Dien Bien Phu is a mountainous area, about 500 km to the west of Hanoi, 250 km to the southwest of Sapa, bordering with Laos. It is one of the historical lands of Vietnam, marking an important victory of Democratic Republic of Vietnam in 1954 against the French army, leading to the end of the first Indochina War. That is what went down to history as the Battle of Dien Bien Phu.
Dien Bien Phu location
Events leading to the Battle of Dien Bien Phu 1954
When Japanese was defeated in 1945, and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam was officially established, the French wanted to reinforce its power in Indochina and didn’t withdraw from Vietnam. After several unsuccessful discusses in 1946, the French and Democratic Republic of Vietnam came into wars once again.
During 1953, French was in financial trouble after several lost battles and needed to focus all their efforts in protecting the freedom of homeland when the conflict between West Germany and Soviet Union heated up. Their initial plan, at the time, was to focus on creating a base in the south-central delta to take control of this land and make a peace negotiation in 1954 with the terms on their favors.
However, this time, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam had the Chinese supports including the artilleries and rice. They, under the lead of General Vo Nguyen Giap, came up with the plan to disperse the concentration of French by creating a chain of small battles along the Laos border, to the northwest of Vietnam under the Winter-Spring campaign (November 1953) and focusing all of the efforts, artilleries for the Battle of Dien Bien Phu. This battle was to be the make-or-break battle that Vietnamese army must win to gain the favorable terms in the Geneva Accords 1954. The biggest risk of this plan was that the French could have figured it out and withdraw easily before the Vietnamese army could finish the preparation.
Vo Nguyen Giap General
The French thought the Vietnamese army wanted to gain control over the west side, making attacks to weaken the French influence in Laos, cutting French financial supply from opium transferred via this area. Therefore, the French turned their attention and efforts in building one of their strongest camp in this northwest area. This area is surrounded by mountain ranges which made it difficult for artilleries transportation. The French could easily receive supply and withdraw by air as a backup plan.
De Castries Commander of the French Army in Dien Bien Phu Battle
What happened in the Battle of Dien Bien Phu 1954
December 1953, when the French showed their commitment to the Dien Bien Phu battlefield and built a strong camp, was also the time for Battle of Dien Bien Phu 1954 to begin. The Vietnamese soldiers using only human forces had moved artilleries up the hills, surrounding the airlift in Muong Thanh, preparing rockets to fight any air attacks.
Vietnamese soldiers pulled the artilleries up the hills
The first wave of the Dien Bien Phu Battle started on March 13th, 1954. In 4 days, the Vietnamese Army had taken over the north of the camp at three spots: Him Lam, Doc Lap, and Ban Keo.
Doc Lap Hill attack
The second wave lasted a month, from March 30th to April 30th. The French camp in the center of Dien Bien Phu, in the north, and part of Muong Thanh airbase was taken over.
Muong Thanh Airbase attack
The last wave from May 1st to May 7th, 1954 was the final hit, ending the whole Dien Bien Phu Battle. After Muong Thanh airbase was in the control of the Vietnamese army, Commander De Castries and the soldiers in the commander bunker waved the white flag. The Vietnamese continued to chase and ceased fights of the French soldiers southward.
Democratic Republic of Vietnam flag on top of French commander bunker
As soon as the French knew they wouldn’t win Dien Bien Phu Battle, they couldn’t withdraw by air as they have planned. During this whole fight, the Americans only gave financial aids and played the role of advisory to the French, refusing to send their troops in this catastrophic battlefield. The French had to fight on their own and finally gave in on May 7th, 1954.
The victory of Democratic Republic of Vietnam in Battle of Dien Bien Phu 1954
In the Geneva conference in 1954, the French agreed to withdraw totally from Vietnam, ending the first Indochina War. This accord left Vietnam divided into the northern half and southern half (borderline was the 17th parallel). Vietnam was to wait for a national election to unify the country (whether to be under the Democratic Republic of Vietnam or the Associated State of Vietnam).
After Geneva and Battle of Dien Bien Phu 1954
While the Geneva Accord did end the participation of French colonials in the Vietnam battlefield, it was the beginning of the participation of the US in the Second Indochina War. The US had stepped in to make their impacts as an opposition to the growing communists with two representatives being China and the Soviet Union. This later escalated to the Vietnam War, and the war only ended with the success of the Ho Chi Minh Campaign.
50 years after the Battle of Dien Bien Phu 1954, a detailed map of this whole battle was displayed in the Museum of Vietnam Military History (28A Dien Bien Phu, Ba Dinh District, Hanoi) on March 25th, 2004. The old map of Dien Bien Phu which had been initially used by the French and Vietnamese was incorrect, and thus, sets of new 1/25,000 maps and bird’s eyes view shots of this area printed by the French were sent by air on December 25th, 1953. The Vietnamese Army crawled through the fences and took this set from the French camp. The Vietnamese soldiers could come back to the command base safely and easily because it was a Christmas night when the French soldiers were distracted by the celebration atmosphere.
The “new” map of Dien Bien Phu
Visiting the sites of Dien Bien Phu Battle
If you are interested in Vietnam history, you should pay a visit to the bases like Hong Cum, Him Lam, Doc Lap Hill, Muong Thanh Bridge, Muong Thanh Airbase, and De Castries Commander bunker when coming to Dien Bien Phu. You can also visit the Vietnamese commanders’ bunker in Muong Phang District, about 30 km from Dien Bien Phu City. A 96-meter long tunnel was dug underground to connect Vo Nguyen Giap General’s base and Hoang Van Thai Joint Chiefs of Staff’s base, which could endure the cannon attacks.
The monument of French commander bunker
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