Dien Bien Phu, home to one of the greatest battles in history in which the Viet Minh defeated the French colonial forces, is slowly emerging as a historical place for tourists. Although a significant site for the Vietnamese, only recently has the town realized their importance to foreign travelers, especially those interested in history.

Dien Bien Phu has always been a quiet peaceful place situated to the Northwest of Hanoi. The name designates a T’ai village named Muong Thanh and really names an area rather than a specific place. The valley was once the home to T’ai villages while the surrounding hills were populated with Meo Tribesmen. The Meo were masters at growing opium poppies while the T’ai marketed it.

When Chinese Ho pirates started to invade Laos by coming through the Valley in the 1870’s, French counsel Auguste Pavie asked France to send Troops into Dien Bien Phu to stop the incursion. Pavie finally signed a peace at Dien Bien Phu with the Ho leader Deo Van Tri.

The valley remained at peace for the next fifty years. The French built Provincial Road 41 to link the Valley with Hanoi. Another road, named the Pavie Track, linked the town with Lai Chau. The French started to control the opium trade.

During World War Two the Vichy French Government allowed the Japanese, much hated by the Vietnamese, to operate in Vietnam. The Vietnamese used the remote airstrip to help rescue and to fly out downed Allied pilots. Twice American pilots were rescued from Dien Bien Phu.

After World War II, when France decided to re-occupy Vietnam, against the wishes of the United States who had helped train Ho Chi Minh’s army to fight the Japanese, war broke out with the Viet Minh and the French were driven from the hills.

Depending upon the season, the valley remains dusty or soggy and far from the usual visitor destinations. A fine red dust prevails in the dry months. The dust turns to a gluey morass during the monsoon season and the valley receives more rain than almost any other place in Vietnam. Except for a now diminished government hotel, visitors had few options for lodging. The hotel has always been clean and efficient but it lacks many amenities that foreigners expect. Because the government is slowly making the town more tourist-friendly, especially with the opening of the new five star Muong Thanh Hotel - a beautiful building offering excellent food and a cool refreshing swimming pool - visitors are making their way to visit the site where the Viet Minh, a fierce and determined peasant army, defeated one of the most modern militaries in the world and freed the country from Colonial rule.

In 1954, France’s newly appointed military commander, General Hanri Navarre, decided on a bold plan to stop the increasing might of General Giap’s and Ho Chi Minh’s growing Viet Minh army. His plan would accomplish several objectives: stop any invasion of Laos by the communist forces, stop the opium harvest that was being used to buy weapons for Giap’s forces, and attempt to draw the Viet Minh into a major battle in an effort to finally defeat them. He chose the valley of Dien Bien Phu to implement his plan.

General Giap and Ho Chi Minh realized the time had come to crush the French and free their country from colonialism. The French, suffering from arrogance and pride, felt they could defend the low ground of the valley from the higher mountains held by the Viet Minh and could be supplied with an airfield they had built years before. They did not think the Vietnamese had the will or the means to supply themselves. Giap realized the French were at the bottom of a bowl with the communists on the rim. With the help of hundreds of thousands of workers he managed to supply his troops along an 800 km road system while the French, after losing their airfield, slowly starved in the valley.

Great feats of courage occurred on both sides during the battle. Small groups of French troops, often French Foreign Legionnaires and paratroops, constantly fought against overwhelming odds. Often fewer than one hundred French soldiers defended themselves against several thousand Viet Minh. The Viet Minh forces, suffering tremendous casualties, continued to charge against vicious firepower to make their objectives. With their superior numbers, uninterrupted supplies, and sheer determination, the Viet Minh gave the French one of their most humiliating defeats. The French realized that to continue to fight against such a determined people was fruitless.

The valley of Dien Bien Phu is often beautiful in the morning and evening light as peasants work the fields. It is home to several tribes and travelers are always attracted to the colorful dress and customs of the natives. The market, beside the Nam Yum River and at the end of a Bailey bridge, built by French engineers before the battle, is lively as vendors sell fresh fruits and vegetables. Ducks and chickens, legs tied together, protest quietly as they lie beside aerated bowls of swimming fish. Part of the market obscures a monument to French Colonel Piroth, the artillery commander who committed suicide in his bunker after suffering depression and despair because he underestimated Viet Minh firepower.

Various French strongpoints, where most of the fighting occurred, are not well marked or preserved. Beatrice (Him Lam) and Gabrielle (Doc Lap) have markers but not even the local population knows how to find them. A map with directions and a brief description of the actions that took place there would be of great help. Only by accident do tourists find a Viet Min gun position on a hill outside of town.

Other positions, like Eliane 2 (A-1 Hill) where much of the most ferocious fighting happened, and Dominique 2, are well maintained. Barbed wire surroundes A-1 Hill and sandbags, cast from concrete to keep them preserved, leave the visitor with the impression of the obstacles the Viet Minh needed to overcome to take the position and also shows why they lost so many soldiers during their attacks.

A marvelous stature stares from the top of Dominique 2, the highest position the French held in the valley. From this great height all the French positions can be seen including the headquarters bunker of French Commander Colonel de Castries.

Sitting on the top steps of the hill the valley is peaceful today. Airplanes from Hanoi land quietly twice a day on the old French airfield. Motorbikes swirl around the roundabout on highway 4 as trucks and taxis putt across the many bridges. It is difficult to imagine the great and significant siege that ripped apart the landscape and the peoples of Vietnam and the French who would eventually become friends.


Tourist Dave Artis surveys a tank.

The flight from Hanoi to Dien Bien Phu takes about 45 minutes. 

Strongpoint Beatrice 

Colonel de Castries bunker in the valley. 

A new hotel has just opened. 

Many positions are not marked. 

Looking over the Valley from strongpoint Dominique. 

An American 105, used by the French. 

French machinegun emplacement on Beatrice 

A French monument. 

The Nam Yum River. 

Some French equipment still litters the battlefield. 

Flowers start to cover the battlefield. 

Cody and Jorden Anderson relive the battle of Dien Bien Phu on a legion tank 

"Siege at Dien Bien Phu," by award-winning author Richard Baker gives a great account of the battle of Dien Bien Phu.  Although an historical novel, it is so accurate that the French Foreign Legion has placed it into their "Centre de documentation historique" as part of their history of the Foreign Legion in Vietnam. A brief account of the battle can be found in "Dien Bien Phu, a guide for tourists" available for $5 from Amazon.com.


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