Dien Bien Phu: A Trip To The Verdun In The Jungle 65 Years Later (Part 1 of 3)
As I stepped off the overcrowded Vietnamese sleeper bus, I clumsily stumbled about trying to orient myself. It was only around five in the morning, but the bus station was alive and thriving. In standing with Vietnamese culture, people squeezed past each other with complete disregard for personal space as they tried to locate luggage and buses. Still barefoot, I did my best to search for a spot where I could put my hiking boots on while Anh tried to get our bags.
It was a small station, no more than an acre and half, but the locals had somehow managed to squeeze four regular size buses and a number of eighteen passenger vans into it. Within the station walls they had managed to create a thriving economy of coffee and snack vendors complete with little blue stools and green tarp roofs supported by bamboo poles. Amidst the chaos, grandmothers wearing conical hats with floral patterned chinstraps sat sipping coffee and tending to young children. Leather skinned, barefoot men with white ballcaps, wearing local knockoffs of Versace, button down shirts, tight fit black shorts, and imitation Armani belts stood atop buses and vans hoisting all manner of goods from those below.
The tops of the vehicles seemed an impressive and comical cross between National Geographic and the Beverly Hillbillies. Small refrigerators, beds, and even motorbikes were lifted and then fastened precariously to the roofs. It seemed whole houses were being moved on top of public buses. In some ways it reminded me of the animal auctions I had gone to as a child in Delaware.
As I finished tying my shoelaces, Anh emerged from the sea of people to tell me that she had found our luggage, but needed my help to get it. I waded back into the buzzing mass of bodies. Personal space ceased to exist as people tried to get on the bus while others were still trying to get off. A few minutes later I returned with our bags and we finally stepped out of the bus station and into the streets of Dien Bien Phu.
I had thought the station was crowded, but the surrounding streets was much more alive as cabs and motorbikes vied for potential customers. We knew that it was the 65th anniversary of the battle, but for some reason it had not occurred to us that the city would be crowded. The street vibrated with the puttering of idle vehicles, and drivers quizzically shouted “taxi? and "đi xe không em?” at every person that walked by. From the shop fronts, spiraling yellow low-energy lights lit up tables covered in plastic wrapped durian and sesame candies in an attempt to try and capitalize on the foot traffic from the bus station.
The station may have been small, but getting out of it had taken some time and while the sun hadn’t yet risen above the high mountain peaks, the morning light was already filling the air and casting off the heavy cloak of night. The city was coming to life as the new day started, so we decided to ignore the drivers and started to walk to our hotel. Our bodies ached from the trip and we hoped that some movement would help get the blood flowing again.
The trip from Hanoi to Dien Bien Phu had been a long and slow 10-hour drudge through darkness cramped in an overcrowded sleeper bus. While we had managed to pass most of the trip in a relatively unconscious state, it had been far from comfortable. Built for people who on average are 20cm shorter than myself, Anh and I had done our best to cramp into the tiny bed which was barely wide enough and much too short for someone like me. My legs throbbed and a dull pain in my lower back wanted me to know my body wasn't happy with the previous accommodations, thus I was in no hurry to sit down or get to our hotel.
Leaving the station, we were somewhat flying blind. Neither of us had been to Dien Bien Phu before, and we lacked any real sense of where we were. Cell reception was weak and for some reason I kept picking up Chinese cellphone towers, making my phone useless. To our right was the famed airstrip surrounded by rice fields where French Colonial troops had once poured into the valley. To our left was a sprawling city hiding what once was a battlefield of carnage.
This is what we had come to Dien Bien Phu to see. Here in this remote high mountain valley French Colonialism suffered its greatest defeat, setting off a domino effect that would see the end of French Colonialism around the globe, and the rise of American intervention in South East Asia. Since the 6th grade, when I made a scale model replica of the valley and battlefield with my father, I had wanted to come here. While I had mostly heard the story from the French perspective, I always wanted to hear it from the Vietnamese too.
With every step my muscles stretched, the aches faded away and my childish soul began to bristle with excitement. I love military history and the chance to explore one of modern history's most infamous battlefields tickled me. It was like being a kid and getting to walk the battle lines of Gettysburg or stand upon the parapets of Fort Sumter and Fort Moultrie. While sites of seemingly infinite wells of sadness, locations like these always gave me an insight to a time before my own and a chance to learn what books could not teach me.
As Anh and I walked the city streets searching for which direction to take, I scanned through the morning haze for war remnants and spotted the rusted shell of a M-24 Chaffee tank in a rice field just beyond the airstrip. I darted across the road to get a better look, only half aware of the traffic. With one arm stretched out, I pointed at the tank and turned to face Anh still on the other side of the road. I bounced up and down like a little child watching a fire truck going by and shouted to her, “Tank! Tank! Tank! Look Anh, a tank from the battle!” She was clearly not as amused as I was and stared at me like I was an idiot.
I shrugged off my embarrassment and hurried back to where she was, and we kept walking south. While it was her idea to take the long weekend trip here, she clearly wasn’t as excited as I was, and I figured it best to not push my luck with over exuberance this early in the morning.
After a few minutes of walking, we stumbled upon the banks of the famed Nam Yum river which had divided the battlefield along an east west line. From where we stood on the western bank, there was a clear line of sight onto the lower eastern bank. Spanning the river in front of us was the famed Muong Thanh Bridge which had remained in French control till the last days of the battle. Its construction reminded me of something the Army Corps of Engineers would have made in WWII with steel sides and wooden planks to drive across.
Though there was very little evidence of it, this had been the sight of grewsome fighting as snipers and machinegun nests from both sides prevented anyone from making the river crossing till the final days of the battle when Viet Minh soldiers flooded across the bridge and stormed the last French outposts. Both Viet and French accounts from the battle telling of individual marksmen trying to come up with ways for the enemy to unwittingly jump from behind cover. General Vo Nguyen Giap had said in his memoir that he had to put a limit on the number of artillery strikes being called in just so his snipers could get one more kill. The French solution was to simply aim antiaircraft machineguns at Viet positions and let lose a hornet’s nest of live fire.
What evidence did remain of such atrocities had mostly been put along the roadside to
serve as public souvenirs of the victors. Not far from where we stood, there was supposedly a small crater that had been the bunker where the French Artillery commander Pirot blew himself up with a grenade, deeming the battle lost in just the first few hours of the Viet Minh’s first wave of the attack. The mangled remains of 75mm and 105mm artillery guns told snippets of the events that had transpired. Part of me wondered how these scraps had survived so long when things like American fighter aircraft had been turned into pots and pans long ago.
The sun finally crested over the mountain peaks and the entire valley began to beam with life as women and children headed to the wet markets and men fished along the riverbanks. Unlike other cities in Vietnam, the majority of Dien Bien Phu’s population is local ethnic minorities. In particular, the valley is mostly inhabited by Black Thai who have lived there since at least the time of the Nguyen Lords.
Like most ethnic groups in Vietnam, many of the Black Thai still adhered to their culturally unique styles of dress and behavior while at the same time observing modern Vietnamese laws, creating all sorts of quirky visual mashups. The most obvious of which was the Black Thai’s penchant for women to wear their hair in a bun on top of their head and the law stating that a helmet must be worn at all times on a motorbike. As the law never clarified that a helmet must be worn properly, hundreds of women drove by us with flimsy plastic helmets seemingly floating a couple of inches above their heads.
We started to cross the bridge just as tens of soldiers, doubled and tripled up, on motorbikes puttered past us in green uniforms. Their kit seemingly unchanged in 65 years. I once again was tickled with joy. Having spent most of my time in big cities, I had rarely gotten to see entire units of soldiers and watching them ride by on the backs of Honda Cubs and Super Dreams felt like being in a movie. In my mind’s eye, I could almost see them running across the bridge, with sticks and leaves strapped to their helmets and backs while carrying the iconic PPSH 41s and modified MAT-49 submachine guns captured from French Paratroopers.
Stepping off the bridge, we were greeted by a great big sign forbidding people from gathering here. Clearly this was a local decree that was completely ignored as the city’s largest wet market hugged the riverbank right under the sign. Chickens and ducks hung by their feet from motorbikes awaiting their fate, and river fish smacked their tails as they desperately tried to breath in shallow tubs. While various ethnic women heckled with vendors over various tuberous vegetables, young girls carried infant siblings strapped to their backs, and preschool boys ran around chasing each other pretending long blades of grass were swords.
We meandered through the market, perusing what was for sale, wondering at strange plants that bled red like blood and passed the live animal markets. Swallowed up by the small city, we were unaware of where we were going. Unknowingly, we made our way towards the collection of forts known as Elaine to the French.
Throughout the city we watched as soldiers marched in great masses as they went to construct the stadium seating and platforms that were to be used for the anniversary celebration. I couldn’t help but think how in some ways the soldiers were fulfilling the same roles that Imperial Soldiers had since 968 CE when Dinh Bo Linh first established a unified and free Vietnam. Now, just as then, soldiers were serving as the government labor force in times of peace. I guess in a land as ancient as Vietnam, certain things stand the tests of time.
After about twenty minutes of wandering, we both suddenly felt the familiar vibrations of text messages being received. We had internet again. Tired and hungry, we quickly scrolled through messages and emails to find our hotel reservation. We were in luck; the hotel was only two blocks away and the fatigue of the cramped bus ride and early morning hike through the city was finally hitting us. We could tell that we needed to regroup before setting out to explore more the city.
Uneventfully, we headed over to our hotel where they escorted us to our room with its iconic Vietnamese rock-hard bed. We dropped our bags, plugged in our electronics and with a thud we hit the mattress swearing we would get up and head out in 10 minutes. That, however, was wishful thinking. The rustling of wind through bamboo forests and songbirds chirping carried us into worlds of wistful dreams unburdened by war-torn ghosts.
Wiley H. Jackson
Writer, Teacher, Adventurer
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