennedy or Johnson had spent a quiet weekend at Camp David reading that perceptive book [actually Fall’s “Street Without Joy“], they would have returned to the White House Monday morning and immediately started to figure out a way to extricate ourselves from the quicksand of Vietnam.”
The second book is “The Last Valley” by the British historian Martin Windrow which is written with the benefit of greater hindsight and gives a wider perspective to events leading up to the battle and the ramifications thereafter. Both books are excellent but if you only had time for the one read I would recommend the latter albeit the less iconic.
Some maps of the position in 1954:
Having travelled all day down from Sapa, through the beautiful and sparsely populated Lai Chau Province and along the Black River, we arrived at Dien Bien Phu wearily after dark. Up early next morning to immediately explore the battlefield sites starting with the Beatrice and Dominique, fortified hills to the south east of the airfield. Further south was the French stronghold of Hill 1 christened Eliane by the French field commander, Brigadier-General Christian de Castries who, it is claimed, had named nine of the valley’s strategic positions after his various mistresses!
To my surprise nature had reclaimed Beatrice and Dominique which were heavily overgrown though the Vietnamese had laid concrete paths up to the tops. I desolately scratched around to see if I could find any bullet casings and other war memorabilia but stopped after awhile feeling a little ashamed of myself when I reflected how many people had died on these hilltops.
On on across the river to see General Castries bunker command post just adjacent to the airfield. When you stand at this spot you can clearly appreciate the fact that once General Giap had entrenched his field guns in the surrounding hills, a hugely impressive feat in itself, the French garrison was effectively doomed. General Castries was captured in this bunker. He was released shortly after the war. No doubt he had to answer some questions about his hill naming choices from his wife Jacqueline who, at the time of the conflict, was a volunteer nurse tending to the wounded in Hanoi.
The airfield beyond is surprisingly open for anyone to wander on. There is no perimeter fencing and only a small creek to negotiate. We soon rather belatedly realized that it probably not very wise to be wandering around a shared military/civilian airfield taking snaps so we quickly scuttled off in a rather undignified fashion – surely to have looked very suspicious to anyone who may have been watching us.
Here’s one I took later upon departure. Cameras were allowed in the airport terminal building. Incidentally this plane, an ATR 72, a twin-engine turboprop built by the French-Italian aircraft manufacturer ATR, is really excellent and despite my best efforts I haven’t had the chance to fly in one again though I have often seen them. Comfortable, quiet and affording good visibility unimpaired by wings. This has been a successful plane around the world and especially in, what is euphemistically called in the aviation industry, the “used market”. Second hand to you and I. One market that it has suffered in however is the US when an ATR 72 accident caused by icing, triggered the fear of the flying public for flights with turboprop aircraft. Jets have taken over routes earlier flown by turboprops, and the switch to jet equipment from turboprop equipment is evident all across the US today. A pity really because jets tend to be more expensive, far noisier and less fuel efficient.
So back across the other side of the river to explore Eliane or A1 – the last stand. Here could be found an M24 “light” tank. The French employed ten M24s at Dien Bien Phu and every one of them were disassembled into 160 component parts each and flown in from Hanoi to provide fire support to the garrison. They fired about 15,000 shells in the long siege. Their barrels must have been pretty hot.
Eliane itself is well preserved as befitting of its importance but you can’t help but feel that conditions must have been truly awful during the battle. We were there in the dry season but a touch of rain combined with military activity would have transferred conditions quickly into a sea of mud. From Eliane we gazed over to the French and Vietnamese war graves a tangible sign of the many thousands who died here. By the time it was over the Vietnamese had lost some 8000 men (some only boys really). 1300 French troops had been killed and another 10,000 taken prisoner, most of whom eventually succumbed to hunger, disease and exhaustion in captivity.
Beside Eliane was a huge crater. The French had dug an extensive bunker system deep inside the hill. The Viet Minh (to differentiate from the Vietnamese who were on the French side) discovered this and dug for over 3 weeks to get to the edge of these bunkers. They placed 1000 kilograms of explosive in the tunnel and blew it up. That was the end.
Whilst the war is so far away there was an edge of great sadness in this hot and dusty frontier town no doubt keenly felt by visiting French and Vietnamese veterans. At the 50th anniversary a retired Colonel stated that he was still haunted by memories of all those who died on both sides of the conflict including 20 men from his own unit. “I am lucky to have survived the war, lucky to have lived long enough to see the changes in the world. So many soldiers died, so many of my brothers. I feel very sad that we had to go though all that to have peace.“
The “bitter taste”?
Well I happened to happenstance at the nice looking hotel that we were staying at (behind the blue mural wall by the swimming pool in the photo below) a row of caged Asiatic Black Bears. These which being kept in extremely poor condition and were clearly distressed. I happened to see them at feeding time and the slops they were thrown were truly stomach turning. Upon my return to Hanoi I gave details to the WWF who had an office near my residence. Actually they were aware of these particular bears and stated that they were almost certainly Bile Bears of which there are estimated to be some 4,000 in Vietnam. I’ll not describe further other than to say it is a horrific practice and truly sullied the memory of my visit not to mention the memory of all those fallen at this place. No one fought for this surely. A bitter taste indeed.