Dien Bien Phu, a siege that changed the world

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 historic place for tourists. Although an important site for Vietnamese, only recently has the city realized its importance to foreign travelers, especially those interested in history.

Dien Bien Phu has always been a quiet and peaceful place located northwest of Hanoi. The name designates a town of T & # 39; ai called Muong Thanh and really names an area instead of a specific place. The valley was once home to the villages of T & # 39; ai while the surrounding hills were populated with Meo Tribesmen. The Meo were growing poppy masters while the T & # 39; It is marketed.

When the Chinese Ho pirates began to invade Laos as they passed through the valley in the 1870s, French lawyer Auguste Pavie asked France to send troops to Dien Bien Phu to stop the raid. Pavie finally signed a peace agreement in Dien Bien Phu with leader Ho 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, called the Pavie track, linked to the city of Lai Chau. The French began to control the opium trade.

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

When France decided to re-occupy Vietnam, against the wishes of the United States that had helped train the Ho Chi Minh army to fight against the Japanese, war broke out and the French were expelled from the hills.

Depending on the season, the valley remains dusty or soaked and away from the usual destinations of visitors. A fine red powder prevails in the dry months. The dust becomes a sticky swamp during the monsoon season and the valley receives more rain than almost any other place in Vietnam. Except for a now reduced government hotel, visitors had few accommodation options. The hotel has always been clean and efficient, but it lacks many amenities foreigners expect. Because the government is slowly making the city more tourist-friendly, especially with the opening of the new five-star hotel Muong Thanh, a beautiful building that offers excellent food and a refreshing pool, visitors head to the site where Viet Minh, a fierce and determined peasant army, defeated one of the most modern armies in the world and freed the country from colonial rule.

In 1954, France's new military commander, General Hanri Navarre, decided on a bold plan to stop the growing power of the growing Vietnamese army of General Giap and Ho Chi Minh. His plan would fulfill several objectives: stop any invasion of Laos by the communist forces, stop the opium harvest that was being used to buy weapons for Giap forces and try to attract the Viet Minh to a great battle in an effort to finally defeat them He chose the Dien Bien Phu Valley to implement his plan.

General Giap and Ho Chi Minh realized that the time had come to crush the French and free their country from colonialism. The French, suffering from arrogance and pride, felt that they could defend the lowland of the valley from the highest mountains held by the Viet Minh and could receive an airfield they had built years before. They did not believe that the Vietnamese had the will or the means to stock up. Giap realized that the French were at the bottom of a bowl with the communists on the edge. 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, died of starvation slowly in the valley.

Great feats of courage occurred on both sides during the battle. Small groups of French troops, often foreign legionaries and French paratroopers, constantly fought against overwhelming obstacles. Often, less than one hundred French soldiers defended several thousand Viet Minh. Viet Minh forces, suffering tremendous casualties, continued to charge against the power of vicious fire to achieve their objectives. With its superior numbers, uninterrupted supplies and pure determination, the Viet Minh gave the French one of their most humiliating defeats. The French realized that continuing to fight against such a determined people was unsuccessful.

The Dien Bien Phu valley is often beautiful in the morning and at night the light as peasants work in the countryside. It is home to several tribes and travelers are always attracted to the colorful dress and customs of the natives. The market, next to the Nam Yum River and at the end of a Bailey bridge built by French engineers before the battle, is full of life as vendors sell fresh fruits and vegetables. Ducks and chickens, with their legs tied together, protest silently as they lie next to bowls of swimming fish. Part of the market hides a monument to French colonel Piroth, the artillery commander who killed himself in his bunker after suffering depression and despair after underestimating Viet Minh's firepower.

Several French strengths, 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 instructions and a brief description of the actions that took place there would be helpful.

Only by accident no tourists find a Viet Min gun position on a hill outside the city. Other positions, such as Eliane 2 (A-1 Hill) where much of the fiercest fighting took place, and Dominique 2, are well maintained. The barbed wire surrounds the A-1 hill and the sandbags, cast in concrete to keep them preserved, leave the visitor with the impression of the obstacles that the Viet Minh needed to overcome to take the position and also shows why so many soldiers lost during his attacks.

A wonderful stature looks from the top of Dominique 2, the highest position of the French held during the valley. From this great height all French positions can be seen including the headquarters bunker of the French commander Colonel de Castries.

Sitting on the top steps of the hill, the valley is calm today. Hanoi planes land quietly twice a day at the old French airfield. Motorcycles revolve around the roundabout on the old highway 4 while trucks and taxis cross the numerous bridges. It is difficult to imagine the great and significant siege that destroyed the landscape and the people of Vietnam and the French who would eventually become friends.