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Vietnam Travel Guide

Dien Bien Phu

Dien Bien Phu is a small village in the north west corner of Vietnam. Situated in a beautiful valley near the Laotian border, the area has special significance to the modern State of Vietnam. It was the site of the decisive battle that led to the end of French colonial occupation. In May 1954 the Vietnames forces (the so-called Viet Minh) destroyed the local French garrison. There is an interesting museum to visit that informs about the battle. The area is inhabitant by hill-tribe people, most notably the Tai and Hmong. A journey to this remote region provides a visita of picturesque mountain terrain and glimpses of ethnic villages living a lifestyle unchanged for centuries.

This place is a must for every French visitor who is interested in history. The victory of the Vietnamese against the French foreign army was the trigger for the French to move out of Vietnam. During the tourist season you can easily get a flight from Hanoi to this historic place. Some travellers arrive by motorbike which you can hire in the capital. From Dien Bien Phu you can continue to Sapa.

This was the scene of the siege in 1954 that finally broke the back of the French war effort in Vietnam . In an attempt to halt Viet Minh (Vietnam Independence Association) incursions into Laos , the French commander, Navarre , decided to establish a "super garrison" at the top end of a valley called Dien Bien. This was to police the strategic cross-roads between Laos to the West, Son La to the South and Lai Chau to the North. He believed that with this base firmly established in the Far Northwest, he would be able to launch sorties against the Viet Minh, and greatly reduce their strength in the area. He was to be proved terribly wrong.

The Viet Minh commander, Vo Nguyen Giap, finally saw an opportunity for an open confrontation with the French and started working towards it. By mid 1953, the base was completed and regarded in French circles as virtually impregnable. With twelve battalions of French, Morrocan and Algerian soldiers, two airstrips, a heavily mined perimeter and surrounded by a number of smaller defensive positions, named Dominique, Elaine, Claudine and Huguette. These were named, supposably, after the four mistresses of the base commander Colonel Marie Ferdinand de la Croix de Castries . The troops within the compound slept fairly soundly at night! The French even went to the extent of flying in an entire brothel of French women to keep the soldiers happy!

For Giap and his comrades, however, the struggle had hardly begun. They embarked on an incredible logistical feat of dragging up, in pieces, various heavy field guns that were then hidden in caves and dense forest cover in the hills surrounding the Dien Bien Phu base. By early 1954, Giap had over 40,000 men in the hills, completely surrounding the base. It was estimated that just to keep Giap’s men fed, over 250,000 porters were used to ferry food.

For the French it was their ignorance amongst other things that led to their downfall. Though they knew the Viet Minh had some troops in the surrounding hills, nothing was done about it, until it was too late. On 10 March 1954 , to the horror of the French, Viet Minh shells started landing on the airstrip. Giap possessed a comprehensive plan, first if which was the neutralisation of the airstrips, thus completing the siege. The French were taken completely by supprise, and after the first day of shelling, an assault was made on Gabrielle. By midnight 13 March, Beatrice had fallen. The fighting was fierce, with the Viet Minh often following up hours of shelling with human wave tactics, incurring shocking casualties. At times the fighting was hand to hand and always chaotic, with the French utterly frustrated by their inability to hit Giap’s well-concealed guns.

Within five days, both the airfields had been completely destroyed and the garrison could only be re-supplied by airdrops, an increasingly perilous pastime, proven by the wrecked planes on the ground. As the Viet Minh edged closer and closer in trenches, the airdrops increasingly fell into Vietnamese hands. The position was becoming truly desperate.

At the start of April there was a lull in the fighting during which Navarre parachuted in some of his crack troops adding to his garrison now totalling about 16,000. Giap also brought in his reserves, edging his forces up towards the 50,000 mark. The French were desperate and they appealed to the US for assistance, preferring bomber strikes from their bases in the Philippines . By this stage the US was funding 78% of the French war effort, so they hardly had unstained hands. They came back with a proposal for limited tactical nuclear strikes on the Vietnamese positions along with a series of strikes on China , fearing ‘another Korea ’, all of which would be performed on French behalf. Thankfully this insanity was avoided by the British giving the idea a big no and congress getting cold feet. In the end there was nothing forthcoming from the US.

For the French, the end was near. On 4 May following a series of attacks, the Viet Minh attacked with a force previously unwitnessed and by 8 May the garrison finally surrended. By this stage the conditions within were unimaginable, with maggots in the wounds of the injured and an incredibly demoralised fighting force. It was estimated that during the battle 7,000 French and close to 20,000 Vietnamese had lost their lives. This loss finally caused the French to withdraw from Vietnam.

Dien Bien Phu now bears few scars except for the occasional scattered tank to bear witness to its horrendous past, though it is still one of the remotest areas you could visit. The hilltribes living around the area of Dien Bien Phu make up 70% of the regions population, and the ethnic minority groups include the Black Thai, Nung, Meo, Loa and others.


Dien Bien Phu itself is mostly a mix of ethnic Viet Kinh (the majority ethnic group of the country) and White Thai, with other minorities inhabiting the outlying areas. But it is better known as the wellspring of Vietnam's storied rise to global prominence in the mid-twentieth century.

The long,wide valley that encloses the town was the scene of a fierce, 57-day siege on French positions that decisively ended French rule in Indochina, and, in doing so, inspired anti-colonialist, revolutionary movements around the world and set the stage for some of the most pivotal events of the second half of the 20th century.

Now little remains of the battlefield itself -- the trenches, barbed wire, encampments, and battlelines that once criss-crossed the terrain have long since been erased to make room for development and agriculture. But a handful of war vestiges have been carefully preserved, constituting a series of exhibits that tourists can view and learn from, with or without a guide, in the course of a day.

This is, by far, the chief reason any tourist ever visits Dien Bien Phu at all, and for French travellers looking to get in touch with that important, decidedly chequered, chapter of their history, a stop here is de rigeur. But for most other travellers, a trip to A1 Hill and the museum will offer all the coverage of the event that they need.

Aside from the history on display, Dien Bien Phu presents little more that a sprawling, dusty, nondescript border town. Other than checking out the market, with numerous rice wine shops, and heading to the centre of Muong Thanh Ward for something to eat, you'll have a hard time filling your dance card if you stay here more than two days.

You may also need to pass through Dien Bien Phu if you are coming or going through Tay Trung/Son Hun, the recently-opened border crossing with Laos, 34 km to the southwest.


The Tay Trung Border

This recently-opened border, 34 km to the southwest of DBP, provides and interesting new route for travelling from northern Laos directly to Hanoi without having to dip down to Luang Prabang or Vientiane. The chief downside is the current, wretched state of Highway 6 between DBP and Son La, and it will be years before there is marked improvement on that score.

It's still sparsely-used by foreigners, but you can get a Laotian visa-on-arrival when crossing into Laos, and, as ever, most nationalities must already have obtained a valid Vietnamese visa when crossing the other way. The 48-hour grace period is honoured here if you overstay your Vietnamese visa. Buses to the border leave from the Dien Bien Phu bus station at 05:30 on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays only, and cost 75,000, which is a bit silly because the xe om guys we talked to said they only charged 100,000 VND.

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