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Dien Bien Phu city is mostly a mix of ethnic Viet Kinh (the majority ethnic group of the country) and White Thai, with other minorities inhabiting the outlying areas. But it is better known as the wellspring of Vietnam's storied rise to global prominence in the mid-twentieth century. The long, wide valley that encloses the town was the scene of a fierce, 57-day siege on French positions that decisively ended French rule in Indochina, and, in doing so, inspired anti-colonialist, revolutionary movements around the world and set the stage for some of the most pivotal events of the second half of the 20th century.
Now little remains of the battlefield itself , the trenches, barbed wire, encampments, and battle-lines that once criss-crossed the terrain have long since been erased to make room for development and agriculture. But a handful of war vestiges have been carefully preserved, constituting a series of exhibits that tourists can view and learn from, with or without a guide, in the course of a day. This is, by far, the chief reason any tourist ever visits Dien Bien Phu at all, and for French travelers looking to get in touch with that important, decidedly chequered, chapter of their history, a stop here is de rigueur. But for most other travelers, a trip to A1 Hill and the museum will offer all the coverage of the event that they need.
Aside from the history on display, Dien Bien Phu presents little more that a sprawling, dusty, nondescript border town. Other than checking out the market, with numerous rice wine shops, and heading to the centre of Muong Thanh Ward for something to eat, you'll have a hard time filling your dance card if you stay here more than two days.
You may also need to pass through Dien Bien Phu if you are coming or going through Tay Trung/Son Hun, the recently-opened border crossing with Laos, 34 km to the southwest.
The main road through town and on to the Tay Trung border is mostly called 'Duong 7-5' commemorating the date, May 7, 1954, when the French said, Adieu for the last time. It's easy enough to find, especially at night when it's illuminated by some rather fun, multi-colored columns of changing lights. But street address , not so easy to find: sometimes they go by the Phuong, or 'ward' they are in. The stretch between the market and heading towards the border is in Phuong Muong Thanh. Heading from the market towards Tuan Giao, the road is in Phuong Him Lam. After you cross the bridge from the market to the bus station, you're in Phuong Thanh Binh. And many places have no address at all. Needless to say, navigating by addresses here can be tricky. You can orient yourself by finding the market, which is at the three-way intersection described above, and has a tall red and white radio tower just across from it.
Things are pretty spread out, so if you don't want to spend all day walking around, you'll be making good use of the motorcycle taxi drivers that hand out at the market.
The centre of Muong Thanh ward is a great little neighborhood that can be reached by turning on the road alongside the Dien Bien Phu hotel (Hoang Cong Chat) or the one by the cemetery (Hoang Van Thai) and heading a kilometer east. Unfortunately, there's no longer a place to stay here since the old Beer Factory Guesthouse closed down. It's still a good place to head, though, for food, Internet, Bia Hoi, and DBP's only other ATM machine.
The BIDV bank is located along the road to Tay Trung, on the right hand side leaving town: The ATM accepts foreign cards, but no services are on offer other than dong for dollars. We found the ATM here very wonky on our visit, so if you run into the same problem, there's another one Hoang Van Thai a couple hundred meters north of the intersection with Tran Can Street.
BIDV: 7-5 Road (888 Pho Muong Thanh 3), Dien Bien Phu. Tel: (0230) 3825 852, 774, F: (0230) 3826 016. Hours: 08:00 to 04:30 weekdays
Internet is not ubiquitous, and we couldn't find any places open and running near the market. Seek out Nguyen Chi Thanh which runs parallel just west of 7-5 Street. A block before the road to the Muong Thanh bridge on the left is Quang Trung Internet, and there's another cyber cafe a couple doors down. More options can be found by taking the turn along side the Dien Bien Phu hotel and heading about a kilometer east.
To reach the bus station, turn off 7-5 Road at the market and cross the Thanh Binh bridge , it's on the right.
The Tay Trung Border
This recently-opened border, 34 km to the southwest of Dien Bien Phu, provides and interesting new route for traveling from northern Laos directly to Hanoi without having to dip down to Luang Prabang or Vientiane. The chief downside is the current, wretched state of Highway 6 between Dien Bien Phu and Son La, and it will be years before there is marked improvement on that score. It's still sparsely-used by foreigners, but you can get a Laotian visa-on-arrival when crossing into Laos, and, as ever, most nationalities must already have obtained a valid Vietnamese visa when crossing the other way. The 48-hour grace period is honored here if you overstay your Vietnamese visa. Buses to the border leave from the Dien Bien Phu bus station at 05:30 on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays only, and cost 75,000, which is a bit silly because the Xe Om guys we talked to said they only charged 150,000 VND.
Things to do and sights to see
1. Dien Bien Phu Museum - Run down, but still worth seeing
This museum won't be the highlight of your visit, but it does offer an account of the battle from the perspective of the Vietnamese soldiers who faced down one of the largest forces then seen in South East Asia. Those on a group tour will probably be happy to have a guide around that speaks their language and can explain what they are looking at, as there are few English captions, and a lot of the displays are in a dilapidated state. Also, curatorial rigour may be lacking as well -- a careful eye might detect some errors, such as the American military outfits passed off as French in one of the displays.
Some of the photojournalism is interesting, particularly the classic photo taken of three, weary French soldiers surrendering in front of a crashed transport vehicle. Among the artefacts, maps and diagrams are a number of items that are little more than 'trophies' really, being shown off to prove how hastily the French had to abandon their position -- the Bathtub of General De Castries has little historical value, but is cheekily displayed, as if to comment on the foppishness of the French leaders as compared to the Viet Minh leaders, men of the people, all, who bathed in a icy cold water from a stream, along with their troops, and were happy to do so.
Outside the museum, a number of military transports and heavy artillery pieces have been set up, some Vietnamese and some captured from the enemy. Particularly striking is the contrast between an old French, single-shot canon on wooden wheels, which looks like it dates from the Napoleonic wars, and the massive hardware the Vietnamese dragged in over the mountains. It was the presence of these big guns that took the French by surprise and all-but guaranteed a Vietnamese victory. Also quite telling, the wreckage of several planes that were shot down, in a big pile, with a wing prominently displayed bearing the U.S.A insignia. This demonstrates the link, as far as the North Vietnamese were concerned, between the two Indochina wars, and substantiates their claim that the US was the chief force behind an imperialist 're-conolisation' effort both times, despite it's 'cynical' claim to be fighting for freedom and against Communism.
Opening Hours: 07:00 to 11:00 and 13:30 to 17:00 daily
2. A1 hill and Cemetery - Monuments to the fallen
A1 Hill, known as Elian II to the French, is the feature attraction in Dien Bien Phu. There were actually six fortified hills in the area at the time of the battle, but all the others have been given over to agriculture and development, while this one has been preserved for posterity.
It was the last hill taken by the Viet Minh, marking the end of the battle, and was the scene of some of the most intense fighting, and loss of life. The hill was eventually blown up from underneath by the Vietnamese, so what's on display here is mostly a reconstruction, making it, by our reckoning, the world's largest, open-air, diorama in situ.
Nevertheless, it does provide a vivid and striking picture of what the Viet Minh took on, in terms of military logistics, and if you can imagine the challenge of taking on such a well-entrenched hill from the ground, and then multiply that by six, you'll understand why the Vietnamese are deservedly proud of the victory, and why it had world-wide repercussions.
The maze of trenches is extensive and elaborate, and would have provided cover for hundreds of troops to fire from a protected position on high ground at any force attacking from any direction. The French certainly didn't lose for lack of trying, and that's what A1 Hill is on display to demonstrate. They lost due to a fatal miscalculation. They were unaware that long before they broke ground on the garrison at Dien Bien Phu, the Viet Minh had already anticipated the move, and had begun the long arduous process of moving heavy artillery into secret positions encircling the location.
After you enter the front gate, take the road up the hill to the right. Once you're at the top you'll find some bunkers that can be explored, giving access to the trenches. War buffs will want to spend some time walking through the trenches, which are navigable on foot, and will be rewarded with the occasional appearance of the likenesses of Vietnamese soldiers crouching in cubby holes within the walls of the trenches. This commemorates the period during the conflict when the Viet Minh took the hill, but then were pushed back, before finally routing the French troops for the last time.
The nearby cemetery will have deep meaning for those connected to the conflict on the Vietnamese side, but for the casual tourist it's just another Vietnamese cemetery and you might want to skip it.
Opening Hours: 07:00 to 11:00, 13:30 to 17:00
3. Muong Thang Bridge and the Bunker of Commander Pirot - Famous locations
There's no significant payoff in visiting either of these sites, but you'll pass them on the way to the bunker of General De Casties if you're headed there. The bridge has been preserved by barring vehicular traffic, but bikes and motorbikes can cross. Just before crossing the bridge, on the right, there is a stone plaque in front of what is now just a weedy hole in the ground, but used to be the bunker of Chief Artillery Commander Pirot. As the story goes, the moment he heard the first shot from Vietnamese artillery in the nearby hills, he knew defeat was inevitable and committed suicide. Whether this was out of despair at the inevitable lose of human life that was about to take place, or simply to avoid the humiliation of going back to France and explaining himself, will never be known.
4. The Bunker of General De Casties - More big guns
This is the command quarters where General De Casties and his staff holed up while coordinating their forces during the 57-day siege. Yes, this is where they found the bathtub now on display at the museum. It's a small series of trenches and bunkers covered by a good metre of concrete bricks made using burlap sacks as molds, protected by another layer of thick, curved steal designed to deflect incoming rounds. It's the most heavily fortified bunker we've seen in all of Vietnam, and that may be the Vietnamese rationale for preserving it. The fact that the French had gone from colonial masters, to animals cowering in an underground den, marked a sea change in their struggle for liberation. To further illustrate the point, some of the heavy artillery that all that concrete was built in fear of is on display in back of the bunker. The area features some more tanks and memorials, and if you're with a guide you'll probably be taken to see them.