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 Four: Going Back At Sixty… Dien Bien Phu in 2014
For the avoidance of doubt the “sixty” of which I speak is the six decades since the battle, not my age, although I admit to crowding the “new 40.” Since I wrote the first three parts of this article in 2002 I have been to Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos more than a dozen times, and made several road trips to boot, but I had never returned to Dien Bien Phu. This year I decided that I had to be there for the 60th Anniversary of the start of the battle in March, and I hope to be there for the end of the battle in May too. So, I hear the historians, wargamers, and more discerning type of tourist amongst you ask, what has changed? Quite a lot actually, and it is mostly for the good.
Hanoi has developed well over the last 12 years. It has dealt with the influx of tourists and the increase in road traffic without losing any of its charm. First class hotels abound and there are now two loci, the original one near the Opera House and a new cluster around the West Lake. These have been matched by accommodation to suit every wallet, or backpack. Likewise good bars and restaurants for both Vietnamese and international cuisine have sprouted all over. Young lovers still wander round Hoan Kiem Lake and still take their ice cream sundaes in the restaurant at its head, or wander down to Trang Tien for the best ice-cream cones in the Socialist Republic. The water puppets and the Opera House are still going strong. Sadly cyclos have all but disappeared as an ad-hoc mode of transport and now concentrate on photo opportunities for tourists or organised tours, but taxis proliferate and remain, for the most part, honest. I’ve only had one attempted rip off in 12 years. The museums are still cheap to enter and worth the time to visit. The Military Museum in particular has added a lot of outside exhibits that will bring out the military buff’s inner child and make you glad that you are not reliant upon 36 exposure rolls of film any more. I was particularly pleased to see the old halftrack moved here from the Air Force Museum and repainted from its unlikely ARVN camouflage into French green. Plans are in hand to totally rebuild the museum by the end of this decade. http://www.vmhm.org.vn/
For the tourist all this is helped by the exchange rate which has stabilised at about 21,000 Dong to the $US, so your money goes about 35% further than in 2002 and takes the sting out of the inevitable inflation. Thus, in terms of accommodation, food, drink and travel, Vietnam remains a good deal. A bottle of fine Hanoi Beer in Dien Bien Phu costs less than US$1, so there is no need to dehydrate.
Getting to Dien Bien Phu is easier as road connections have improved. There are still two flights a day from Hanoi for those of you who want to make the journey in the same manner as the French did in 1953/54. Otherwise you can get a bus from Hanoi, (12 hours,) the Chinese border, (10 hours) or the Lao Border (one hour). In your own vehicle you can probably knock 30% off these times. The place itself has lost a bit of its “frontier” feel. It was upgraded to city status in 2003 and to provincial capital in 2004. This has brought with it new administrative buildings, which, coupled with an increase in bars and coffee shops, gives the main street a little bit of a boulevard vibe. At the top end of accommodation I would still recommend the Muong Thanh Hotel, for 3.5 star luxury, it has been completely rebuilt since 2002 and has a nice pool and poolside bar. The Him Lam and Hanoi Hotels look OK too, and Dien Bien Phu has accommodation for all budgets. http://dulichdienbien.vn/en.html There are now many more taxis available to get about in; car and motorbike hire remains the same; and motorbike taxis still operate, although now it is mandatory to wear a helmet, which your driver will be happy to provide.
I knew that there had been many changes at Dien Bien Phu for the 50th Anniversary of the battle in 2004, but work has being going on since then too and I was surprised at the differences. The first is by far the most obvious… you can’t miss the victory monument erected on Dominique 2 for the 50th Anniversary:
The Victory Monument
Over 200 steps, (I lost count when breathing became more important,) take you to the top, and what should be a terrific view of the valley. But in 2002 I couldn’t see the valley for the trees, and in 2014, I couldn’t see the valley for the haze… it was a very muggy pre-monsoon day and visibility wasn’t helped by the burning off of the stubble from the winter rice crop. So I’ll just have to keep going back until I can get a decent view! The monument itself, in the same socialist realist style as those in the Cemetery, has three PAVN soldiers raising both the “To Fight and To Win!” flag, (the iconic image from the capture of De Castries’ bunker) and also the child of peace and hope for the future. The whole of the top of the hill has been converted into a park, and, if your knees can’t manage the steps the back road still exists and it will take you to within about 20 metres of the summit. Admission is 30,000 Dong, but free after hours or at lunchtime.
My failure to make contact in advance with the people in the Museum was explained when I found this:
Museum under construction
A splendid new museum is under construction to be opened soon. In the meantime the exhibits that used to be stored outside have been moved over the road to Hill A1, (French Eliane 2,) where admission is 30,000 Dong. Some of the Museum’s indoor exhibits have also been moved to A1 too, including the sand table model of the hill. To my mind though the model is a bit deceptive because, although it shows the layout of the defences in great detail, it flattens out the contours of the hill itself and the wedge like form of the ground looks more like a folded omelette. You can make your own mind up as you explore the real hill.
A1/E2 Sand Table
There has been a lot of work on A1/Eliane 2 since I was last there, clearing the undergrowth and digging replica trenches. For historians and archaeologists the question of whether you try to restore a site to look like the original, or just try to preserve what is left, is still moot. But for the layman there can be no doubt that the battlefield now replicated at A1 gives a much better idea of what it looked like in 1954. Compare this picture to the same shot taken in 2002 in Part Two of this article and you will see what I mean.
The Champs Elysees 2014
The other significant change is that all of the battlefield relics in the open on A1 and all the other sites: guns, tanks, and even De Castries’ bunker, have been given transparent roof covers to protect them from the elements. Whilst they remain open from every angle except above, this gives them a semi-caged appearance, and one part of me didn’t like seeing them enclosed like this. But without doubt they will last a lot longer this way, so I suppose it’s a small cost to pay so that future generations to be able to study and enjoy what we can.
Tank Bazailles, now protected for future generations
Other good work at Dien Bien Phu will be found on the lesser hill positions Gabrielle, Dominique 1 and Elianes 1 and 4. Readers who have trudged through the other parts of this article will remember the problems I had finding these hills, and sometimes bushwhacking myself to the top of them in 2002. Now you can leave your machete at home for all these hills are well signposted, with well-constructed, stepped concrete paths leading to their summits where monuments have been raised. These signs have replaced the smaller “milestone” type markers that I mentioned in Part Two. If you have the time I recommend you take in all of these positions now that you can. They will all leave you with a better informed idea of the battle. The view down the valley towards the main position from the top of Gabrielle makes its own importance clear and the Victory Monument and the marker on Beatrice make it easy to orient yourself. On D1 you can still see the remnants of trench lines. On E1 you can see that you are just far enough from D1 for the position to be sustainable by the French even though the Vietnamese had taken the much higher hill. On E4 you can see that you are close enough to E2 to cover its flank, and thus to channel Viet Minh attacks onto the “Champs Elysees.” Giot Street between E1 and E4 is now paved and there are a series of nice cafes in the place where the Vietnamese paratroopers of the “Bavouan” once sang the Marseillaise as they moved up to counter-attack their countrymen on E1… so it’s a great place to sip on an iced coffee and reflect. The exterior of the cemetery below A1 and the French Memorial have also benefitted from this general “tidying-up.” Both are now well maintained and the latter seems to have a permanent caretaker who is happy to open up the small garden and monument for you.
Sadly the “Cliffs of the Nam Youm” have gone as a river training scheme has concreted the eroded banks, installed a weir roughly where the wooden bridge was during the battle, and built a new four lane bridge across the river in between where strong points E3 and Juno once stood. I’m glad that I saw and photographed the “cliffs” and the river course in something like their appearance during the battle, but you can’t blame the people of today’s Dien Bien Phu for preferring freedom from flooding to a historical curiosity. The Bailey Bridge is still there after 60 years, and somewhere in engineer’s heaven the eponymous Sir Donald must be proud. But today’s bridge looks in much better condition than it did in 2002, and I suspect that when the river was tamed the bridge was rebuilt a bit. Since it is still in everyday use for pedestrians and light traffic, no doubt that was a smart move too.
The River in 2014
Something that is new and well worth a visit, especially if you are taking a trip out the Giap’s Headquarters anyway, is the monument to the gun pullers erected in 2007 to commemorate the herculean efforts the Viet Minh made to get their artillery into position, one of the key contributions to their victory. The larger than life monument sits on a terrace carved out of the side of a mountain 13 kilometres from Dien Bien Phu. You approach through a bucolic valley, pay the admission fee, cross the Nam Youm River and climb a few hundred more steps. If, like mine did, your knees start complaining, just remind them that they are lucky… you are not towing a 105mm howitzer, the French Air Force is not bombing you, and it is not raining, and even if it is raining the steps are made out of concrete, not mud. The view, and the monument, make it worth-while.
The Gun Pullers
My real purpose in visiting Dien Bien Phu was to be there for the exact 60th Anniversary of the start of the battle: 1700 hours on March 13th when the Viet Minh attacked strong point Beatrice. Beatrice is much easier to find and climb than in 2002. The original route that I described is still there, although now there are more houses in the lane at the base of the hill. This is now the most difficult approach but still of interest because it was the route taken by the Vietnamese 11th Battalion in their assault. The lane from the main road is now marked by a blue arch so you can’t miss it. An easier approach is to continue up the road to the next lane, again under a blue arch, which will lead you to the foot of the three Beatrice positions and a stepped and paved path to the top, although you might have to hurdle a trench or two. If you are in a car follow the road out of town for about a kilometre, take a left at the junction with the police building on the left and the square on the right, then turn left again which will bring you back to a parking area at the foot of B1 and the network of paths.
Beatrice is the position that has changed most since 2002. B1 and B2 have been cleared of most of their undergrowth and trees and, as on Eliane 2, the trench lines have been replicated, and it is easy to follow what went on here. The three hills were held by four companies of the Foreign Legion and the Viet Minh threw a battalion at each hill. To my surprise, apart from a French chap that I had met whose grandfather had served in Indochina, and for three Vietnamese kids playing in the trenches, I was alone on top of Beatrice 60 years to the minute that the battle had started… the Vietnamese celebrate the end of the battle not the beginning.
B1, seen from the top of B2
I climbed down off the hill before it got too dark. It so happened that 13th March 2014 was the “Hoi Hoa Ban” or Ban Flower Festival. The Ban flower is the White Bauhinia (you see it all over Hong Kong too) that blooms in the second Lunar month, and it provides the T’ai peoples of Vietnam’s North West with their version of Valentine’s Day. The idea being that the boys climb the Ban trees and throw down the flowers for the girls to adorn themselves with. The trick is for the boys to throw the flowers to girls they fancy, and for the girls to catch the flowers from the boys that they fancy, so that everyone knows where everyone stands and nature can take its course. No doubt, one day soon, this will all be replaced by WhatsApp, but until it is it is still a great excuse for a party. That night a big all-singing, all-dancing, variety show complete with fireworks and lasers was staged in the packed main square. The T’aí ladies put their long hair up in a bun at the front of the head and hold it in place with a thin silver chain with a silver dollar front and centre, the result looks as though they are wearing an ornamental miner’s helmet but it is wonderfully elegant. So, on 13th March 2014, the people of Dien Bien Phu celebrated young love growing eternal, rather than the beginning of a battle long ago… and who can fault them for that?
Appendix: The Strongpoints From Both Sides
If you have read French or English accounts of Dien Bien Phu you will know that the French strong points were given girls names. It is a good “soldier’s story” that these ladies were all De Castries’ paramours. More prosaically they ran in alphabetical order so, although it is not impossible that the good Colonel had bonked his way through the alphabet, it is more likely that the naming convention originated from a staff officer with other things on his mind. The Viet Minh were less frivolous or perhaps less imaginative and used names or letters for hill positions and numbers for lowland positions. The chart below gives the alternatives.