Nothing is equal to anything else. In 1904, Jack London traveled from Korea to China. As soon as he crossed the border, he saw what he thought was a much more energetic, resourceful and resilient civilization,
“I rode to the shore, into the village of Kuelian-Ching. There were no lounging men smoking long pipes and chattering. The previous day the Russians had been there, a bloody battle had been fought, and to-day the Japanese were there—but what was that to talk about? Everybody was busy. Men were offering eggs and chickens and fruit for sale upon the street, and bread, as I live, bread in small round loaves or buns. I rode on into the country. Everywhere a toiling population was in evidence. The houses and walls were strong and substantial. Stone and brick replaced the mud walls of the Korean dwellings. Twilight fell and deepened, and still the ploughs went up and down the fields, the sowers following after. Trains of wheelbarrows, heavily loaded, squeaked by, and Pekin carts, drawn by from four to six cows, horses, mules, ponies, or jackasses—cows even with their newborn calves tottering along on puny legs outside the traces. Everybody worked. Everything worked. I saw a man mending mending the road. I was in China.”
Gushing at length over the Chinese, London concludes,
“The Korean is the perfect type of inefficiency—of utter worthlessness. The Chinese is the perfect type of industry. For sheer work no worker in the world can compare with him. Work is the breath of his nostrils. It is his solution of existence. It is to him what wandering and fighting in far lands and spiritual adventure have been to other peoples. Liberty to him epitomizes itself in access to the means of toil. To till the soil and labour interminably with rude implements and utensils is all he asks of life and of the powers that be. Work is what he desires above all things, and he will work at anything for anybody.”
Having been around enough Koreans, I wouldn’t categorize them as slack or worthless. They seem very energetic, and even fierce, to me, but London is correct about the Chinese’s industry. Grunting, they press their sweaty shoulders to the wheel.
Crossing from Laos back into Vietnam, I thought of London’s comparison, for immediately, the landscape became animated with people buying, selling or working in the fields. Across verdant paddies, dozens of figures were bent over to plant rice seedlings. Everything seemed more purposeful than in Laos. Even the herons flew straighter, and each dog yawned with more determination.
On the minibus itself, we had had to endure one very loud Vietnamese. Though hardly typical, he was certainly a product of a more aggressive society, than Laos’. Overdoing it, the foul mouthed and desperately cocky young man may end up dead or in jail soon. “Fuck mother” was his constant refrain, with “fuck grandma” thrown in occasionally for variety.
There is no place that isn’t worth revisiting, so that one’s impressions can be deepened, complicated or even inverted. Some towns, though, continually tug within one’s mind, so that, given a chance, I’d love to become more confidential and sweaty with Juarez, Great Yarmouth, Kiev, Napoli or Missoula, for example, and Dien Bien Phu, too, for my first fling was just too brief. I had missed too many insinuations.
Thanks to its epoch changing battle in 1954, Dien Bien Phu is legendary, and during my first visit in 1995, the road leading towards it was so bad, and the population so thin, that one could imagine it had changed little since those epic 56 days. A French tank, two pieces of artillery and General de Castries’ bunker stood lonely in the open fields. Until the 1990’s, a trip from Hanoi to Dien Bien Phu still took five days.
Even more than stones, bricks or people, stories make a place, and Dien Bien Phu’s are larger than life. Since it was a catastrophe for the French, there were no Gallic heroes save the nurse Geneviève de Galard. Stranded because her medevac Dakota had veered off the runway, then shelled to pieces, de Galard stoically joined Dien Bien Phu’s squalid and gory hospital, until she too was taken prisoner with the rest. The only other women in the French garrison were Algerian and Vietnamese prostitutes in two bordels militaire de campagne.
The French commander is not so well-remembered. In Kevin Boylan and Luc Olivier’s Valley of the Shadow, he’s succinctly indicted, “On the very first night of the siege, de Castries had surrendered most of his authority as garrison commander to Langlais by making him responsible both for defending the Main Position and managing the reserves. This remarkable abdication of authority was symptomatic of a crisis in command that arose because de Castries, stunned by the shocks and reverses of the siege’s first hours, had sunk into pessimism and inertia.”
As for his chief of staff, Lieutenant Colonel René Keller “suffered a nervous breakdown and sat motionless in the command bunker cowering under a steel helmet that he never removed.” On the third day of the siege, the artillery commander Charles Piroth committed suicide with a hand grenade.
To be fair, it’s not easy to fight a war across the globe with a hodgepodge army of Germans, Italians, Belgians, Moroccans, Algerians, Congolese, Vietnamese, Cambodians, Laos, Hmong and Tai, etc. Non-French troops made up 87% of Dien Bien Phu’s 14,000 defenders.
Most Tai sided with the French since Dien Bien Phu was on their territory, which they had controlled since at least the 15th century. Correctly, they feared the Vietnamese more than the French, whom they knew were already halfway out the door. There were never enough French in Indochina to overwhelm Tai villages or warp their identity. Now, Tai children in Vietnam study the Vietnamese language and history, and know nothing about their own heroes, Deo Van Tri or Deo Cat Han, etc.
The Viet Minh also had their Tai allies, so at Dien Bien Phu, you had Tai fighting against Tai, and Vietnamese warring against other Vietnamese, with each man believing, or allowing himself to believe, he’s defending his people’s interests. Although the African and European mercenaries could not be so justified, they could claim to be fighting for “the free world.”
After defeat, Geneviève de Galard was not just feted in France, but the United States, where she was given a ticker tape parade down Broadway, lined with 250,000 admirers. A congresswoman lauded Galard as a “symbol of heroic femininity in the free world,” and in Washington DC, Eisenhower awarded her a Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Covertly, Eisenhower had authorized dozens of American pilots and hundreds of mechanics to assist the French in Vietnam, and the CIA was also active there. The Viet Minh got help from Chinese advisors, mechanics and perhaps truck drivers. Historical events should always be reexamined, new evidence dug up and debates encouraged. It is not just absurd, but a cowardly crime, to criminalize historical investigations.
Although Bernard F. Fall’s Hell in a Very Small Place is a classic, it gets several key facts wrong, but no one has ever accused him of dishonesty. Fall set the stage for latter historians. No ivory tower-percher, Fall humped bushes and died from stepping on a mine near Hue. His exact last words, as captured by a tape recorder, “We’ve reached one of our phase lines after the firefight and it smells bad, meaning it’s a little bit suspicious. Could be an amb…”
Since Dien Bien Phu was in a valley, surrounded by mountains, the French themselves described their position as being in a lion pit or at the bottom of a chamber pot, but there was no need to worry, since the Viet Minh could never position enough big guns around the peaks to pound them with some serious shit, then it happened.
Death thundered down continuously. It was like one of God’s giant dumps, ragingly delivered, and it lasted almost two months, so life’s only meaning and aim became to do whatever it takes to not be turned into bloody shit.
Each 105mm howitzer had to be taken apart, then lugged up in pieces by porters, to be reassembled, emplaced, fortified and camouflaged. Roads and bridges had to be immediately repaired after each French bombing run. Many miles of trenches were dug.
Marveling at all these coordinated activities, the French brigadier general Pierre Langlais remarked, “This efficiency was not doubted by those who knew the Tonkin delta and its giant dikes—the mechanical marvels of another age; and as for being courageous, one certainly had to be in order to work under threat of delayed-action bombs that were dropped in each attack.”
Though war may expose man at his most barbaric, it’s also the summation of his civilization. War isn’t won through base instincts, but vast planning, mastery of technology and mass discipline, based on a shared philosophy. That’s why savages don’t win wars. Engineers do.
Triumphant, the Vietnamese could trot out their heroes. Though only Vo Nguyen Giap has become universally known, there is also Le Trong Tan, a Vietnamese Zhukov who’s praised by Fidel Castro as Vietnam’s best general, plus three martyrs I’m sure you’ve never heard of.
To Vinh Dien wedged himself under the wheel of an artillery piece, to prevent it from slipping down a mountain.
Shouting “I must sacrifice for the Party and the people,” Phan Dinh Giot jammed himself into a French gun slot to incapacitate it.
Already badly injured, Be Van Dan used his shoulders as a machine gun mount, and died while still clutching the weapon, it is said.
If you think these stories are rather suspect, sound like Hollywood, I know Vietnamese who also doubt them, yet these men are held up as models for Vietnamese schoolchildren. No society can survive without enough of its members willing to die for it.
Even before getting off my minibus, I could see that Dien Bien Phu had been irrevocably changed. With its population exploding, it had lost its rural character, and was a bonafide city of restaurants, hotels and cute cafes, with at least one serving not bad pizzas. A monstrous victory monument crowned a steep hill.
Staying five days, I haggled down the price at Tuyet Trung Guest House. This is Vietnam’s coldest and dampest region, so low-end hotel rooms aren’t just badly kept, but poorly ventilated. Unto eternity, their assorted bad smells linger, molder and piss on your spirit. Happily, though, my second floor, $8.66 a night room wasn’t redolent of bodily effluvia! It even overlooked the airport, with its runway upgraded from what the Japanese had built during World War II, and what the French had used, then failed to use, during their fiasco. From my balcony, I could see the weathered denim colored mountains, lightly curtained by mist.
A short walk away, there was a magnificent Bailey Bridge. Field Marshal Montgomery said that without this engineering marvel, the Allies would not have won World War II, for it was easy to assemble, strong enough to support tanks and very durable. When this bridge was overrun by the Viet Minh at 2PM on May 7th, 1954, the Battle of Dien Bien Phu was effectively over. Interestingly, its Vietnamese name, Muong Thanh, is also the brand of Vietnam’s (and Southeast Asia’s) biggest hotel chain.
Hungering for the old Dien Bien Phu of bamboo thickets, tall areca palms, narrow canals and thin footpaths, I wandered away from the city and discovered Ban Banh, a Tai village of houses on stilts. Many had been recently built and generally larger than traditionally, so integration into a larger economy has its advantages. Balusters, though, were mostly machine-made, with some of ugly chrome, and not wood. Soon, they won’t know how to whittle a toothpick.
The only Vietnamese in Ban Banh was the teacher at its two-room school, but she left each day after work. Her parents are from Thai Binh and came to Dien Bien Phu in 1960. Entering a tiny store, I bought an awful can of Hanoi Beer and some peanuts. One bite yielded something obviously alien that tasted vaguely like crab, which I spat out. I chased the foul flavor away with the crap beer, and more peanuts. Oh how I missed my Beerlao!
Arrayed on three shelves were hunks of sweet bread, instant noodles, tiny cartons of sweetened milk, Boom Boom brand weeny sausages and plastic flip flops. Each Tai I talked to that afternoon spoke Vietnamese perfectly. Across the lane, a just-drafted young man returned home holding his fresh uniform and pith helmet. He would serve two years.
Sixty-six years after the battle, most of its participants are long dead. At Dien Bien Phu, the average age of a French captain was 38, and a battalion commander was 43! Instead of expending or eating bullets, they should have been sunning themselves, like lizards, on some Mediterranean beach.
After Ban Banh, I kept walking past rice paddies, farmers and a few water buffaloes, until I ran into a fascinating old man, but of course, they’re all interesting, young or old.
In any out of the way village, even a foreign gnat is immediately noticed, so that’s why he approached me, out of curiosity, and it took less than a minute for the thin, short man with few front teeth to proudly state his age, “I’m 90 years old!”
“So were you here during the battle?”
“I was in it!”
“Whoa! Really? There can’t be many left, in this area.”
“There are only three. The other two are even older than me! One man is bedridden.”
“I want to hear your stories, uncle. Is there a place where we can sit, drink some wine and talk?”
“You can come to my house,” and he grabbed my hand. Merely a minute later, we were inside his small living room. Framed photos and certificates covered an entire wall. One congratulated Ly Quang Vinh for being a member of the Communist Party for 60 years. His given name means “Glory,” by the way.
Happy to have a visitor, Mr. Vinh told his grandson-in-law to bring out cans of Huda Beer and a very potent homemade sake, then insisted that I stayed for lunch. Naturally, I wanted to hear about his battle experience, but he was rather terse with his recollections, “I’m just lucky I didn’t die. So many did.”
Mr. Vinh served in the elite 308th Infantry Division, which was as much a curse as an honor, for General Giap routinely assigned to it some of the deadliest missions. In January of 1951, it got decimated at the Battle of Vinh Yen, yet just two months later, was ordered to attack the French at Mao Khe, where again it got clobbered.
Four months before Dien Bien Phu, the 308th was told to go all the way to Luang Prabang, deep in Laos. Boylan and Olivier, “This operation was intended to confuse the French, oblige Navarre to disperse his reserves, and aid the invasion of central and southern Laos by troops of the 304th and 325th Divisions. All these objectives were achieved, although the 308th was operating ‘on a shoestring’ because it had no time to make proper logistical preparations.”
Unlike me, Mr. Vinh had no time to enjoy a Beerlao or two on his Lao tour. I feel softer than virgin tits. Hanging my head, I count my blessings.
At Dien Bien Phu, the 308th lost a staggering 2,650 men, but its soldiers were the first to storm into de Castries’ bunker, and the 308th also led the Viet Minh’s entry into Hanoi, five months later, as the French withdrew.
Mr. Vinh wasn’t among those who witnessed Castries’ surrender. “I just missed getting there,” he rued. He and another Viet Minh did take 30 prisoners, “Twenty-seven of them were Vietnamese. Only three were French. I told them, ‘You can give up and receive clemency, or we can just kill you.’” By this point, though, white flags were sprouting from nearly all French positions.
After Dien Bien Phu, Mr. Vinh was sent to Thai Binh to prevent refugees from heading South, ahead of the country’s partition. The fact that a million Vietnamese headed South or North means the promised elections were never taken seriously by either side. In 1960, Mr. Vinh finally left the army after ten years. “I was only injured once, very slightly.” Grimacing, he rubbed his left forearm. “Had I died, “Had I died, they wouldn’t have been able to identify me. I had no ID of any kind.”
A Viet Minh soldier received no wage, just two cold balls of rice a day, “We couldn’t cook. If the French saw smoke, they’d bomb us.”
“You suffered much, uncle.”
“I suffered for 60 years!”
“Ah, so you’ve had 30 good years! That’s more than most people.”
Mr. Vinh’s illiterate. After the army, he mostly farmed. Even today, Mr. Vinh grows most of his vegetables, and raises a dozen chickens. He gets $181 a month in pension, and his wife, $172. She also served at Dien Bien Phu, as one of 33,500 [!] civilian volunteers. Holding her 10-month-old great granddaughter, the old woman recounted, “Once, when the French planes started attacking, we just all ran to a hill, and watched from there.”
Unprompted, Mr. Vinh declared, “Vietnam is number one. Like Uncle Ho said, ‘We can defeat any enemy.’ We beat the French, Americans and Chinese.” A little later, he added, “More and more countries are recognizing that Vietnam is number one. Vietnamese food, for example, is the best!”
We had been knocking down his nasty sake. Each time we clanked glasses, Mr. Vinh insisted we emptied them. Though many Vietnamese love to drink, rural ones tend to be the worst. Mr. Vinh drinks three times a day, starting with breakfast.
Mr. Vinh met General Giap twice, he told me three times, “But we were advised beforehand to not shake his hand,” so it was as a group. He also saw Uncle Ho twice. Though not nearly as common as photos of Ho Chi Minh, Vo Nguyen Giap’s can be found in many Vietnamese homes, particularly if they’re owned by an NVA or Viet Cong veteran. On the streets, kids wear Captain America T-shirts.
I started out addressing Mr. Vinh as “uncle” or “cụ,” a respectful term for the very old, but by the end, he insisted I call him “dad,” so he could call me “son.”
“You should rest now, dad. I must walk back to Dien Bien Phu. We’ve drank enough.”
“That’s almost five kilometers away! Let me call a taxi for you, son.”
“No, no, I can walk. If you could walk all the way here from Lai Chau, I can walk five kilometers.”
“You should just take a nap here, son, then leave later.”
“No, no, I must go. If I should come back here in two, five or even ten years, we can meet again!”
Even a young man can’t assume he’ll return to any place, distant or nearby, so that’s probably my last date with Dien Bien Phu. I had the worst banh mi, coffee and pho this time, but even the French didn’t eat very well there. Even before the siege began, most had to forego wine and blood sausages.
Mr. Vinh’s sweetness made everything worthwhile. A few years ago, a tour guide brought some French tourists to his home, so he fed them all, just like he fed me.
“I said to them, ‘Ça va! Ça va!’ When we fought them, it was, ‘Mains en l’air!” Now, it was, ‘Ça va!’”
Among the monuments scattered around Dien Bien Phu, there’s an obelisk erected by a former Foreign Legionaire, Rolf Rodel, on land donated by the Vietnamese government. Fronted by wreaths, plaques and even jars containing incense sticks, it’s a dignified memorial to the dead.
Just a two minute-stroll away lie To Vinh Dien, Phan Dinh Giot and Be Van Dan.
Dien Bien Phu’s newly-strung garish lights can’t chase away its ghosts.