Dien Bien Phu veteran looks back at his capture of French general as teen

PUBLISHED : Monday, 05 May, 2014, 5:33am
UPDATED : Monday, 05 May, 2014, 5:33am


One of Vietnam's last surviving veterans of the battle of Dien Bien Phu recounts with pride the day in May 1954 when, aged just 19, he captured the commander of the French colonial forces.

Hoang Dang Vinh's display of military prowess earned him the supreme honour of meeting revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh, the future founding president of modern Vietnam.

Sixty years ago, after two months of hard fighting in the Dien Bien Phu valley, Vietnamese troops unexpectedly but conclusively defeated the country's colonial master, France.

"The sky was filled with tall columns of black smoke from burning vehicles. The fields were covered with dead soldiers and destroyed military equipment," said Vinh, now a 79-year-old retired colonel.

After machine-gun fire and grenade attacks, Vinh and other Viet Minh communist independence fighters approached the fortified French camp and eventually entered the bunker of commander Christian-Marie de la Croix de Castries.

Exactly what happened next has not been recorded in the annals of history and Castries is no longer alive to tell his story, but historians confirm the general outline of Vinh's account.

Castries, then 51, who was promoted to the rank of general during the battle, insisted after his release from captivity in September 1954 that the white flag was not raised on his command.

But Vinh's memories paint a different picture.

"We called to the people inside to surrender but nobody came out. A few minutes later, some French soldier waved a white cloth parachute," he said.

Vinh and a few other soldiers, including the leader of his company, Ta Quoc Luaat, entered the bunker and the French officers inside "stood up and put their hands in the air - but only Castries remained motionless".

"I was ready to shoot him," said Vinh, who came from a poor peasant family and joined up as a private at 17.

They lost because they couldn't believe that the Viet Minh could win
Hoang Dang Vinh

But instead he shouted "hands up" - the only words of French he knew. Castries "stepped back, put his hands in the air and said words that Luaat translated for me later: 'Don't shoot - I surrender'", Vinh said.

Legendary Vietnamese General Vo Nguyen Giap could not believe the news when it was first relayed by radio, Vinh recalled.

Along with the glory, the horrors of one of the most terrible battles of the Indochina war are still etched on his memory.

"The fighting was extremely bloody," Vinh said, his voice trembling as he described the bodies that littered the battlefield, their arms and legs torn off.

"They lost because they couldn't believe that the Viet Minh could win."