Dien Bien Phu, Vietnam

Dien Bien Phu, Vietnam

It was one of the century's turning points, a devastating conflict that altered the fates of three nations: Vietnam, France, and eventually, America. The battle at Dien Bien Phu brought the eyes of the world to a remote village in northern Vietnam, and brought a colonial force to its knees. Forty-five years later, David Halberstam—whose Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of the American war helped define an era—returns to Vietnam, and to a time he cannot forget

VIETNAM AIR FLIES THREE TIMES A WEEK FROM HANOI TO DIEN BIEN PHU. The trip takes a little over an hour, and these days the planes are large, relatively comfortable ATR's—a significant improvement, friends tell me, over the Russian Ilyushins that used to make the run and turned it into something of a cliff-hanger.

Aboard the flight today are a handful of Western tourists, more of them French than American (when Americans return to the scene of their war, they prefer to visit the DMZ); a few Vietnamese veterans making pilgrimages; several local officials; and a number of Tai hill people engaged in what passes for commerce in this corner of the country. The in-flight magazine is filled with the advertisements of the new Vietnam: for Louis Vuitton luggage, Citibank, and a handsome new resort in Da Nang ("situated on famous China Beach, now attracting guests from all over the world . . .").

It is a trip I have been wanting to make for much of my adult life. My fascination with Dien Bien Phu began 45 years ago, during the bitter two-month siege of the French fortress there. I was a junior at Harvard in 1954, editing the college paper, and not only did we run a steady stream of articles about the battle—HARVARD PROFESSORS SEE FRENCH VICTORY UNLIKELY—but I read with fascination the leaked stories from Washington suggesting the imminence of American intervention, and with that, the need for vastly increased draft calls. Since I had no intention of going to graduate school, any story about draft calls had very personal implications, and I studied the stories and the maps religiously. I thought often of the young French parachutistes, or paras, who were fighting there, outnumbered five to one, their fate sealed from the outset. They were my age, and it was impossible not to think of the cruel hand they had been dealt.

In time, what happened in Vietnam after the French left and the Americans arrived would be woven into the fabric of my own life. I was to be a charter member of that generation of Americans in whose lives Vietnam remains the central experience, men and women who to this day struggle to see Vietnam as a country and not merely a war.

In 1962, when I was just 28, the New York Times assigned me to Vietnam. I arrived there thinking it would be a great story: that we Americans would inevitably help suppress a Communist insurrection. Instead I became one of a small group of journalists who—in the days before hawks and doves—realized that the war was in fact being lost, and reported as much, drawing the enmity of Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. In retrospect there was a sweet-sour quality to it all: On the one hand I endured the daily terror of following the South Vietnamese into combat, and the toxic attacks from men in air-conditioned offices in Washington who called me a coward and a Communist because my reporting was so pessimistic. Balanced against that were the richness of my professional friendships and my passion for the story, for Vietnam, and for its people. I was young, single, and in love with my work; this was the assignment I had always wanted. Sometimes I think of those 18 months of my first tour there as the last and perhaps happiest days of a delayed boyhood, when my only responsibility was to do something I loved doing and was well suited to do, in the company of colleagues I revered.

Eventually it all got darker. None of us in 1962 imagined that the American commitment would in time grow to 540,000 men. When I went back to Saigon in 1967, on assignment for Harper's magazine, it was with a much heavier heart. I did not return for nearly three decades, until a brief visit in 1995 to Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), where I was moved beyond expectation by encounters with old friends, and by the generous spirit of the Vietnamese I met. Yet, I still did not make it to the north.

As we grow older, certain places do not merely intrigue us, they become obsessions. The battle of '54—a defining event in the theater of my imagination—put Dien Bien Phu on the short list of my remaining obsessions. It was a place which I had never seen but which haunted me nonetheless. I had been to Omaha Beach and Verdun, to Auschwitz and Hiroshima. Now nothing beckoned me more than Dien Bien Phu.

And so last spring I finally arrived in Hanoi en route to Dien Bien Phu, almost 45 years to the day since the last French strongpoint had fallen to the Vietminh. During the American war, North Vietnam had been a separate country, one that we in the south could never visit. I had typed the word Hanoi hundreds of times in dispatches and articles and books, in phrases such as Hanoi thinks, Hanoi believes, Hanoi wants. In those days it seemed not so much a city as a dark and unknowable home to Them.

PASSING THROUGH SECURITY AT HANOI'S NOI BAI AIRPORT, I am very aware of the burdens I bear from the past. The young officer who so coldly examines my papers, refusing to look me in the face—is this because he is still fighting the war, and mine is an American passport?Does the past linger in his mind as well, or is it exclusively lodged in mine?Or is he merely acting in the hostile tradition of bored airport security officers everywhere?Do I sense an anger about the nation's recent history, or, perhaps worse, indifference to it?After all, the Vietnamese who fought in those two great wars now complain bitterly that young men like him do not care about the sacrifices of their elders. All the younger Vietnamese want, I am told, are their Honda motor scooters.

As we fly over the northwestern highlands on the way to Dien Bien Phu, I find myself wondering whether the actual site will match the one that has been so starkly clear in my mind for more than four decades. And finally there it is, out the window of the plane—except that the valley is much larger than I imagined. In the Dien Bien Phu of my imagination, the valley was only about a half-mile wide, and the peaks from which the Vietminh relentlessly fired down with their artillery had cast a more ominous shadow over the French defenses. In reality the valley is three or four miles across, the shadows cast by the mountains not so dramatic. The land is very green and appears stunningly innocent. I am reminded of what a journalist wrote at the time: that the battlefield resembled nothing so much as a vast football stadium, with the French on the field and the Vietminh in the top rows.

During the siege, some 48 French planes were shot down as they approached the airstrip here; eventually there were no pilots willing to make the run. The airstrip is still in the same spot, but today all our plane must contend with is a children's soccer game. As we approach the runway, the players scramble off the tarmac. Two hours later, when the plane takes off again for Hanoi, they will return to their game, safe to play on the runway for another two days.

FOR TWO TERRIBLE MONTHS IN 1954, IN THIS REMOTE AND UNLIKELY spot 250 miles west of Hanoi—a place absolutely devoid of strategic or material value—the world watched one of the epic battles of the 20th century unfold. Dien Bien Phu ranks in fame with Verdun, Gallipoli, Guadalcanal, El Alamein, and Stalingrad; other battles may have had a higher quotient of violence and far more casualties, but few were as historically significant. For this contest did not merely pit one European nation against another in a nationalist power struggle. Rather, it set a European colonial force, committed to an ideology of racial superiority, against an indigenous Asian force seeking liberation in a more egalitarian age. The Vietnamese victory served as an example to countries in Africa and Asia still under colonial rule, and inspired similar moves for independence. No struggle better symbolized the reversal of colonialism's fortunes than the French Indochina War, and no battle better encapsulated that conflict than Dien Bien Phu. Nowhere else did the notion of Caucasian superiority suffer so complete a defeat. Because the very nature of colonialism demands disrespect for the colonized, the French tragically underestimated the skill of those they were fighting. The seeds of their loss were contained in the same racial arrogance that had brought them to Indochina in the first place.

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.

But at the end of that first day some-thing was missing—something that would allow me to sense the desperation of those fateful days. So that night I sat up late rereading Bernie Fall, specifically the chapters on the final hours of the battle. And gradually I saw it again, although differently now. When I was 20, my thoughts had been only of the French paras, helplessly awaiting the end. The justice of their cause aside, they were, like me, Caucasian. But on this night I was also thinking of the young Vietminh soldiers in the elite regiments, who knew they would be leading the charge against the powerfully fortified French positions: they would have had no illusions about the terrible human cost awaiting them, or with whose blood it would be paid. I was thinking of men who, had they survived, would now be exactly my age.

AND SO THE NEXT DAY IT ALL COMES TOGETHER. We walk slowly, my wife and I, in a kind of homage to those who paid the ultimate price for other men's vainglory and foolishness. Yes, here is Eliane 2, as the French called it, the last strongpoint they controlled in the valley, and the last bastion that could offer any protection to General de Castries's headquarters a few hundred yards away. Both sides knew this little hill was the key, placed as it was smack in the center of the valley. While the French named their strongpoints after women, the Vietminh gave them numbers ranking their importance; thus Eliane 2 was known as position A-1—the most important hill of all.

The terrible struggle for control of Eliane 2 had already gone on for more than five weeks, involving day after day of hand-to-hand combat, when, on the evening of May 6, the final battle began. With the help of miners expert in using dynamite, the Vietminh had tunneled to within a few yards of the French command bunker on top of the hill.

As we stand on the slope I think of Captain Jean Pouget, the young officer who courageously volunteered to parachute into Dien Bien Phu on May 4 and commanded the French at Eliane 2. The fighting was ferocious, and at one point Pouget even led a partially successful counterattack. Finally—down to some 30 men, using the bodies of the dead as a last barricade—Pouget made a desperate call for reinforcements. His superior, Major Michel Vadot, radioed back: "Come on, be reasonable. You know the situation as well as I do. Where do you want me to find a company?I can't give you a single man or a single shell, my boy."

When Eliane 2 fell to the Vietminh at 4:40 a.m. on May 7, the last doorway was opened for the Vietminh to assault the now completely vulnerable French headquarters.

From Eliane 2, I walk to the Muong Thanh Bridge, where the Vietminh crossed the Nam Yum River in their final drive. Nearby lies the shell of an American "quad 50" (four 50-caliber machine guns mounted on a swivel), a weapon used with considerable efficiency in Korea, and which the French deployed with lethal effectiveness here. A small monument notes that the Vietminh crossed the river at 2 p.m. on May 7. And here, where the French gunners died manning their quad 50, a handful of chickens are having an early lunch.

A short walk away is a rebuilt version of the bunker that served as de Castries's headquarters. The French took pride in the fact that they never actually surrendered at Dien Bien Phu, never raised a white flag. Instead they simply announced to the Vietminh that they would cease all resistance at 5:30 that evening.

The bunker remains largely as it was: completely subterranean, cool inside on this brutal day, with a steel roof and strong metal and concrete supports. Concrete sandbags have been substituted for the traditional ones. On the side of the bunker is a bas-relief showing de Castries emerging from it in defeat, while a Vietminh soldier plants the red flag on the roof.

Thus did history turn, and a critical nail was driven into the coffin of colonialism. At the Geneva Conference, scheduled to start the next day, Georges Bidault, the French foreign minister, arrived holding little in the way of cards—in his words, "a two of clubs and a three of diamonds."

Gazing at the bas-relief on the bunker, I am reminded of a story told by the French journalist Lucien Bodard in his book The Quicksand War. At a Saigon bar in late 1954—after the French prisoners had been repatriated—Bodard ran into a famed French paratroop officer, a veteran of Dien Bien Phu. The once proud and boastful man seemed quite different now, Bodard thought, like a sleepwalker. "It was all for nothing," he kept repeating. "I let my men die in vain." The officer spoke of his time in prison, where he had talked with his captors and told them how bravely his men had fought at Dien Bien Phu. "Heroism is no answer," one of the Vietminh had replied. The French officer said he realized that he and his men had been fighting not just a war but a revolution—without knowing what the revolution was. "Dien Bien Phu," he told Bodard, "was not an accident of fate. It was a judgment."

OUTSIDE DE CASTRIES'S BUNKER I AM STRUCK BY the clash of violent images from the past with the almost biblical simplicity of the farming taking place all around us. To the north some corn is growing; to the west, coffee; and always in the background, rice. As we stand there by the bunker a peasant woman approaches. She asks the young guard for permission to pick leaves from a nearby fig tree. He asks her why, and she says it is for a pig that is having trouble producing milk—fig leaves are said to be helpful. Permission is granted.

In the field nearest us to the south some women are tending rosebushes. Perhaps because there are no souvenirs for sale, and because it seems important to bring something back from this place, I walk across the field and haggle briefly with the women. For about 50 cents I buy three roses, and that night, back at the hotel, I press them into a book. The book I use, because I am traveling light, is that of my beloved friend Bernard Fall.

In this rustic outpost, roads can be muddy and almost impassable, and hotel accommodations very basic. Many establishments don't have English-speaking employees or even telephones. Let your tour operator (either one in the United States or in Hanoi) arrange room reservations and flights.

The best time to visit is between November and April, when the days are dry and warm. But pack warm clothes-nights up in the mountains can be cold. Avoid July and August, the height of the rainy season.

Getting There
Vietnam Airlines has flights that leave Hanoi on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays (about $130 round-trip). Those wanting to explore the countryside should consider hiring a four-wheel-drive vehicle and driver in Hanoi ($300-$550 round-trip); the trip to Dien Bien Phu takes two days each way.

Tour Operators
The American company Asian Pacific Adventures (800/825-1680 or 818/886-5191; www.asianpacificadventures.com) offers customized packages, as well as guided tours starting at $750 for six days and $2,400 for 14 days, both of which include Dien Bien Phu. Tours of Vietnam are also arranged by other American-based operators, such as Absolute Asia (800/736-8187 or 212/627-1950; www.absoluteasia.com; from $2,350 per person, double, for 12-day trips) and Butterfield & Robinson (800/678-1147 or 416/864-1354; www.butterfieldandrobinson.com; custom itineraries start at about $500 per person per day). A visit to Dien Bien Phu can also be planned from Hanoi, through Saigon Tourist (55 Phan Chu Trinh St., Hoan Kiem District; 84-4/825-0923, fax 84-4/825-1174) or Vietnam Tourism (54 Nguyen Du St., Hoan Kiem District; 84-4/825-5963, fax 84-4/825-7583).

The Western-style restaurants at the People's Committee Guesthouse, Hotel Muong Thanh, and Dien Bien Phu Hotel all serve local dishes. But you'll also find interesting fare at the many food stalls lining the main road. This region is more than 50 percent ethnic Tai, and their influence is strongly reflected in staples such as black rice and pork kebabs. Stalls drawing the biggest crowds are usually the safest bet.

Explore More

More from T+L