Hoang Van Oi heard the airplane engines as just a faint rumbling in the air, hardly noticeable in the clearing mist on the morning of November 20, 1953 over the valley of Dien Bien Phu. The valley grew almost 2,000 tons of rice a year and earned one million dollars a year from opium sales, money used by the Viet Minh to buy weapons for their struggle against the French. Hoang looked toward the sky, southeast in the direction of Hanoi, 2323213 miles. Small dots, like a flight of dark birds, appeared and grew in size as in sound. The birds became aircraft, American C-47's, their noses painted blue, the silver of the wings glinting in the brightening sunlight. The engines started to quiet, the airplanes to slow as strings of mushrooms billowed overhead. The sky became filled with French paratroopers drifting toward earth.

Viet Minh troops from Independent Regiment 148 had been up early that morning staging maneuvers and several soldiers, seeing the airplanes overhead, took up defensive positions. Heavy Weapons Company 226 and a company of the 675th Artillery Regiment were also in the area using the large space of the valley to practice.

Hoang was not sure what to do. Since the French appeared to be falling everywhere, he had nowhere to hide. He thought of his brother, Hoang Tam Khoi, in the town the French called Dien Bien Phu, and known to the Vietnamese as Mong Tnah. Hoang Tam Khoi owned a small barbershop and barber school. Probably the French wanted the town since there was little else of importance in the valley. Hoang started toward town but fighting soon started everywhere. The French forces gathered near Mong Tnah where they met still resistance from the Viet Minh. French bombers appeared and leveled the town, explosions, smoke, and devastation everywhere as the building burst into flames. Hoang saw the Viet Minh escaping to the south as the French moved in.

Hoang traveled behind the French as they moved through the destruction. The center of town was completely destroyed, buildings toppled over and burning. Hoang eventually discovered his brother, unhurt.

The French were quick to gather up what people they could find, including Hoang and his brother, and put them to work. They carried bodies and piled them beside the river and helped carry wounded French soldiers. Eleven French soldiers were killed in the action, including Caption Andre, the French doctor whose body was flown out of the valley the following day.

After the battle there was much work to be done. Hoang and his brother wanted to repair the town but the French stopped them. "They made many enemies," he said. "They made everyone move from their homes and all the villages were evacuated from their camp."

There were almost 100 small villages in the valley and surrounding hills, Mostly Black T'ai, but also other ethnic groups. They were pushed to the edge of the valley, away from the French. Many of the villagers, including Hoang and his brother, were recruited, or forced, to work with the French.

"We were born to work," said Hoang, "so the work came naturally and it made little difference who we worked for."

The priority was to repair the airstrip. The Viet Minh had dug hundreds of holes in the runway to prevent its use. The holes were quickly filled and within a day airplanes started to land.

"There appeared to be an endless supply of airplanes," said Hoang. Many workers were needed to empty them. Sometimes the supplies were carried long distances because the French were building many forts in the low-lying hills. We thought it was funny that they did not take any guns into the hills. They placed them all together in the valley and without protection. We did not question the French. We do not question anyone and we thought they knew what they were doing. They were, after all, professional soldiers with a long history of fighting."

Hoang had not seen many foreigners. He was surprised at their size. "They were big men and many of them had hair on their faces and their bodies. Some had very light skin and some were very black. I listened to them as I worked and their talk sounded different between the different colors. Only when talking officers did they speak French."

Hoang's brother set up a new barbershop and cut hair when he had the chance. Even some of the French forces had him cut their hair.

"I had difficulty telling who was in charge, who was the leader. Only when they built a big bunker deep in the ground did I know where the leaders stayed. They built a hospital there and placed many guns nearby and they parked trucks there also and tanks. They also built special houses, ones with protective walls, for small aircraft at the end of the airport. Another important bunker was built on the east side of the Nam Yum river." This was the bunker of the artillery commander, Colonel Piroth.

The French forts slowly started to take shape as the nearby hills were stripped of vegetation, the trees used for enforcements, mostly bunkers. Patrols were launched into the jungle almost daily.

"Sometimes the French took us into the hills with them to help carry the wounded and the dead back," said Hoang. "As time went on more and more Viet Minh surrounded the camp and soon the French could no longer leave the valley. They were being surrounded but seemed to be confused. Perhaps they should have left?"

The commander of the camp changed when Colonel de Castries arrived. He needed a barber and he hired Hoang's brother.

"My brother said de Castries treated him well and he was soon doing many things for the commander including bringing him special things to eat and running errands. My brother spoke French very well. I also speak French but not was well as my brother."

There were now about 10,000 French troops in the valley. They did not know that General Giap had surrounded them with almost 50,000 soldiers and 100,000 support troops. He had also dragged almost 300 guns, including antiaircraft guns, into the mountains to shoot down into the valley.  The French had only 53 guns. They could have had as many as they liked but the artillery, Colonel Piroth refused them stating they would only get in the way and that his gunners were far superior to those of the Viet Minh.

"It was late in the afternoon," said Hoang. "I was carrying a box of ammunition with my friend Truong when suddenly the valley seemed to explode. There was noise and fire and chaos everywhere. I thought we would all be killed I did not know there were so many guns in all the world."

The date was March 13, 1954 and the siege at Dien Bien Phu, a siege that would change the course of history for the French, the Viet Minh, and the Americans, had begun.

From that time on, Hoang remembers only constant fighting and dangerous work. Because the airfield was destroyed, French supplies were parachuted to the battlefield. "We had to run between the explosions and get the supplies," he said. "The work was very dangerous and many of my friends were killed."

Hoang decided to escape from the French and join the Viet Minh. One evening he, and some friends, crossed the Nam Yum river to the east, past the French forts, and into the Viet Minh hills.

"We were afraid the French, or the Viet Minh, might shoot us," he said. "We made it safely and were taken to see an officer. He asked us many questions about the camp, about the locations of ammunition and food and medical supplies. Of course we knew where all of these things were so he was very grateful. We were then put to work doing the same things we had done for the French, carrying supplies.

Hoang's brother did not escape and stayed with de Castries for the entire siege. His brother said many things about living in the bunker. "He told me that de Castries started to grow pale because he never left the bunker for the entire siege. My brother carried water for his bathtub and he ate on a special table with a clean tablecloth. In the evenings, as the battle raged outside, he gathered his top officers and they played cards and talked about home and friends and families."

After the Viet Minh victory Hoang stayed with the army for about five months before returning home and reuniting with his brother. Together they rebuilt their lives in the new town of Dien Bien Phu. His brother opened another barber school and eventually wrote a book of fairy stories for children.

Hoang lives quietly with his wife and his health remains good. He does not think about the war very often but, sometimes, he looks over the valley and remembers those sad and exciting times so long ago.

 

 

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