It was at Dien Bien Phu that reputations would be made and lost, and where the legend of General Vo Nguyen Giap, one of the great military figures of our time, was born. (Until then the French had always mocked Giap in their dispatches, putting the word General in quotation marks.)
The threat of Vietnamese resistance had been evident to the French military from the start. When asked about the likelihood of the French regaining control of Indochina after World War II, Jacques-Philippe Leclerc, de Gaulle's favorite general, asserted that "it would take 500,000 men to do it, and even then it could not be done." No one listened, of course; the French returned in 1945 and did their best to pacify the Vietnamese.
By late 1953, Leclerc's prophecies seemed to be coming true: the Vietminh were growing stronger all the time, and the war was increasingly unpopular in France (draftees were no longer being sent). Yet for reasons inexplicable to anyone who knew anything about war, the French decided to create a strongpoint at Dien Bien Phu, in a series of interconnected forts along a surprisingly long perimeter in the valley. Some French officers openly hoped for a set-piece battle in which the Vietminh would throw themselves against the well-dug-in French, suffer a defeat, and be forced to the bargaining table.
In late November of '53 the French air-dropped in five battalions, two of them to patrol the area and prevent the Vietminh from moving men and material along the Laotian border. To those French officers who knew the war well, this showed a demented idea of how the other side fought, something dreamed up by a staff officer in Paris oblivious of the fact that the Vietminh moved through the harsh terrain far more readily than the French and could not lightly be interdicted.
Every calculation the French made was grievously—and predictably—wrong. They thought General Giap would be able to assemble 5,000 men at most; instead, moving slowly and deliberately over a period of 100 days, he brought in 50,000 combat troops and 25,000 support troops. Tunneling through from the far side of the mountains, the Vietminh installed dozens of ingeniously camouflaged artillery pieces high in the hills, nearly invulnerable to French fire. "I lost only one artillery piece during the entire battle," Giap told my colleague Neil Sheehan years later. The French estimated that the enemy might have 25,000 rounds of ammunition; in fact they had 350,000, of which they fired, in a kind of rain from hell, more than 100,000 shells.
On March 14, 1954, the second night of battle, it became clear that the Vietminh had the French outgunned. Colonel Charles Piroth, the French artillery commander, went in tears from one unit to another, apologizing to his men. "I am completely dishonored," he said. On the next morning, Piroth committed suicide by pulling the pin on a grenade.
An odd display hangs in the small and modest museum that memorializes the siege: a black cloth crossed by tangled strands of white rope. "What does it mean?" a visitor asks. "Some kind of flag?" It is, our guide informs us, a spider's web, representing the Vietminh; the French were the flies. This was a classic victory by strangulation, with the Vietminh tightening the noose little by little each day.
THE TOWN OF DIEN BIEN PHU IS SIMPLE AND RURAL, with perhaps 10,000 people, most of them from the Tai hill tribes. It is a dusty and poor place, and tourist amenities are marginal. The pleasant new Hotel Muong Thanh is clean but primitive, though the rooms are air-conditioned, when the air-conditioning works. At the hotel's restaurant my wife and I ate steamed bamboo stalks with ground porcupine meat in a sauce of herbs, hot peppers, and lime juice. I ordered a local version of fried chicken, liked it very much, and repeated the order for the next two nights, only to be served a completely different (albeit tasty) dish each time. There was even a bottle of '95 red Bordeaux for $7, which was much enjoyed, given the unlikelihood of its existence here. We were assured that it was the only bottle in all of Dien Bien Phu. The next night, a second bottle mysteriously appeared.
We spent our first morning walking through town, stopping at a typical Vietnamese grow-it-yourself, sell-it-yourself market filled with all the wonderful noises and rich smells of peasant Asia. Each day women walk several miles from their farms carrying produce on their backs, sell as much as they can here, and then trudge back home in the afternoon. It may not be the fanciest market in the world, but you certainly never have to ask whether the chicken is free-range or the tomatoes organic.
Dien Bien Phu has been declared a historic site, and the government encourages a certain amount of tourism, but the truth is the Vietnamese are better fighters than merchandisers. The battlefield itself is not well marked. Except for the occasional carcass of a tank or downed helicopter, and a few simple monuments erected by the Vietnamese or the French, it would be possible to walk through here and never know what happened. The scene is almost bucolic. Nor are there any souvenirs for sale—no watches emblazoned with Ho's or Giap's portrait, no dinner plates showing the first Vietminh soldier planting the flag atop French headquarters. It is striking to come from America—the land of Disneyesque tourist hype, where so little can be showcased so remarkably—to Dien Bien Phu, where so much is showcased so minimally.
And yet. And yet there is the knowledge that under the soil on which we walk, under plots where today rice grows and water buffalo pull their burdens, 10,000 bodies still lie buried—2,000 French and 8,000 Vietnamese—aimlessly and without markers, some in thin graves dug hurriedly in the midst of battle, their final resting places determined by the whims of nature, by monsoon rains that shift soil and bones from one spot to another.
TOURISM AT ITS BEST IS A KIND OF RENDEZVOUS with your own imagination. The experience of a physical place often depends as much on the creative powers of the visitor as it does on a walk around the area. Indeed it is almost mandatory to arrive at Dien Bien Phu with a vision of what happened, and why it matters, already in mind. This is true of other sites as well—think of Normandy—but it is more true of this place than of anywhere else I have visited.
I thought I was well prepared for the tour: I had read and reread the books, particularly Bernard Fall's Hell in a Very Small Place—which always moves me, because he was my teacher and my friend and this, his best book, was published in 1966, a year before he stepped on a mine and was killed during the American war. But the truth is that on the first afternoon I visited the battlefield I did not do it very well. Somehow the pieces did not come together: it was a boiling hot day, and my explorations were a bit helter-skelter.
There was the quiet visit to the small shrine the French have put up for their war dead (the paint for it flown in from Paris—very, very French, says the museum keeper), and to the memorial the Vietnamese created for theirs, listing the names of those killed (it was constructed 11 years after the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington and, I think, copied from it to some degree). There was the stop at the small museum, where visitors are shown a brief film on the battle, and where a diorama demonstrates step-by-step how the Vietminh captured the French strongpoints. (In one room sits the bathtub used by General Christian de Castries, the French camp commander.) Then a visit to General Giap's headquarters, located in the mountains about eight miles away; and finally to the very primitive, unvarnished Vietminh Museum, an appropriately simple monument for a people who waged a deceptively simple war. The most powerful exhibits are the hand-fashioned instruments that allowed the Vietminh to move supplies across several hundred miles; the chocks that kept artillery pieces from slipping down mountainsides; and the bikes without pedals, each of which carried hundreds of pounds of rice to the troops here.