Dien Bien Phu - fading battleground, stunning scenes, diverse cultures - Rusty Compass travel blog

Dien Bien Phu - fading battleground, stunning scenes, diverse cultures

| 25 Jul 2009
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25 Jul 2009

Dien Bien Phu may be Vietnam's most underrated travel destination. It's a remarkably easy place to get to, despite its remote location in Vietnam's rugged northwest nearby the Lao border. Vietnam Airlines operates multiple daily flights from Hanoi. Road travel from Sapa and Son La is now also relatively straightforward. The remnants of one of the 20th century's most important battles are still very visible around the town and it is an excellent gateway to Vietnam's most beautiful and ethnically diverse region - the northern highlands.

Tourists have shown remarkably little interest in Dien Bien Phu to date. And Dien Bien Phu has done very little to make itself an appealing destination. But it has plenty of appeal. The historic sights, the beautiful Muong Thanh Valley, the surrounding mountains and the ethnic diversity of the area make Dien Bien Phu a great place for exploration - on foot, bicycle or motorcycle.

Photo: Mark BowyerViet Minh Cemetery, Dien Bien Phu

On 7 May 1954, Viet Minh soldiers under the command of iconic Vietnamese general, Vo Nguyen Giap overran the last French post at Dien Bien Phu. Remote as it was from the centre of French colonial power in Hanoi, victory by Ho Chi Minh's forces was so comprehensive and so humiliating that it effectively brought to an end French colonial rule in Vietnam and ushered the partition of the country under the Geneva Accords into North and South Vietnam. National elections were planned for 1956 under the terms of the Accords however, fearing a communist victory, the South Vietnamese Government with the sanction of the United States withdrew from the planned election. Two more decades of bloody conflict ensued.  


In the battle of Dien Bien Phu, the Viet Minh demonstrated the creativity and determination that later characterised the long struggle against US and South Vietnamese forces. The French did not expect to confront a force of the size that amassed in the mountains around Dien Bien Phu. Nor did they anticipate the sophistication of the weapons deployed by the Viet Minh or their capacity to mobilise such weaponry in rugged mountain country. The French also underestimated the enormous toll in blood the Vietnamese were ready to pay in their quest for national liberation. They were bitter lessons and the siege of Dien Bien Phu is studied by military historians the world over.


So many of the remnants of battle remain scattered around the town of Dien Bien Phu. Many of the famous French hill bases have been preserved as historic sights. The Muong Thanh bridge in the town centre and nearby General De Castries' bunker, the French command centre, are all preserved. 17kms from Dien Bien Phu town, the bunker from which General Giap directed the battle has also been preserved and is well worth a visit both as a historic sight and also because of its beautiful setting in forest near Pa Khoang Lake. There are also Thai minority communities around the lake that are welcoming and interesting.

Photo: Mark BowyerThe Muong Thanh Valley, Dien Bien Phu


While Dien Bien Phu is a great place to visit, it's a shame how poorly its story is told. One of the great battles of the twentieth century is reduced to a few paragraphs at the main sites - usually of one dimensional propaganda. The main museum has very little by way of English (or French) language content. In contrast to most former battle sites around the world, Dien Bien Phu is an incredibly evocative place. Most of the main places of battle are still in tact. You can gaze across the green rice paddy filled valley to the mountains from which the Viet Minh attacked French positions. You can see French General DeCastries' bunker and walk across the Muong Thanh bridge - the breaching of which preceded the final collapse of the French garrison. 


What Dien Bien Phu lacks is any textured narrative. The story mostly goes untold. So if you want to add some real depth to a Dien Bien Phu expedition, grab a copy of Bernard Fall's The Siege of Dien Bien Phu - Hell in a very small place. Fall was one of the great scholars of Vietnam and this book is a compelling account of the French disaster and the Viet Minh triumph at Dien Bien Phu.  

Mark Bowyer
Mark Bowyer is the founder and publisher of Rusty Compass.
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