Reflections at Dien Bien Phu

As befitting one of the most well-known battlefields in modern Vietnamese history, Dien Bien Phu has its fair share of towering museums, monuments and men.

The battle of Dien Bien Phu began in March 1954, and lasted 1 month, 3 weeks and 3 days, between the forces of the French Union and the Viet Minh. It culminated in the utter rout of French forces, a defeat so complete that France was forced to give up the colony it had so repressively fought to keep. In modern history, the shocking defeat by a seemingly superior, technologically advanced Western force by a smaller, ostensibly inferior Asian unit paralleled the stunning defeat of Russian forces by the Japanese in the Russo-Japanese War of 1905; the subsequent withdrawal of US forces in the 1970s from Vietnam after decades of desperate ideological wrangling would also bear witness to this pattern.

For the Viet Minh it was a stunning victory that came at incredible costs, involving logistical miracles and elaborate planning. It was also one of the rare times in modern military history that Direct Artillery Fire had been employed on an enemy. In essence, what the Vietnamese had done, confounding all expectations, was to haul vast artillery guns, piece by painstaking piece, up to the hills and mountains surrounding the base of the ‘bowl’ that the French command had chosen to site its base. Anyone who has climbed a mountain with a backpack can perhaps appreciate how difficult trekking can be. Now imagine doing that with artillery rounds, each weighing about 50kg. Now imagine hauling up entire guns  capable of hurling these rounds for kilometres into the air. Repeat.

As a historian, an artilleryman, a mountain trekker, and a human being, I came to see this old battlefield for myself in early May 2016.

But Dien Bien Phu on a quiet May morning is very much like your Singaporean neighbourhood, waking up however. People going to market. People opening up their shops. People getting their first sip of ca phe and their first read of the papers. Nobody really very keen on entertaining a curious, Japanese-looking tourist.

But perhaps the normalcy was the whole beauty of it all.  

Seeing a whole gaggle of enthusiastic little kids shrieking their heads off on an early Thursday morning on Hill A1 really moved me. This was the heart of the French command during the Battle. The Vietminh spent perhaps 50,000 men taking this hill; the French about 23,000 to defend it. The soil of this place must be drenched in blood and history. And yet – here a group of little schoolchildren had been trooped over to visit. Their teachers had even prepared a little picnic for them. As I sketched the town a little girl grabbed my arm to peer at what I was doodling.

I wonder if this is what so many die for in the end, when they march to war. When they undergo endless, countless privations. When they kill and are killed in so many barbaric ways. Not for ideologies, nor leaders.

But so that at the end of the unforgettable days and the forgotten years, children can come to have picnics, at the site where so many had once been slaughtered.

Dien Bien Phu is a twelve(!) hour busride from Hanoi, blank stares and mutual misunderstood yelling included. I came here to pay homage as a history geek to a great people and place. That quiet morning, however, I saw what may really have been at stake. Not just dominoes, nor demons nor imperialisms.

Perhaps simply the hope to raise one’s children in a brighter, better future, under a tree blooming crimson with the promise of better tomorrows .

“Children having fun, while we are holding guns”


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