Dien Bien Phu: Ripples from French colonial defeat still felt, 60 years on

Six decades after bloody battle, one Vietnamese soldier recalls the carnage

Sixty years ago, on May 7, 1954, dead soldiers and scorched military equipment littered the fields around the town of Dien Bien Phu, Hoang Dang Vinh told Agence France-Presse.

“The sky was filled with tall columns of black smoke from burning vehicles,” said Vinh, now a 79-year-old retired colonel and one of only a few surviving Vietnamese veterans of the battle.

After nearly two months of relentless fighting in Vietnam’s Muong Thanh valley, Viet Minh forces had encircled the French troops in Dien Bien Phu.

The humiliating French defeat came after "56 days and 56 nights of noise and fury," said filmmaker Pierre Schoendoerffer, who was taken prisoner at Dien Bien Phu.

A few French soldiers waved a white cloth parachute, Vinh said, and he entered a French fortified bunker to find Commander Christian-Marie de la Croix de Castries.

Vinh took Castries prisoner, ending the battle, and — unbeknownst to either — precipitating the collapse of France's colonial empire and Vietnam's emergence as an independent nation.

Vietnamese Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap could not believe the news when it was first relayed by radio, Vinh recalled. “Is it true that you have captured General de Castries?” the master military strategist, who died late last year at age 102, kept asking over and over again.

While Castries, according to a former Reuters correspondent, had stashed 48,000 bottles of fine vintage wine in his camp before the battle, General Giap pared his supplies down, including his artillery, so they could be transported by hundreds of Peugeot bicycles through the jungles.

In contrast to Giap's low-tech but sturdy bicycles, the U.S. contemplated helping the French with nuclear weapons, according to the BBC.

But without American intervention, the French were roundly defeated by the Viet Minh. It was a milestone in the history of liberation movements.

Dien Bien Phu "was the first time that a non-European colonial independence movement had evolved through all the stages from guerrilla bands to a conventionally organized and equipped army able to defeat a modern Western occupier in a pitched battle," wrote British historian Martin Windrow, the author of “The Last Valley: Dien Bien Phu and the French Defeat in Vietnam.”

“The fighting was extremely bloody,” Vinh told AFP, his voice trembling as he described the bodies covering the battlefield, their arms and legs torn off.

Some 3,000 French soldiers and at least 10,000 Vietnamese died at Dien Bien Phu, according to AFP.

Vinh, like many of his comrades, never received much training: a month of practice using firearms and explosives.

Five of the Viet Minh’s seven divisions were concentrated around Dien Bien Phu, and most of the troops’ time was spent in the dank, uncomfortable trenches.

“They were hiding in the trenches for months ... We did everything there, including all medical services,” said Vinh. “I weighed only around 40 kilos [88 pounds]. Life was very difficult.”

After the war, Vietnam’s split into the communist north and the French-supported territory in the south proved tenuous. It provoked another war that brought hundreds of thousands of American troops into South Vietnam and ended only in 1975 with the fall of Saigon, after the deaths of nearly 50,000 U.S. troops and as many as 3 million Vietnamese. Vietnam's long-deferred reunification followed.

For the French, however, the Viet Minh victory marked not just the end of their dominance in Indochina but the beginning of their decline as a colonial power.

Inspired by the Viet Minh, many Algerians, a few of whom had even fought next to the French in Vietnam, began demanding their own independence. About six months later, Algerians would begin their own successful independence movement, through a bloody war that lasted over seven years.

Julian Jackson, a historian, wrote for the BBC: "The French army held so desperately on to Algeria partly to redeem the honor it felt had been lost at Dien Bien Phu. So obsessed did the army become by this idea that in 1958 it backed a putsch against the government, which it believed was preparing what the generals condemned as a 'diplomatic Dien Bien Phu.'"

In Vietnam, May 7 has become a day of remembrance.

"Dien Bien Phu was a victory for all the people of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia," as it ended French dominance in Indochina, said President Truong Tan Sang at a ceremony on Wednesday featuring marching bands, flower-bedecked military floats and regiments of goose-stepping soldiers.

In a year with the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall and the 100th anniversary of World War I, it's easy to look past Dien Bien Phu, but, said Jackson, we "should not forget this other battle that took place 60 years ago."

"The ripples of Dien Bien Phu are still being felt."

Al Jazeera and AFP with additional reporting by Christopher Shay

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