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DIEN BIEN PROVINCE

dien_bien_phu
Dien Bien is a mountainous border province in the North-west of Vietnam. It has just been established according to Resolution No.22 of the fourth meeting session of eleventh term National Congress. Dien Bien has total area of 9,554.107 km2, located at the latitude of 20o54’ - 22o33’ North, longtitude of 102o10’ - 103o36’ East. It is adjacent to the new Lai Chau province in the North; Son La province in the East and North-east; Van Nam province of the people's repubic of China in the North-west with the 38.5 km long border; Luong Pha Bang and Phong Xa Ly provinces of the people's democratic republic of Laos in the South-west with the 360 km long border.
 
Vietnam has been a battleground for centuries, but we are most familiar with what the Vietnamese call “The American War”, and there are a number of locations with associations to that war throughout Vietnam which have been preserved and which can be visited by tourists.
 
There was an earlier war, not much earlier than The American War, one which planted the seeds of the later one. This goes by the name of “The French War”.
 
France, like Britain, was one of the great colonial nations of Europe, and one of its most treasured possessions was Indo China, part of which was what we now know as Vietnam. During the Second World War, the French colonial masters were sent packing by Imperial Japan. After their defeat by the Allies, the Japanese were forced to leave, and the Vietminh freedom fighters who had been on the Allied side by fighting against the Japanese, asked for, and expected to be given their independence.
 
France however, as one of the major Allied Powers, demanded and received their old colony back. This forced Ho Chi Minh and his supporters into the arms of the Communist bloc and began their armed struggle against French colonial rule.
 
This struggle reached its climax at Dien Bien Phu in May 1954.
 
The officer commanding the French forces in Indo China, General Henri Navarre, felt certain that if could provoke a large scale set-piece battle, the French would win decisively and by doing so, would virtually eliminate the Vietminh as a political as well as a military power within Vietnam.
 
Navarre selected a valley 350km north-west of Hanoi near the town of Dien Bien Phu because by setting up a defensive complex with an airfield, he could blockade Vietminh forces from using the route to withdraw into Laos. He was sure that this was a baited trap for the forces under General Vo Nguyen Giap. The French commander at Dien Bien Phu was Colonel de Castries.
 
Giap took the bait, but instead of making the massive frontal attack the French had expected, turned the battle into a trap for the French garrison by surrounding their position with 70,000 soldiers, three times the French force, and using large quantities of artillery from the heights above the valley. He also had a large number of anti-aircraft weapons, and between destroying aircraft already on the airfield and shooting down most of those arriving and departing, he was able to almost completely prevent the re-supply of the garrison within the first ten days of the battle. Despite the dangers involved, four regiments were parachuted into the garrison to reinforce the troops to no avail.
 
For 54 days the Vietminh kept up the pressure, forcing the French back until they occupied only a small area of Dien Bien Phu. On May 4, the six-tube rocket launchers called “Stalin’s Organs” which had been so effective against the Germans in WWII went into action with a tremendous howl and shattering explosions.  On May 7th, the command post of the recently promoted General de Castries was overrun, and fighting continued at the Isabelle fortification until 0100 on May 8th. French casualties were over 7,000 and another 16,000 men taken prisoner.
 
On 20 July 1954 a formal cease-fire between the combatants was negotiated at Geneva which never advanced beyond a military truce, and Ho Chi Minh left Geneva convinced he had been double-crossed, being forced by the Chinese to accept a partition of the country into North and South Vietnam rather than the unified Vietnam he thought he had won. This lack of a political settlement meant that the Vietminh did not give up their goal of unifying Vietnam and was the seed for the next war in Vietnam - this to be fought mainly by the US and some of its allies in an effort to maintain the status quo and stop the spread of communism in South East Asia.
 
It is interesting to note that Navarre’s strategic intent of the battle had been created against the opposition of the French Government who at that time had realized that military victory was no longer the objective and who were seeking an honourable way out through negotiation. Twenty years later the US had come to the same realization.
 
Today Dien Bien Phu bears few scars from 1954 except for a few damaged tanks, but there is much to see.
 
The valley is over 20km in length and most of the battle sites east of the Muong Thanh airfield have been preserved. These include artillery emplacements, de Castries’ command post, aircraft wrecks and the Muong Thanh bridge. General Giap’s command post is in a primitive forest in Muong Phang Commune about 35km from Dien Bien city.
 
There are two cemeteries, one on Hill A1 (Redoubt Eliane 2) with 644 tombs and Doc Lap Hill (Redoubt Gabrielle) with 2432 tombs. These are all Vietnamese soldiers lost in the battle. Eliane 2 was the controlling point of the battle and only fell on the night of May 6th; Gabrielle was lost on March 15th.
 
Muong Thanh airfield is now the civil field Dien Bien. General de Castries’ command bunker can be seen in its original size, structure and arrangement. Him Lam Hill (Redoubt Beatrice) was the first to fall on March 13th. Hills C, D and E are well preserved, and on D1 is the statue of Dien Bien Phu Victory. The victory statue represents three soldiers standing on de Castries’ bunker looking in three directions. The 360-ton statue was inaugurated on the 50th anniversary of the victory - May 7th 2004.
 
The Museum of Dien Bien Phu Victory, built in 1984, is opposite the Hill A1 cemetery. It was upgraded in 2003 with five exhibition sections and covers the full eight year struggle against the French, with indoor and outdoor exhibits.
HOW TO GET THERE ?
Deciding how to get to Dien Bien Phu should be pretty easy. If you’re short of time or only interested in visiting the battlefield, then taking a plane is the best alternative. Flights are not expensive and take 60 minutes from Hanoi International Airport with Vietnamese Airlines.
 
If, on the other hand, you would like to explore Vietnam’s remote northwest and visit some villages of the ethnic minorities, you’d be better off travelling by bus or rented car and driver. Another possibility, but only for experienced off-road riders, is to rent a motorbike in Hanoi and find your way here yourself. The nearest train station is at Lao Cai, roughly 150kms away.
 
Due to Dien Bien Phu’s recent promotion to be a provincial capital, it is now served by daily flights from Hanoi. The airport is just north of town on the road to Muong Lay, and there are always taxis and motorbike taxis waiting when flights arrive. The bus station is at the junction of Highway 12 and Tran Dang Ninh near the centre of town, and the journey of nearly 500km from Hanoi takes about 14 hours if you don’t stop along the way.
 
Travelling by car or motorbike takes about as long as the bus, though most people prefer to break the journey at Mai Chau and perhaps at Son La. Road conditions can be poor between Son La and Dien Bien Phu, and then going on to Muang Lay, especially during the rainy season.
WHAT TO SEE ?
De Castries’ Bunker
Just across the river from the museum stands a reconstruction of the bunker occupied by Colonel de Castries at the end of the battle. De Castries was leader of the French forces, and after he committed suicide, the Viet Minh flag was flown from here, signifying the end. A few rusting tanks and anti-aircraft guns stand nearby, and behind the bunker there’s a memorial to the French who lost their lives here.
 
Dien Bien Phu Museum 
If, like most people, you are unfamiliar with the events that took place at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, the best place to begin your tour of the war  zones is at the museum, which is located directly opposite the cemetery. The displays show photographs of tanks being airlifted in to the site by the French as well as sledges that were used to drag the Vietnamese artillery over the mountains. There’s also a small-scale model of the battleground at which guides will recount the unfolding events that led to the French capitulation, and there are also a few shovels, maps and military clothing.
 
Viet Minh Cemetery 
Located directly opposite the museum and fronted by relief carvings of battle scenes, the Viet Minh Cemetery is perhaps the most moving of the battle sites. Row after row of grey marble headstones stretch out into the distance and bring home to visitors just how costly this victory was.
 
A1 Hill
This small hill that stands adjacent to the cemetery saw some of the heaviest fighting as the battle reached its climax, and now there’s a reconstruction of a bunker as well as a disabled French tank and a few memorials to the fallen. Though it’s not very high, the hill offers a panoramic perspective of the now peaceful hills of North Vietnam that contrast sharply with the region’s turbulent past.
 
Northwestern circuit
Highway 6 loops around the northwest extreme of Vietnam by the borders with China and Laos and features breathtaking scenery. From Hanoi, many people choose to rent a motorbike and tour through the dramatic Mau Chau Valley and to Moc Chau and Son La before reaching Dien Bien Phu. Then the journey continues to Muong Lay and on to Lao Cai or Sa Pa.
 
The trip is not for novice drivers with countless hairpin bends, frequent landslides blocking the route and general poor road conditions throughout. But for the adventurous there are plenty of smaller paths leading to ethnic minority villages of the Dao, Hmong, White Thai and Muong communities. Or guided motorbikes tours are also available.
 

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