Dien Bien Phu: A Trip To The Verdun In The Jungle 65 Years Later (Part 2 of 3)
"Quyet Chien, Quyet Thang"
It was after noon when we finally got up. We had been so tired from the previous night’s bus ride and early morning journey through town that we hadn’t even taken off our socks before passing out on our iconic hard mattresses. Groggily we lumbered out of bed, brushed our teeth, downed some vile 3-in-1 instant coffee, and checked to make sure that the adventuring equipment was ready.
Camera, check. Lenses, check. Batteries, check. Tripod, check. Audio recording device, check. Historical notes on the battlefields…. check.
In the last-minute preparations for the trip I had decided that it would be a great chance to try to make a YouTube documentary about the Battle of Dien Bien Phu using footage from the actual location. While the documentary has yet to materialize, the attempt to make it ended up dominating the weekend.
Hungrily we set out to find some food. Unfortunately, it was what I have come to call "national nap-time." Living in the big cities had spoiled us and we forgot that it’s nearly impossible to find a restaurant or coffee shop open in the countryside after 12:30. We looked for food for about 15 minutes, but after getting turned away by shopkeepers closing down we gave up and decided to just explore. We remembered seeing a large Vietnamese flag flying from atop a hill in the distance and figured it was most likely a monument so we opted to head in that general direction.
For someone that’s rarely lost, I was completely lost. To get an idea of where we were, I was doing my best to mentally overlay memorized old topographic charts and battle maps onto pictures of Google Maps. The town isn't very large, but the fact that modern street signs are labeled differently than what I had previously learned from French and American texts made discerning our location rather difficult. Plus, with it being national nap-time, there was no one on the street for Anh to ask for directions.
Growing up I had memorized the fortifications by their French names: Claudine, Isabelle, Beatrice, Dominique, Anne Marie, Gabrielle, Elaine, Juno, and Huguette. The Vietnamese on the other hand had named the fortifications things like 505, 505A, A3, Him Lam. Every now and then they didn’t even name forts, like in the case of Juno. For some reason the Vietnamese never felt it was worth the effort to name that obstacle.
We moseyed down the main road baking under the midday sun. It was nothing like pop-culture movies would have had me believe. It wasn’t a dense jungle under a canopy of lush green ancient growth forests, drowning in waist deep mud during a constant monsoon. In fact it was quiet, hot, dry, hazy, and boring. All of the exact same conditions the French experienced for a majority of their time here. In fact they had specifically chosen to arrive and construct the fortifications when they did, because it was the hot, dusty, boring, dry season.
Eventually we made it to what seemed to be the center of town. We were standing in a large public square and directly in front of us were stairs that climbed up the side of a steep hill, where atop flew the flag we had seen earlier. To our left was a tin-sided booth and a snack vendor. To our right was a larger than life mural dedicated to the story of Vietnamese victory over an insurmountable foe. In communist fashion, nondescript peasant farmers and soldiers labored side by side vanquishing the imperialist, capitalist French that had raped and plundered the land of its culture and history.
Hot, hungry and tired, we headed over to the tin hut and snack vendor. It was the only "shop" with food we had seen open so far. I plopped down on the blue plastic stool, and Anh went over to the lady operating a sugar cane press. She returned with two flimsy cups filled with sweet neon green juice. The vendor had had only two snack options, starchy snack puffs covered in powdered shrimp, MSG, and sugar, or goldfish snacks that tasted like actual fish, neither of which sounded appealing.
Anh handed me the drink and told me what she had learned. “So, the lady said this is what the French called Dominique, but she says it’s really hot up there as there is no shade, we might want to come back later.”
“Oh, by the way, it’s free for me but you have to pay the lady in the booth 10,000 Dong.” She added with a smile.
Hot and tired as I ran my hands through my hair squeezing the sweat out. “Well hot is hot, and we might as well go now because it’s not like any of these other battle sites
are indoors either, and we only have two days.”
We sat for a few more minutes nursing our drinks before coming to a consensus that "up" was where we were going. We bought two 20oz bottles of water, and I handed 10,000 Dong over to the monument attendant in the tin hut. Carrying camera equipment on one shoulder and fresh liquids on the other, we stood at the base of the monument and craned our necks back to see how far we had to climb. It wasn’t far, but it was far enough for two hot and tired history buffs. Up we went.
As we topped the hillfort, we stepped onto a large paved platform where we were dwarfed by three gargantuan Viet bronze figures standing atop the former French garrison, planting the Viet Minh battle flag. It had been dedicated 15 years earlier to the heroes of the battle. In great bold letters it read the battle cry of the Viet Minh “Quyet Chien Quyet Thang.”
It was something of awe. I am neither French, nor Viet, but I was definitely struck with the creators’ intended reaction as I stood at the base of the massive structure. I knew that here in the shadow of a conflict of giants, I was but a weak single man. We walked around for a few minutes taking in the sights before huddling under the shadow of our bronze "saviors."
I started to flip through my notes and peer out over the valley. From this vantage point, I could see the entire valley. No wonder the fighting for this hill had been horrific, whoever owned it could exert direct control over a majority of the battlefield. Directly in front of us, to the west, lie the river and the air strip. Beyond that were massive rice paddies almost 5 kilometers wide. The Vietnamese had known that any assault from the west was simple suicide. Instead they had concentrated their primary attacks from the north and east.
My gaze slowly made its way north. I had seen nearly every available map and aerial photograph of the battlefield available on the web, but they depicted a place now covered by sixty-five years of urban development and growth. I could only guess at where the other fortifications lay hidden amongst the current homes and shops.
Nonetheless I was certain of the vague location of hillforts Beatrice and Gabrielle. Each had guarded one of the two northern entrances to the valley. Beatrice, the northeastern most fort, had fallen almost instantly. The Viet Minh had managed to sneak approximately a hundred artillery pieces into the valley and then secret them away into hidden firing positions. When the initial attack took place, shells rained down on the unsuspecting French position with devastating effect as pre-sighted 105-mm guns blasted away at nearly point blank range. The barrage was instantly followed-up with waves of highly trained Viet Minh assault troops.
The French tried in vain to strike back at the Vietnamese 105mm howitzers. In addition to hiding the artillery, the Viet Minh had also built fake gun emplacements complete with simulated artillery fire. Nearly every French counter barrage missed it's intended mark because of it. The first Viet Minh assault had been so effective, and the French artillery counter barrage had been so ineffective that Pirot, the French Artillery Commander of Dien Bien Phu, committed suicide that first night with a hand grenade. Legend goes that it was out of hopelessness.
My thoughts continued to wander and I pondered what it must have been like to be a Legionnaire, or North African soldier sitting atop hill Dominique and watching the distant firefight. I wondered if being seasoned warriors hardened by nearly a decade of the conflict in Indochina, they would have been scared, emboldened, or simply accepting of whatever fate may send them. I wondered even more about the Vietnamese Paratrooper Battalions. These were men that had sided with the French for various reasons. They knew that if they were captured, no quarter would be given. If they lost the war, they feared not only for themselves, but for their families and friends.
The battle for the outpost Beatrice was short, and lasted just a few hours. There were some attempts to send reinforcements, but all hope quickly was abandoned as Viet Minh successfully repelled the French relief column. Even the M24 Chaffee tanks couldn't stand up to direct 105 fire. And just like that, despite months of preparation, the north eastern door to the valley had been blasted open with little hope of shutting it again.
I turned my gaze slightly left and looked towards what I believed must have been hillfort Gabriel. It fell soon after Beatrice. The Viet Minh claimed that the reason hillfort Gabriel fell so quickly was because the Vietnamese fighting alongside the French, and local ethnic people, saw the light of communism and abandoned the fight. The French simply claimed they were just overpowered after putting up a tough resistance against the Viet Minh. I believe the truth is somewhere in-between.
Approximately two-thirds of the Vietnamese native forces fighting for the French were of the White Thai ethnic minority, which controlled a semi-autonomous region swearing loyalty to the French. In the West, that little-known region was called the Thai Federation, while the Vietnamese called it Mười hai xứ Thái, and Dien Bien Phu was the southern gateway of that land. Whoever controlled it controlled all major routes into and out of the region. It’s one of the many possible reasons that the French forces had chosen Dien Bien Phu as a site for a potential final battle with the Viet Minh. What they failed to consider, though, was that the other half of the local population was Black Thai, a group that had been oppressed by their ethic cousins, the aforementioned White Thai. I have always been of the opinion that the local Black Thai took the Viet Minh assault on the valley as an opportunity to get revenge against the White Thai oppressors by abandoning the fortifications and giving precious intel to the Viet Minh.
As I sat baking under the midday sun, it struck me that so much of the truth about what happened here was lost to politicized history, just as the battlefield itself was being swallowed up by local economic growth and development. I flipped through my hastily scribbled notes again scanning for interesting tidbits….
1 - female American nurse
10 - M24 Chaffee tanks flown in on commercial airliner Air Vietnam
2,810 – Native French soldiers
2,884 – North African and African troops from Morocco and Algeria
5,480 – Vietnamese troops fighting under French Colonial command
15,105 – Total French affiliated troops.
Some estimated 40,000 Viet Minh troops.
Those were some of the ones I found the most interesting. Whenever I read about the battle or looked at photos, I always forgot that it wasn’t a battle of White men versus Asian men. It was in fact a wildly diverse coalition against the Viet Minh. Over one third of the French fighting force was Vietnamese. Politics and racism had erased that information from most history books. While not completely ignored by the current Vietnamese government, it was something they didn’t like to talk about, either. French racism made sure that in the photographs of the soldiers, it was white Frenchmen seen doing all the fighting. The sad truth was in this colonial conflict more Black, North African and Asian bodies had scattered the valley floor than that of the White men.
General Giap, commander of the Viet Minh Forces, and French historians both agree that it was the Vietnamese Paratroopers fighting alongside the French who were credited with being some of the toughest and most resilient fighters. Unfortunately, that fact doesn't fit any political agenda, and so their gallantry has gone ignored by most. Sadly, I believe that for these political reasons, it is the Legionnaires, some of whom were former Nazis running from European courts, who are remembered most. Unfortunately, this is the history of any war. In the end it only matters if you win.
Even in the shade, the sun was still punishingly hot, and Anh was almost finished with the water we had bought from the vendor at the bottom of the hill. We stood up and wandered around the memorial looking for any sign of other people. Apparently, everyone else was smart enough to stay indoors. However, we did find a row of sheds selling trinkets and souvenirs.
The women working the sheds leaned back in their chairs fanning themselves with handmade rice fans. Every tourist souvenir they could think of was neatly arrayed. Many had zero connection to this section of Vietnam. As we approached the shops, the women suddenly came to life as if an invisible and silent proximity alert had been set off. Without hesitation they flipped on lights revealing refrigerators full of ice-cold beverages. Shrewd business owners, they knew exactly what we wanted and went straight for the sale. It was the easiest money they ever made.
We perused their goods while we each downed two more bottles of water before heading back to the monument. I was still carrying all this recording equipment which I was determined to use. Stepping back up onto the platform, I finally took a good look over the eastern battlefield. This was the heart of the fighting. From where we stood atop hillfort Dominique it was less than a kilometer to the towering mountain range that encircled and caged in the Dien Bien Phu base.
Somewhere in those mountains, the Viet Minh had built entire underground bases with nearly impossible to find artillery bunkers. Guns designed to be shot beyond the horizon were instead aimed point blank at French positions. The struggle to get the artillery there unspotted before the battle had been impressive. To do so, they had had to sneak one-ton guns across the side of a steep mountain just a few hundred meters away from unsuspecting French soldiers. They then had to dig out a complex hidden system of caves to house thousands of soldiers and provide front line training for new conscripts. Massive tunnel networks of hospitals, barracks, communications, command bunkers, and even housing for entertainment were dug into the mountain side. It's little wonder that rumors still persist insisting that the Viet Minh simply dug through the mountains. That sounds easier to believe than the truth that the Viet Minh simply walked past the French without them noticing.
Once the outer forts had fallen, wave after wave of Viet Minh soldiers had assaulted the hill I was standing on from those very mountains. Again, French and American historians would have us believe that the majority of Viet Minh soldiers were some mindless conscripts forced into the fight and give their lives for the greater good. While it was true that many who died at Dien Bien Phu were fresh conscripts thrown into the battle, most of the Viet Minh Forces were dedicated fighters that had fought all over Indochina. They had received specialized training from anywhere they could get it. Russian and Chinese observers were famously credited with doing this, but there had also been Japanese Imperial soldiers from World War II who had refused to surrender to White men and continued their Pan-Asian fight by training the Viet Minh. Despite being depicted as an abused mouse, the Viet Minh were every bit the roaring tiger that Ho Chi Minh had promised would take down the lumbering elephant that was France.
I did my best to try and picture the trenches that once led up to and cut across this hill, but despite my best efforts I couldn’t. The fight for hill Dominique had been brutal and rarely definite. Possession of the fortified hill had changed hands multiple times, with multiple lulls in the fighting where enemy combatants sometimes rested in trenches just two or three meters apart. For most of the fifty-seven day battle, the hill had been split between Viet Minh and French Colonials claiming various parts.
It was a near constant hornets’ nest of violence. Flamethrowers, mortar strikes, machine gun fire, grenades, sniper fire, improvised napalm explosive, and more had turned the hill into a meat grinder. As I looked down the hill, I thought about a passage from General Giap’s memoir where soldiers talked about human bodies protruding from craters and trenches, trapped there by heavy rocks. In some cases, the bodies couldn’t be moved out of fear of collapsing desperately needed trenchworks for the next assault. Their bodies had become the mortar that held the walls together. Soldiers huddled against dead men, clutching their rifles awaiting the next assault. Raw vegetation was pulverized into mush, turning loose dirt into mud that swallowed men whole. It was a true hell worthy of its nickname, The Verdun in the Jungle.
As that thought crossed my mind I rushed through my notes and looked for a quote from General Giap’s memoir that I had scribbled down.
“Not a blade of grass remained. The area looked like enormous termite nests filled with gun emplacements and bomb craters….. Combat trenches, gun emplacements, and barbed wire where everywhere. The earth had been churned and looked as if it had been burned red hot. Every spot of land seemed drenched in French blood and panic. Here and there lay foul-smelling refuse and unburied bodies dark with flies.” (387)
While I read these accounts, I tried my best to imagine the horror that it must have been. Despite my best efforts, I couldn’t see it. For that, I’m grateful. The suffering in this place was monumental, which I guess is why I was standing at a monument to it. Where once there had been only death, there were now trees and bamboo forests rustling in the breeze. Unlike the other hill-forts in this valley, this one had remained an entirely a monument to what had happened.
In my musings I had lost track of Anh. I found her sitting in the shade overlooking the lush green rice fields and airstrip. On the same airfield where commercial Vietnam Airlines jets now periodically land and take off carrying tourists and government officials, the French Air Force had shepherded thousands of soldiers and materiel into the valley, during the winter and spring of 1952 and 54. We talked about the monument and how it struck each of us differently.
After a while I looked back at the bronze soldiers in whose shadow we were hiding from the relentless sun, for some reason it had escaped me to ask what the saying on the flag meant.
“What does that mean up there on the flag?” I asked.
“Quyet Chien, Quyet Thang? Determined to Fight, Determined to Win. It’s our battle cry. Units get the flag when they do well” she replied.
“Hmmm. Quyet Chien, Quyet Thang.” I repeated. I liked it. Simple and direct, plus it had a nice ring to it. The notion of units being awarded a battle flag for courage and victory under fire reminded me of the Roman legion and their precious Aquilla.
We sat for a few more minutes before we started taking out all the camera equipment we had been lugging around all afternoon. For the next two and a half hours, we did our best to try and record a piece for the documentary I wanted to do. It turns out that I am actually pretty camera shy. Very camera shy in fact. Take after take I froze up, forgot lines, or was just overcome with embarrassment. Anh patiently and politely tried to encourage me, but it wasn’t helping.
Eventually, we packed up and headed back down the hill. The sun was starting to near the western mountain peaks and the air began to cool. In preparation for the 60th anniversary of the battle, soldiers returned to their duties of assembling stages, installing lighting, prepping sound booths, and lining up cameras. They were a literal army of government roadies.
Finding our way back to our hotel was easy as we simply retraced our steps from earlier in the day. We shed the camera equipment and starvingly went in search of proper food. Surprisingly not much was open, but we were able to find a Chinese restaurant that made food in the Yunnan province style. It could have been sheer hunger, or because the food was actually delicious, but we devoured it in no time. Now fed, and tired, we made our way back to the hotel and debated if we should go back out and watch the celebrations or the newest episode of Game of Thrones. In the end, Game of Thrones won out. We had seen enough of Dien Bien Phu for one day.
Wiley H. Jackson
Teacher, Writer, Adventurer
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