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Dien Bien Phu

Monday, February 10, 2014

In this blog I’m indulging in one of my many passions. If it’s not your thing, please skip to the bottom and normal service will be resumed in my next post!

Being something of a military buff, my sole reason for visiting Dien Bien Phu was to visit the battle sites and learn more about the history of this proud nation. In truth there is now not much left to see, little remains of the battlefield itself – the trenches, barbed wire, encampments, and battle-lines that once criss-crossed the terrain have long since been erased to make room for development and agriculture. Famous for the 1954 battle of the same name, Dien Bien Phu was the climactic confrontation of the first Indochina war between the French Union and Viet Minh revolutionaries led by communist leader Ho Chi Minh and lasted just 57 days, resulting in a comprehensive French defeat that ended their presence in Indochina.

What is remarkable is how the Viet Minh moved the heavy artillery through the extremely difficult mountainous terrain and then dug tunnels to position the artillery overlooking the French position. So surprised were the French when the Viet Minh opened fire that their own artillery commander, Charles Piroth committed suicide (with a hand grenade) in shame at being unprepared for such an assault.

Incredible to imagine many of these guns were dragged through the mountains from China.

As the anti-aircraft fire took it’s toll, the French were overrun after a two month siege and most surrendered, with a few escaping to Laos.

Some of the 105 mm artillery guns used in the battle of Dien Bien Phu

The command bunker of General De Castries is worthy of a visit as it has been successfully recreated to the same shape, size, structure and arrangement of the original bunker. Inside, De Castries received such high profile officers as Winston Churchill and US President Dwight Eisenhower.

The command bunker

Inside you can see the offices of Lieutenant Colonel Charles Piroth and Lieutenant Colonel Seguin, who was in charge of the French Air Force in Dien Bien Phu.

Charles Piroth’s office in the command bunker

Colonel Seguin’s office in the command bunker

Another strange fact about the bunker and General De Castries is that when he learned of Charles Piroth’s suicide he worried that this would affect the morale of his troops, so he had him buried in one end of the Muong Thanh Bridge and cabled his superiors that he had disappeared along with his jeep.

Muong Thanh Bridge, where Piroth was buried.

The bunker was surrounded by a series of interconnected trenches and further protected by four tanks, one of which exists on the site today.

One of the four tanks tasked with protecting the command bunker.

The command bunker is recreated on it’s original site

The war ended shortly after the Battle of Dien Bien Phu and the signing of the 1954 Geneva Accords. France agreed to withdraw its forces from all its colonies in French Indochina, while stipulating that Vietnam would be temporarily divided at the 17th parallel, with control of the north given to the Viet Minh as the Democratic Republic of Vietnam under Ho Chi Minh, and the south becoming the State of Vietnam nominally under Emperor Bao Dai, preventing Ho Chi Minh from gaining control of the entire country. The refusal of Ngo Dinh Diem to allow elections in 1956, as had been stipulated by the Geneva Conference, would eventually lead to the first phase of the Second Indochina War, better known as the Vietnam War.

Around Town

There’s not much to see in Dien Bien Phu other than the above, but it’s been a chance for me to recover a little before I tackle the long bus journey to Hanoi. I tasted my first Bia Hoi (beer on the street) and had a few Pho meals, cheap as chips. An enjoyable diversion.

Roundabout at the main intersection, Dien Bien Phu

And finally I witnessed a pretty strange event, I think these two are blessing the goods… I could be wrong though!

Are they blessing?

That’s it for now, more soon when I reach Hanoi…

Monday, February 10, 2014 at 6:29 pm

It shows the character and the tenacity of the people of that region..great blog

Monday, February 10, 2014 at 7:32 pm

If you like the military stuff: when you get to Dong Ha at the DMZ take the trip recommended in the Lonely Planet (at least it was in ours 7 years ago). The guy was a master Sargent in the south-Vietnamese army and takes you around on this scooter to some pretty remote fire bases, tank remains, cemeteries and the Vinh Moc VC tunnels. It was great to see these places, but even more so with first hand stories from our guide.

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