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Viet Nam: Where France Lost an Empire

5 minute read

Hanoi marks a famous victory

At the end of World War II, the French decided to reassert their century-old economic and political influence in Viet Nam. But by the mid-1940s they found themselves battling the nationalist ambitions of the Communist Viet Minh and their French-educated leader Ho Chi Minh. By 1954, with Viet Minh control spreading across the countryside, the French chose the valley of Dien Bien Phu to make a decisive stand aimed at checking the Communists. Instead, the one set-piece battle of the seven-year Indochina war led to the slaughter of 1,500 Frenchmen and, at home, to the loss of political will to continue the campaign. To General Vo Nguyen Giap, the commander of the attacking forces, who is now 71, the Viet Minh victory was “the toll of a bell heralding the decline of colonialism.” The battle at Dien Bien Phu led to the partition of Viet Nam and the establishment of the Communist regime in the north; it also signaled the era of U.S. involvement. Last week the Hanoi government lavished $10 million on celebrations to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the famous victory.

TIME Bangkok Bureau Chief James Willwerth traveled to the battlefield. His report:

A few hours west of Hanoi, the dirt road begins to climb into jungle-covered mountains whose jagged, rocky peaks reach effortlessly into the clouds. The Soviet-built tourist bus, careering around hairpin turns and over steep grades, is shaken down to its ineffectual shock absorbers. At midday, a convoy of Vietnamese troops rumbles by in World War II-type trucks, red flags snapping in the breeze. They are headed for duty in Laos, where about 50,000 Vietnamese troops are supporting the Pathet Lao regime and guarding the Chinese border.

After two days on the road, with an overnight stop in the town of Son La, the bus rolls onto the hot, flat plain at Dien Bien Phu, 18 miles from the Laotian border. It is difficult to imagine the battlefield as it appeared 30 years ago. The French chose Dien Bien Phu because its strategic location seemed to make it the ideal place to cut Viet Minh supply lines and thus to harass Giap’s troops into submission. Protected by mountains on all sides, it seemed impregnable. Against heavy odds, Ho’s Viet Minh army laid siege for 55 days. Finally, on May 7, 1954, after hauling whole batteries of heavy artillery to seemingly impossible mountain redoubts and tunneling to within yards of the garrison positions, the Viet Minh staged the devastating last assault that forced the garrison to surrender the following day.

Since then, the valley, eleven miles long and four miles wide, has been bulldozed into a flat green sea of paddy and sugar-cane fields dotted with hamlets. The valley has seen its population triple in three decades to nearly 100,000, of whom 30,000 came from Thai Binh province, southeast of Hanoi.

The town of Dien Bien Phu, with a population of about 4,000, is bustling as workers put finishing touches on exhibits in the new war museum, a converted rice warehouse filled with battle memorabilia, including bullet-riddled French helmets. In the nearby hamlet of Thanh An, 120 women dressed in long black skirts and brightly colored blouses drill barefoot in preparation for the anniversary parade.

For a visit by foreign journalists, Hanoi brings out several military heroes of the Dien Bien Phu siege. Lieut. Colonel Van Luyen, 52, who commanded an artillery unit, shows the newsmen the refurbished French command bunker where the Viet Minh proclaimed their victory by waving a red Vietnamese flag from its corrugated and sandbagged rooftop. Farther out lie two of the eight major French perimeter command posts, code-named Beatrice and Eliane by the garrison commander, General Christian de Castries. After three decades, U.S.-made artillery, including 155-mm and 105-mm howitzers, which were supplied to the French by Washington, is still in place.

At a press conference in Hanoi, the legendary General Giap, a smiling but still tough, grand fatherly figure who engineered the victory, attributes the Vietnamese military triumph to “a succession of surprises” that forced General Henri Navarre, the French commander in chief in Indochina, to make a stand at Dien Bien Phu. “Why were we successful?” he asks. “President Ho Chi Minh found a path: the combination of the struggle for national independence and the struggle for socialism.” In a nearby sugar-cane field, close to where hundreds of French soldiers are said to be buried, the Vietnamese are erecting a modest monument to their foes: a plain white cross inside a bamboo fence.

Along the road to the airport, red banners proclaim LONG LIVE THE GLORIOUS VIETNAMESE COMMUNIST PARTY. On the tarmac, a young Vietnamese soldier wounded in fighting near the Chinese border waits, half-conscious, to be evacuated to Hanoi. His injuries are a month old. Blackened toes stick out of casts covering his feet under the stretcher blanket. He lies in the midday heat under the shade of an airplane wing, in the same valley in which another generation of Vietnamese soldiers fought and died three decades earlier.

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