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Vietnam forum

Dien Bin Phu

Posted by MADMAC on 25/9/2010 at 17:20

I was wondering if anyone has been there and walk the old battlefield from 1954. Is there any visible residue to see? Any old veterans there to talk to? any battlefield tours available? I am not interested in the politics, only the military operations.

#1 MADMAC has been a member since 6/6/2009. Posts: 6,957

Posted by travellingsarah on 26/9/2010 at 18:07 TF writer

Posted from within Vietnam.

I was there a couple of months ago. As far as I could see there is very little there. The main 'sight' is A1 Hill and there are a few old tanks, guns etc. scattered around the outskirts of town, but no large battlefields as such. I wasn't there for very long - and it's not my scene - so I didn't look into it in any great depth, or try to find veterans to talk to (I hardly found anyone who spoke English so not sure how much luck you'd have on the talking front) but there are no tours operators in the town. If you found a xe om driver who spoke some English you might be able to explain to one that you wanted to see some of the sights and get a tour around. Sorry, that's probably not too helpful!

#2 travellingsarah has been a member since 23/3/2010. Location: Vietnam. Posts: 681
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Posted by MADMAC on 26/9/2010 at 19:18

Thanks Sarah, that's better than nothing. I would not expect to "see a battlefield" as such. Most of the residue will be overgrown or taken away for salvage anyway. But if you know where to look, what to look for, and have some people with you who fought there, it can all come alive again. I've done this before in the Ardennes and it was a unforgetable experience. I have a friend in Hanoi and she might come with me to help out with translation.

#3 MADMAC has been a member since 6/6/2009. Posts: 6,957

Posted by violets on 27/9/2010 at 05:48

I was there 3 years ago and, although I'm not usually interested in such things, I found it fascinating. The receptionist from the Dien Bien Phu hotel was my guide, (he had a history degree) and I learnt so much.

There's not only the hill, which you can really imagine the battle from, but there is a bunker and a really great museum, well great if someone can translate the signs, as he could. You can easily walk to all the main sites. Then 40ks from the centre is General Giap's command post, which I didn't get to but you should be able to do a tour there.

Other travellers have mentioned the manager of the DBP hotel as very helpful with local information too.

You might want to prepare by going to the Army museum in Hanoi which has a display on DBP.

#4 violets has been a member since 6/7/2009. Posts: 151

Posted by MADMAC on 27/9/2010 at 10:50

I studied the battle in some detail. So I know how it unfolded tactically, the weapons that were used by each side, the tactics used by each side and so forth. I've done this with a lot of battles actually, but I've only done terrain walks for a small tactical conflict on the Kyll river in the Schnee Eifel, at the Ardennes that I mentioned and at the Plains of Abraham in Quebec. I'd like to someday do Gettysburg but here in the SEA that battle in particular, which was such a game changer, I am interested in as well. I have yet, to my shame, go to Kanchanaburi - but it's on the list. Not as a battlefield, but as a show of respect.

#5 MADMAC has been a member since 6/6/2009. Posts: 6,957

Posted by travellingsarah on 27/9/2010 at 13:50 TF writer

Posted from within Vietnam.

It would certainly be a lot more interesting if you have an interest in the battle as you have and find a guide - preferably a veteran. There is some English in the museum but I always find reading a white label with a basic desription on is a little uninspiring - it only comes to life and means something if I understand the bigger picture. If I went back I would definitely try the DPB Hotel to see if they could provide a guide as I had no luck finding one elsewhere - so thanks for that info Violets.

#6 travellingsarah has been a member since 23/3/2010. Location: Vietnam. Posts: 681
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Posted by violets on 28/9/2010 at 05:46

My guide took me up to the top of A1 hill and told me how the battle was won, and how close it came to going the other way. Being there and seeing how the terrain worked made it very exciting. I remembered being taught about the battle in high school and had always wanted to go there but would never have thought that a blow by blow description could be so interesting. The museum was interesting because I was told the stories behind a lot of the photographs and there's a lighted screen that shows how the battles in the whole area (the same screen is in the army museum in Hanoi but it only made sense to me because it was explained by the guide). At the bunker I was told the story of the French officer who made some very poor decisions. Most of the tourists in the area seem to be French, trying to find out how they were beaten. The French behaved so badly in Vietnam (and elsewhere) that it's enjoyable to hear of their defeat. Of course, as is the way with these things, we get the victor's story.

Since visiting DBP I've read everything I could find on General Giap (by both sides).
I hope you get there and find a good guide, although you could probably do it all yourself if you have a written guide to the area. It's perfectly possible just to walk from one site to another and that is what most people seem to do.

Since visiting DBP

#7 violets has been a member since 6/7/2009. Posts: 151

Posted by MADMAC on 28/9/2010 at 11:23

Thanks Violets. There were serious problems with French colonial behavior because as a matter of policy they did not see the colonies as locations that should become some sort of "greater France". The English had different ambitions which caused them to invest heavily both politically and materially in their colonies in a way the French did not.

Having said that, the Viet Minh did not cover themselves in glory with their behavior at Dien Bin Phu or elsewhere. They were a tough and determined military force, and on those grounds I respect them. But like the Imperial Japanese Army, their sense of right and wrong and their adherence to the laws of land warfare were an abomination.

Of the more than 10,000 prisoners taken at Dien Bin Phu when it fell, barely 3,000 were repatriated at the cessation of hostilities four months latter. This is the kind of treatment handed out to Russian prisoners of Nazi Germany and a record that should make the government of Vietnam hang its head in shame. Giap was a competent (not brilliant as some like to paint him) military officer, but he was certainly culpable (as was Ho Chi Minh) concerning the behavior the the Viet Minh and NVA during their protracted conflicts. There was certainly plenty of brutality on all sides during this war, but the vietnamese communist get a special chapter in my book.

But I'm not interested in any of that. As a professional soldier, now retired, I am interested in the tactics, doctrine and so forth. And for that reason, I would like to go there and walk that battlefield.

#8 MADMAC has been a member since 6/6/2009. Posts: 6,957

Posted by neosho on 28/9/2010 at 14:49

Isn't General Giap still living? I thought I read somewhere about a year ago that he was in Hanoi.

#9 neosho has been a member since 13/8/2008. Posts: 386

Posted by MADMAC on 28/9/2010 at 16:44

Yep, he's still alive last I heard.

#10 MADMAC has been a member since 6/6/2009. Posts: 6,957

Posted by violets on 2/10/2010 at 13:23

I think you'll have a very interesting time at DBP if you find the right guide.

The poor soldiers fighting for France were largely from France's other colonies apparently, which is one reason for the French losing.

General Giap is still alive, in his nineties, living in hanoi and apparently learning the piano. You can buy books about his life and tactics at the museum and while they will be biased, so will any written by his adversaries. All interesting.

#11 violets has been a member since 6/7/2009. Posts: 151

Posted by MADMAC on 3/10/2010 at 00:59

The French lost because their tactical plan was unsound. They parachuted a division (-) (some 10,000 personnel) of light infantry into an area strongly held by the Viet Minh. Although they had early successes in consolidating their objective, their sole line of communication was by air. In 1954 the supply of a division by air for the French Air Force was a daunting task in an area as remote as Dien Bin Phu. The Vietminh amassed some 48,000 combat personnel and another 15,000 support personnel in their counter. In addition to the numerical issue, the Viet Minh were able to move heavy artillery into position on the high ground in vicinity of the French, and attack their positions with it extremely effectively. In short, the French had no chance in this fight. They were at the disadvatange in every way. The only area where France held a decisive edge was air power, but even there their air advantage could not tip the balance as their ground attack aircraft were too few in number and their ability to identify valid targets too difficult a task. The troops who fought on the French side were quality troops, but it wasn't enough.

#12 MADMAC has been a member since 6/6/2009. Posts: 6,957

Posted by fallinlove on 7/10/2010 at 11:00

Posted from within Vietnam.

Oh I know it. I have just gone across Dien Bien Phu all day yesterday. I have come to Vietnam for 2 weeks for great anniversary of 1000 years Thanglong Hanoi . I come back Kiti restaurant on Old Quarter Street after I was so hungry, So I felt their meals were very delicious. I like Hanoi with long and beautiful Dien Bien Phu Str, a strange Old Quarter Street and its culture. Especially, I was told about Hanoi's history with name of Thanglong by a Kiti's waiter. Name of Thanglong means dragons flying up. Following legent, the first Ly King (1000 years ago) saw dragons flying over Ho Guom lake and he named Hanoi (current name) was Thanglong. It's so exciting. I was very surprised and excited. Now I usually come to Kiti more than because I like to ask waiters about Vietnamese culture or their history.

#13 fallinlove has been a member since 28/9/2010. Posts: 1

Posted by Archmichael on 25/10/2010 at 09:40


I'm guessing you've read "Hell in a Very Small Place", by Bernard Fall. As an infantry veteran, I find parts of it difficult to read. This discomfort is probably exacerbated by knowing how the whole misguiding operation ended.

As for Gettysburg, I highly recommend it. I've only been there once, but it was an eye-opening experience, after having read much about it for decades, to see the actual place. How the hills are, how close the town is to the Union lines. The effective range of a Sharps carbine (460 meters/500 yards), and what that meant at the time. Devastating, to say the least.

#14 Archmichael has been a member since 23/7/2008. Location: Global Village. Posts: 396

Posted by Archmichael on 25/10/2010 at 09:48


Giap learning to play the piano at the age of 90. There's an image: old soldier, now practicing his scales and working on Brahms or Chopin, or whatever it is the old boy is interested in. Priceless.

#15 Archmichael has been a member since 23/7/2008. Location: Global Village. Posts: 396

Posted by MADMAC on 26/10/2010 at 16:34

It's interesting that you can see how the French drew the conclusions they drew when deciding to establish their positions in Dien Bin Phu. They logically (though erroneously) concluded the Viet Minh would not be able to move large bore artillery into position to engage them. The terrain did not favor that. And obviously they figured their air superiority would be able to hurt the Viet Minh badly if they could get them into a place where they could be targetted. Their presence would impact on Viet Minh resupply and their campaign in Laos (not much discussed even now). So it's easy to see how they miscalculated.
We did the same thing in Khe Sahn and it worked. NVA casualties were horrific. The difference, of course, was firepower. The Fench couldn't muster nearly the firepower required to do what they wanted to do.
I always thought the story of it being a feint for Tet was hillarious. Given the timing, and the duration, it's a ludicrous arguement.
What unit did you serve with?

#16 MADMAC has been a member since 6/6/2009. Posts: 6,957

Posted by Archmichael on 26/10/2010 at 21:05

Hi Mac:

I was in the 1/52 Inf. It was part of the 198th LIB / Americal Division. Division hq was in Chu Lai. My battalion operated in Quang Ngai province, northwest of Quang Ngai city, in an area bounded by two large rivers, Highway One and the mountains (into which we occasionally ventured). And you?

As to French conclusions, I agree. Strategically, I get it. Logistically, not so much. The only reason Khe Sanh worked out for us (militarily) was because our air strength was so huge and Khe Sanh was closer to our other bases as well (compared to the situation at Dien Bien Phu). Beyond that, the French made the same mistake about the Viet Minh they did regarding the Germans and the Ardennes Forest. Impenetrable? Why, no, as a matter of fact. A situation that repeated itself, to some degree, in 1944.

In the end, it's also the case that the Viet Minh, and later Viet Cong et al., were fighting for their country and the French & Americans were not. Vastly differing levels of motivation, to say the least.

#17 Archmichael has been a member since 23/7/2008. Location: Global Village. Posts: 396

Posted by MADMAC on 27/10/2010 at 12:59

I was too young for Vietnam. I served for 23 years all over, Somalia (which was very difficult), Desert Storm (which was like WW II in the desert with large formations moving about - very strange), Bosnia (easy), Haiti (Depressing), and then "East Africa" - mostly the Ogaden desert of Ethiopia with a small group of guys. I spent 16 years in Germany, which was great.

The Ardennes in the winter of 44 was very difficult to operate in, and the Germans never had a chance. This is why Von Runstedt oppossed the operation in the first place. It did achieve surprise, and local numerical superiority, but that's about all.

I thought the US Army performmed well in Vietnam. We emphasized our strengths, minimized our weaknesses. But the enemy only had to keep a force in being to eventually win, and they did. That's the strategy that the Taliban is using today. To win small wars you:

1. Don't over-commit forces. Only deploy a force strength you can sustain.
2. Have patience, because they take a long time.

Back to Dien Bin Phu, the French thought they could handle the logistics from the air, and there was no branch plan. If they didn't work, they didn't have something to fall back on. Big mistake.

#18 MADMAC has been a member since 6/6/2009. Posts: 6,957

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