A lot of the tourist sites in Northern Vietnam seem to revolve around the Indochina Wars and praise for Uncle Ho. My understanding of the history of this region is only paralleled by my awful geography. What I learned in school of US imperialism involved a noble (if sometimes witch-like) hunt and fight against a spreading Communism threat that would kill freedom. Perhaps I fell asleep the one day we glazed over the biggest series of worldwide revolutions, de-colonization and freedom that occurred in the later half of the century. Vietnam’s victory helped inspire revolutions in Cuba and Algeria as well. America did not fall to the threat of Communism in the meantime. It is ironically of note that while western imperialism fell to a vicious defeat, modern western culture globalism has certainly taken over in Asia since then.
After going to the Army History Museum in Hanoi, my second encounter with the military history propaganda machine was at Dien Bien Phu. This is the site of the greatest defeat of French forces. The information about Dien Bien Phu is scarce and I had a hard time finding an address for the big tourist points. I stumbled on this informative site, which appears to be the account of a US military guy who visits as he is fascinated with the history. At one point he talks about how he can’t agree with anything the mass murderer [I assume he means Ho Chi Minh] says or does. While they certainly were the US enemy, I have a hard time painting the Vietnamese as entirely evil when we were the ones invading and trying to keep them colonized. Ho Chi Minh took to communism because he thought it was the route to independence. Neither Indochina War (the war for independence from France is known as the First Indochina War and the Vietnam War is also known as the Second Indochina War) was popular in the fighting countries of France or America.
I wondered what would make the French come visit the end of their colonial power. Perhaps it is a guilt they have assumed for their country or a fascination with the military or cultural history. I could say the same about visiting the Plain of Jars as an American though.
The cemetery sits on a corner across from the A1 hill, site of the most important and last victory, and the Dien Bien Phu Victory Museum.
There was a bit of overlap between the two museums and Hanoi’s was definitely bigger, better organized and the better stop if you are only going to one. They also shared a love of showing captured equipment with very clear US markings.
Really, no one had a chance because they were fighting for their freedom and independence. The French military leader knew this and figured their best shot was a stalemate. The US was trumpeting freedom and independence from Communism, but this was the Vietnamese’s land and their hearts. They wanted it way more than anyone else. Ho Chi Minh was once quoted saying “You can kill ten of our men for every one we kill of yours. But even at those odds, you will lose and we will win.” They certainly were right about that. France even made a point of only using other colonial troops and to avoid metropolitan troops because this war was so unpopular. In France, the first Indochina War is often known as the “Dirty War”. Terrifyingly, the current war on drugs in Mexico had the drug lords saying they would kill ten of the police and army for every one of theirs killed. Either way, it is a brutal ratio for any war.
The biggest downfall of the French was that they assumed no one could get artillery anywhere near Dien Bien Phu. What they didn’t count on was a bunch of plucky Vietnamese willing to sacrifice large groups of men to pull in large weapons by manpower. Add in the fact that they outnumbered the French 5 to 1 and knew the landscape better and you can see how this battle would go. The Vietnamese used their farm hardened skills to traverse hills and get in the French trenches without many casualties. This started 57 days of hell for the French.
For being the site of such a huge victory and a provincial capital, this is still a slow dusty town. Only the advent of more tourism made the town recreate the trenches and bunkers of the past. They didn’t realize anyone would be interested in that.
It seems like hardly a generation has passed and already the land looks so peaceful. There seems to be no hard feelings either, the locals happily attempting to deal with foreigners and using broken English.
The people in Laos were even friendlier which was even more surprising given that they’re still suffering the effects of the Secret War. The US dropped more bombs on the province containing the Plain of Jars than they have anywhere else. Yet the people could not be friendlier to all the Westerners. Perhaps they have forgiven us, even though we still like to hold our moral superiority. Perhaps the dollar trumps all. Or perhaps, in countries where they gained independence but their own government takes their land and oppresses their voices, they understand that the act of a government is not always an act of the people.