GOING BACK TO PLACES THAT I HAVE NEVER BEEN
Being a Field Guide to Hanoi and Dien Bien Phu for
Historians, Wargamers and the More Discerning Type of Tourist
by Peter Hunt
Part Five: Going Back At Sixty… Commemorations and Trenches
Viet Minh bo doi in the trenches at Dien Bien Phu (actually, in the new museum)
If the 60th anniversary of the opening of the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, on 13th March 2014, went remarkably unobserved, even in Dien Bien Phu, the 60th anniversary of the ending of the battle, on 7th May 2014, was a national event in Vietnam. Two new movies and a TV series about the battle, whetted the public’s appetite. The TV stations broadcast news and documentaries about the battle for several days before. The city was “en fête”, gaily decked out with flags and banners especially on the two main thoroughfares: General Giap Street and May 7th Street. President Truong Tan Sang, the Diplomatic Corps, visitors from all over Vietnam, two groups from France, a nationwide cycle race, and a road rally up the Mekong all came to town… and so did I.
Flying to Dien Bien Phu in the monsoon is “interesting,” and you only have to do it once to look back with immense respect for the aircrew, paratroopers and volunteers who did it as a matter of routine in 1954. Modern avionics, communications and navigational aids make the flight safe today, but even so we had to return to Hanoi and wait for a break in the weather in the mountains, and as we waited on the tarmac as the plane refuelled I wouldn’t have been human if the many scenes in Pierre Schoendoerffer’s 1992 movie filmed on a tarmac not that far away had not come to mind, although when we re-embarked there was no French army padre raising a sardonic prayer for us like in the movie:
I'm asking you God, to give me what you have left.
Give me those things which others never ask of you.
I don't ask you for rest, or tranquility.
Not that of the spirit, the body, or the mind.
I don't ask you for wealth, or success, or even health.
All those things are asked of you so much Lord, that you can't have any left to give.
Give me instead Lord what you have left.
Give me what others don't want.
I want uncertainty and doubt.
I want torment and battle.
And I ask that you give them to me now and forever Lord, so I can be sure to always have them, because I won't always have the strength to ask again.
But give me also the courage, the energy, and the spirit to face them.
I ask you these things Lord, because I can't ask them of myself.
(La Prière du Para by André Zirnheld, trs. Robert Petersen.)
Still, we landed safe and sound between heavy rain storms… it’s a good prayer. This was the typical weather pattern for Dien Bien Phu at this time of year: heavy rain, spectacular electric storms, interspersed with clear mountain air and a bit of sunshine. Without the haze though photography was a lot better, and I finally got a decent shot from the top of Dominique 2.
View from Hill D2 looking North West - in 1954 the runway was further west and much shorter
The commemorations were a judicious mix of pomp and pathos. The three main cemeteries were full of people paying respects, and from the badges that the Vietnamese wear on these occasions you could see that this is a regular pilgrimage with many having been to the 40th and 50th anniversaries as well. The A 1 cemetery has now been refurbished outside and in, and manages to combine some imposing commemorative architecture with a respectful and peaceful feeling.
The more light hearted celebrations kicked off with another “cast of thousands” variety show broadcast nationwide from the main square on the eve of the anniversary. This was preceded by an electrical storm, and followed by a fireworks display... as if heaven and earth were vying for the most spectacular use of the sky. It was easy to watch this and think back when the sky over this valley was lit by flares, “lucioles” and white phosphorous.
Fireworks over Dien Bien Phu
The big day dawned with a parade in the main stadium, again broadcast live across the nation. President Sang took the salute from 30, one hundred strong companies from all of the arms of military service, the workers’ militias, the police, ethnic groups and professions from farmers to intellectuals. Given the eclectic mix it was a sort of cross between a military parade and the opening of the Olympics.
The Morning Parade (photo from Vietnamese Ministry of Defence)
Following the parade the participants marched up Giap Street to disperse, fittingly, in the lee of Him Lam Hill where battle started, and giving me a chance to meet some of the hot, sweaty, but very happy marchers.
A charm offensive on Giap Street
Coast Guard - note the Colt Commando rifles
Vietnamese Police SDU with an ex-police officer
The French commemoration took place at 2:30 at the French memorial just south of de Castries’ bunker, attended by the French Ambassador, his military attaché and about 70 French men and women who had made the trip specially. A short speech, wreath laying, and the sonnerie aux morts added up to a very poignant little ceremony.
The French Ceremony
The new museum also had its soft opening for the Anniversary. Admission was free but I’m pretty sure that that was because it isn’t really finished yet. Inside the flying saucer type design is a huge circular space that I presume will house the tanks, guns and trucks that were outside the old museum and are now in temporary storage over the road at Hill A1. The walls of the building contain the main exhibition gallery and they have done a really good job. As you walk around the curve of the building the gallery tells the story of the battle in a linear and easily understandable fashion. The displays and artefacts speak for themselves but most have short descriptions in Vietnamese, French and English to help you along. Everything in the old museum is still here, including de Castries’ bath, the six barrelled rocket launchers used in the final assault, (I’m fed up of seeing these represented on the internet as Russian BM truck mounted launchers) and the transport bicycles; and added to this life-sized vignettes with manikins bring the history to life. When it is finished this will be the best of the many military museums in Vietnam.
How they dug the trenches to the Huguettes
The six-barrel (count ‘em) rocket launchers used at Dien Bien Phu
I spent my last day in Dien Bien Phu for this trip ticking off some positions that I had had to by-pass before. On Him Lam 2, Beatrice 1, I sought out the recreated bunker where Phan Dinh Giot used his body to block the fire whilst his comrades assaulted it. As on Beatrice 2 and Eliane 2, the trench works and bunkers have been recreated and shotcreted against the environment and erosion. So, in one way they give a good idea of what it was like in 1954, but remember there are no corpses, flies, excrement, human and military detritus of war, and above all, mud that made these trenches into “Hell in a Very Small Place.”
Giot’s bunker from the outside
Giot’s bunker from the inside
Trenches on B 1
The other factor to remember is that in 1954 these hills were bald, with most of the trees and undergrowth removed. The recreation of the trenches on Beatrice were only constructed about five years ago but mother nature is doing her best to recover what was hers, especially the barbed wire entanglements on B1 and B2 that are rapidly turning into a sort of wild non-productive vineyard.
Mother Nature at work on the barbed wire
Finally I took a taxi out to Anne-Marie and here I was struck by three things. First that AM 1 and 2 were sited on relatively high ground that now contains a series of wooded villages. Secondly it is noticeable how close AM 1 and 2 are to the surrounding valley side to the west, by far the closest of any position, and undoubtedly a factor in the desertion of the 3rd T’ai battalion holding them. Thirdly I was struck again by the billiard table flatness of the terrain west of the river. Huguette 6 has disappeared under the extension of the airport and the relocation of the runway, but H7 remains, just a small pimple rising out of the paddy, with what used to be the main road in the Tái Federation, the Piste Pavie, running alongside.
Huguette 7 and the Piste Pavie looking south from Anne-Marie
These recent trips to Dien Bien Phu have been intended to sharpen up my memory, understanding, and contacts for use in my PhD studies on the battle. I spent the eve of the 60th anniversary of its end drinking Vietnamese vodka with a party of retired French officers and their wives. I told one of them about my obsession with the battle and how I thought that there was still a story here that deserved telling. “Tell it well, Peter,” he said.
I’ll do my best….