In 1954, a half century ago, the Battle of Dien Bien Phu ended with a defeat for the French armies against the Viet Minh. The battle led to the French withdrawal from Indochina, the eventual partition of the country into north and south, and the rapid escalation of American advisors, materiel and soldiers in the war we call “the Vietnam War” and which the Vietnamese call the “American War”.
The French miscalculations in battle were legend as was the brilliance, particularly of General Giap, in surrounding the French which led to the siege and a victory for the Communist forces. Stories of hubris, misunderstanding the nature of conflict or the will of the enemy, over reliance on the mythic power of technology in the forms of the latest weapons or bomb tonnage, could jump off the pages of today’s history (Afghanistan comes to mind) as readily as it does a 50th anniversary homage in Vietnam today.
General Giap passed along this year, many of his comrades dead as well and Ho Chi Minh, who died in 1969, did not live to see the American defeat or the fulfillment of the promise of Dien Bien Phu.. So the government is eager to keep the memory of this battle alive; how a smaller nation took on an empire and won. Sometimes when I see the banners promoting the anniversary I think of this as an allegory for how Vietnam views China today; a subtle message or perhaps I am reading too much into it.
Movies are being released soon to commemorate the battle with the contrast in the protagonists vividly portrayed; arrogant French, relying on mercenaries, lavish quarters and the latest in weaponry vs the humble VietMinh, living in huts, subsisting on a ball of rice, willing to sacrifice all for the national purpose. Much of the narrative is true and, after all, the victors get to write history.
Today Dien Bien Phu is re-emerging as a tourist destination. It attracts the grown children and grandchildren of those who fought there; Vietnamese for certain, but French as well. But it is also a place for today where ethnic communities farm, make crafts, and await visitors far removed, time wise, from the guns of May 1954.