DIEN BIEN PHU, Vietnam, Thousands of Vietnamese brimmed with patriotic fervor in remote Dien Bien Phu on Friday as they marked a decisive military victory that spelled the end of French colonial rule in Indochina.
Some 12,000 spectators crammed a stadium in this highland town to hear speeches and watch a parade and other grand synchronized displays.
Thousands more packed surrounding streets, sat on rooftops or clustered on the side of a steep hill to glimpse the colorful 45th anniversary celebration of the victory.
Aged veterans wearing army green and distinctive Vietnamese green pith helmets donned medals and swapped stories about the 57-day battle that ended on May 7, 1954, and which killed more than 10,000 Communist Viet Minh troops and thousands of French soldiers.
Soldiers, police and blue-clad workers’ militias, together with colorfully dressed women and children, paraded around the pitch following a large image of late leader Ho Chi Minh as a military band played stirring patriotic battle tunes.
This is wonderful, said Nguyen Thi Nguyet, a young women watching from a rooftop.
The battle of Dien Bien Phu gave us a free Vietnam, we should never forget those who fought here. They were heroes.
Hoang Dinh Tien, a Dien Bien Phu veteran from the Red River Delta, 500 km (312 miles) to the east, said he was happy to see the battlefield again.
It was such a hard time but very heroic. That was when I felt most brave and dared to sacrifice my body for the country, he said.
Communist Party Politburo members Pham The Duyet and Pham Van Tra, who is also defense minister, traveled from Hanoi by helicopter to attend the celebration.
But noticeably absent was Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, the famed Vietnamese military tactician who commanded and masterminded the victory. There were also no French veterans present.
Duyet, in a speech, urged people to look to the example set by Dien Bien Phu veterans and to continue the revolution and strive to build a modern Vietnam.
An ‘underestimated’ force
The result of Vietnam’s victory not only sparked the end of France’s colonial presence in Indochina, but it eventually inspired other French possessions to seek their own independence.
And the skills that were learned by communist North Vietnamese forces would prove decisive when they faced South Vietnam’s U.S.-backed forces the following decade.
France, the colonial power in Vietnam, returned to the country in November 1946, more than a year after the country gained independence. But it quickly found itself fighting a guerrilla war against the Viet Minh, the precursor to the Viet Cong.
In November 1953, French Gen. Henri Navarre decided to establish a batch of fortresses at Dien Bien Phu, a town of 25,000 people in a strategically located valley in northwestern Vietnam.
The stated goal was to cut off coordination between the Viet Minh and sympathetic forces in Laos and China.
But Navarre also hoped to draw the Viet Minh into a major battle that he thought they couldn’t win. He even dropped leaflets daring Gen. Giap to attack.
The French underestimated the Viet Minh army, said Lt. Gen. Vu Xuan Vinh, who at the time was a 31-year-old regiment leader in the Viet Minh’s elite 308th Division, known among the French as the Iron Division for its battlefield success.
They said we couldn’t do anything to harm them because we had no warplanes or artillery. They were wrong.
The French fortified their positions with barbed wire and land mines. Twenty tanks and other artillery appeared more than sufficient to protect the two airstrips that carried in vital supplies.
Navarre said Dien Bien Phu was like an armadillo, that if we tried to attack we would have all of our teeth broken off, Vinh told The Associated Press.
Unbeknownst to the French, the Viet Minh had been getting artillery from Russian and Chinese allies.
By Jan. 26, 1954, the Viet Minh had built a camouflaged road that they used to ferry troops, anti-aircraft guns and other weapons to the area for what was planned as a two-day, three-night blitz attack.
A long assault
But the attack was called off at the last minute. Giap, whose self-taught tactics earned him the nickname the red Napoleon, listened to advisers and decided instead to pursue a long assault.
Over the next two months, the Viet Minh built 200 kilometers (125 miles) of trenches, some within 200 meters (yards) of French outposts.
And they planned.
Most previous attacks on the French had been at night on single divisions. There was no previous use of trenches.
The trenches and the artillery positions were so well camouflaged that when the attack started on March 13, the French were taken completely by surprise, Vinh said. It took only three days to overrun the outposts.
Skirmishes and Viet Minh advances followed as the trenches were expanded, even tunneling under the perimeter of one French post.
When our soldiers emerged one night, the French didn’t even have time to shout, Vinh said. It took us only 45 minutes to finish that post and about 200 French troops.
By April 25, the airstrips were completely isolated. The French aircraft could not land, and reinforcements and supplies were dropped by parachute.
But the French planes could not fly low because of our anti-aircraft fire, which claimed 62 aircraft, Vinh said. Dropping from high, a lot of the supplies ended up with our troops. We could enjoy chocolates and other sweets.
The commander of the French troops had been promoted to major general, but we got his insignia so he couldn’t wear his new rank. We also seized boxes of letters from the soldiers’ wives. Many contained locks of the women’s hair.
The Viet Minh closed in on the major fortress.
We were so close to the base that we could hear the French soldiers shouting and cursing at each other and their officers, Vinh said. They had a severe shortage of food and medicines.
The French commander wanted to withdraw to Laos, but we had blocked the road.
The final assault began the night of May 6. One ton of explosives killed an entire company of French soldiers. Russian multiple rocket launchers pounded the base.
The next morning, we heard a lot of French soldiers crying, Vinh said. Finally, we saw some white flags around 3 p.m. At first, we thought it was a trick, and I told the soldiers to tell their colleagues to come out. When they did, we knew it was over.
6 DAYS DIEN BIEN PHU – SAPA (HDS6)