Dien Bien Phu is a nondescript provincial town surrounded by rice paddies, some 456 kilometres (or more than 10 hours overland) to the northwest of the capital, Hanoi. Located in the lap of a broad valley and surrounded by hills, it’s also just 30 kilometres from the border between Vietnam and Laos.
Anyone who questions the resolve of the Vietnamese would be well-advised to make the arduous journey from the capital (though there is a daily turbo-prop flight as well) to this town, with its intriguing mix of montane peoples – from the Tai to the Mong and Kinh.
The 1954 Battle of Dien Bien Phu and ignominious French defeat was one of the most significant events of the post-second world war era. It arguably marked the beginning of the demise of the European colonial powers in Asia (the British were to withdraw from Malaya in 1957) and the ascendancy of nationalist movements and the Americans.
But the French in this case were very much responsible for their own humiliation. They selected the isolated spot, setting up a garrison of well over 15,000 troops supplied by a sole airstrip. The idea was to lure the elusive and lightly-armed Democratic Republic of Vietnam forces out into the open.
However, France was a weakened force. Fighting on multiple fronts – in Algeria, West Africa and even Madagascar – they were unable to sustain the resources needed to defeat the legendary General Vo Nguyen Giap and his battle-hardened troops.
Still, it was a bold move for the French, who under second world war hero General Henri Navarre declared that they would “casser du ‘Viet” (“break the Vietnamese”), only to see themselves broken in turn – “casser du Français.”
Moreover, they made a number of fatal miscalculations, most notably their mistaken belief that the Vietnamese would be unable to provision their troops given the mountainous terrain. However, Ho Chi Minh recruited well over a quarter of a million porters to carry vital food supplies and ammunitions, including dismantled artillery, to the hills surrounding Dien Bien Phu.
The artillery was immediately reassembled and set to work bombarding the vulnerable French positions, which in turn transformed the battleground into a muddy quagmire reminiscent of the trench warfare of the first world war.
History is all around you in these hills. Both the French and Vietnamese encampments have been preserved – providing a glimpse into a war that was to cost well over two million lives in total.
For 37-year-old Hoang Thi Nga, a rice farmer, the sense of pride is palpable. “I’m very proud of our history. My country defeated a strong enemy,” she said.
And with the iconic battle’s 65th anniversary next year, local authorities are hoping to increase foreign tourist numbers to well over 870,000 amid an estimated US$54 million windfall.
But what impact will this have on ordinary Vietnamese like Nga?
“I used to make many khan pieu (a piece of headgear traditionally worn by ethnic Thai women) before I got married. But now I spend my time looking after the family and helping to provide for them,” she said.
“I have two sons. The elder of the two is sixteen and is at high school. The younger who’s six is at primary.
“I do hope that the family will always be close-knit and that my boys will get a decent education. When I was young, I didn’t have dreams. My father drank a lot. I just wanted to get away, get married and have a family of my own.”
“The main challenge we’re facing is having enough money to support the family. The farm is only 200 square metres. We can manage two rice harvests a year (each around 300 kilograms). We also keep cattle, pigs, chicken and ducks.”
“Yes, life has improved over the past few years – we have better roads and electricity, but the real challenge is increasing crop yields and rural prosperity.”
Dien Bien Phu is a powerful testament to the Vietnamese spirit and whilst the next set of challenges – bringing lasting peace, prosperity and social mobility to people like Nga – will be considerable, there’s no doubt in my mind that Vietnam will succeed.