Sunday, 15 May 2011

Dien Bien Phu, A Battle to the End! 12-14 March 2011

It was 7.30am and my minibus for Dien Bien Phu had pulled up outside the hotel, I said goodbye to the owner and his wife, the true boss, and approached the bus. The wife also acted as chef and had made me a chicken sandwich for me to take onto the bus for the journey. She had told us how she dreams that one day she would like to move to Europe as a chef. I passed my bag to the driver who crammed it in the back with all the others and I stepped up into the bus and found a seat on the back with two other people.

Beautiful, though...
My hopes for a semi comfortable journey were dashed when we stopped two minutes later to pick up more people. There were three seats free and we picked up five more people. A girl squeezed herself in next to me and her companions mirrored this in the other rows. I just hoped that there weren't going to be any more collections as there was not any more room on the bus and this was to be a eight hour journey through the hills to Dien Bien Phu.

I began talking with my very close (proximity) travel companions and learned that Andy and Emma, the couple to my left were British, had been working in Australia for a couple of years and were gradually making their way back home via South East Asia and India. The girl to my right didn't talk much, she was an American and that's pretty much all I remember about her.

...the mountainous view is better by naked eye...
The bus journey was long and bumpy but the scenery was absolutely amazing! At times the road was non-existent or under construction as many things tend to be around this part of the world. An couple of hours down the road the bus pulled over for what we thought would be a short stop, but no, we stopped for an hour whilst the Vietnamese passengers filled themselves up with Bun Cha. We thought this to be slightly ridiculous and stood outside eating a quick snack waiting for them to finish. We got back into the hot and uncomfortable bus and hit the road for a few more hours on death provoking roads, hanging off the edge on every bend and narrowly missing all oncoming vehicles. Still, if I died on this road, at least I died with an amazing view! The temperature difference between Sapa and where we were was so incredible I wish I had worn my shorts, not my jeans.

...not through moving bus window!
A few more hours passed by until we made our next stop at 1pm which we took to be a natural lunch break for anyone. We asked the driver how long we had and he motioned with his watch, twenty minutes, so we thought we would go off and find somewhere to eat. We walked 100 meters down the hot and dusty road to a small wooden shack market and Andy found somewhere to eat, I wasn't too hungry as I'd been snacking on some dried fruit which I had become addicted to. I walked back towards the bus station to find the toilet only to be confronted by the driver slapping his watch with his middle and index fingers and urging me to get onto the minibus. “It had only been five minutes,” I told him to which he didn't seem to care. “You said twenty minutes, it's been five.” I repeated myself trying to make myself clear but the driver had no wish to interact on the matter and the other Vietnamese passengers were shouting for me to get on board. This made me angry and agitated, we waited for them for an hour earlier for a pointless, stupidly timed lunch stop and now they can't seem to get away fast enough. I shouted to Emma who had just walked back up the road that Andy needed to get back as we seemed to be leaving with or without him. She ran back down to the market and grabbed him before he started to eat and the bus drove towards them and they barely got on before the bus driver slammed his foot on the throttle which kicked a lot of dust into the air behind us.

The War Memorial
We finally arrived in Dien Bien Phu around 4pm, it was hot and humid, the hottest temperature I had experienced so far on my trip. I had found a guesthouse in the Lonely Planet which I was drawn to as it was a micro brewery. I told Andy and Emma about this hostel and they were also keen to go and find it, so we grabbed our bags and began the walk towards the hostel following my hand drawn map of the town. However, after ten minutes of walking down the main road and still not only half way there, we decided to turn back and get a guesthouse closer to the bus station as Andy and Emma's bus was extremely early in the morning and they didn't fancy the walk, which I couldn't blame them. We found a guesthouse which was of the no-frills category close to the market. We dumped our bags in our rooms and had a quick freshen up before heading out to find some bia hoi.

After a well needed shower, we headed out to the streets of Dien Bien Phu and found an place selling Bia Hoi. We immediately ordered a pitcher of freshly brewed beer between us and it went down like a dream. The cool, refreshingly smooth tasty beer slipped down our throats making us forget the bus journey earlier that day. One pitcher turned into two, three, four and I'm not sure how many as the locals joined us and began filling our glasses up to toast with them. Darkness instantaneously surrounded us as all the electricity was cut off across the whole town unexpectedly following a brief hushed silence whilst the staff found the candle lamps and conversations continued as though it was a normal occurrence.

The centre of town... brilliant...
They began to take more interest in us and the teenage daughter of the owner came over to talk to us. We didn't have much verbal communication between us as she was either shy about speaking or more likely has just learnt English from a book as her written communication skills were almost faultless. We spent a while reading her questions and writing our responses until her father invited us over to a table where they had laid out a birthday cake with other sweets for one of their children. They offered us cake and we sang happy birthday to the little girl whilst she opened up her present. It was really nice to be involved in such a personal family affair and to see the happiness on the girls face when she got her gift. By this time, it was 10pm and the restaurant was needing to close, but the owner kindly invited us round to his house to watch a premiership match that was on that evening.

The grand entrance to the cemetery of fallen comrades
His house was just across the road and we were accompanied by his youngest son and eldest daughter who was still communicating to us through her pen and notepad. When we arrived at their home we were individually asked to follow him into the back where he wanted to show us something. A bit strange we thought and feared for our lives. However, Andy and Emma both took their times and came out with a laugh which had a slight nervousness to it. I was intrigued and followed the man to the back garden where I was confronted with a dozen porcupines, all in cages, being fed and watered by his wife. I did ask whether they were for food or pets and was relieved when he confirmed the latter. I returned to the front of the house which opened up to the road with a feeling of 'what the hell is that all about' on my face to which Andy and Emma nodded in agreement.

A huge bomb crater on Hill A1 from a B-52
I didn't really watch the football as planned as I began talking with the youngest son who was no older than 8 years old. He didn't speak English but he showed me his transformers with excitement and we ended up playing with them for the next 30 minutes whilst Andy watched the football with the boss and Emma was talking with the girl. The match finished and we politely said thank you to our extremely kind and generous hosts and left in search of well needed food as we hadn't eaten a decent meal since breakfast.

Our luck was in, there was a bakery open selling cakes, burgers and hot dogs. We settled for a couple of hot dogs each and a beer which I struggled to get down me. After sitting there for half an hour, we decided it was time for bed as Emma and Andy had to get up extremely early to get early morning bus to Laos in the morning. We walked back and I said goodbye to my new friends who I was so fortunate in meeting on the bus that day.

Destruction beyond belief
The Battle of Dien Bien Phu, 1953-54

Dien Bien Phu is synonymous with the 1954 Battle of Dien Bien Phu which was an important turning point for Vietnam and the rest of Indochina. After the second world war was over, the first Indochina war began and the Viet Minh insurgency was growing in strength and had gained land from Hanoi as far as Luang Probang in Laos. The French were continually failing to quash the Viet Minh's victories over their armies and needed to stop their advances into Laos which was still under French control. France saw the only option was to launch an all out attack on Dien Bien Phu which would cut off the Viet Minh's supply line and force them to retreat. France were poorly prepared and didn't stand a chance against the Viet Minh who had secured all the highland in the area and severely outnumbered the French army. Nguyen Giap, commander of the Viet Minh's army described the battlefield as a rice bowl, they had all the high ground while the French were all deep inside. The French lost the battle miserably and decisively.

French Trench of Hill A1, their best hope...
On May 8 1954, Ho Chi Minh delivered the news to the Geneva Conference declaring Viet victory over the French at Dien Bien Phu. They had no choice but to divide Vietnam at the 17th parallel until elections were held that would reunite the two halves, Communist Democratic Republic of Vietnam to the north and French supported State of Vietnam to the South. The last French troops withdrew from Indochina in 1956 which paved the way for the United States of America to get involved.  The United States had been funding the French for years in an effort to remotely squash the communist influence on the area.  They were always agitated by the French inability to do so they took the opportunity to go in and 'finish' the job.

An example of Viet Minh strength
Unmarked graves of the victims of war
The Victory Museum, of course with heavy Viet prejudice, documents the battle from start to their victorious finish with photos, artefacts and destroyed French and American artillery. Across from the museum is the cemetery which is a very moving complex with endless lines of graves for all those that lost their lives in the battle. Overlooking the cemetery is Hill A1 which is the highest point in town and was held by the French troops during the battle. It is littered with a rabbit run of trenches and was extremely hard fought for between the French and Viet Minh armies. After the walk up to the top of the hill, you get a fantastic view of the lines of unmarked graves below in the cemetery and the surrounding countryside to seal my trip to Dien Bien Phu before it started to rain.

Next Time: Son La and the obligatory rain... rain... rain... rain...

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