Songs of Dien Bien Phu: Vo Nguyen Giap returning to the battlefield

The French would leave behind more than eleven thousand soldiers as prisoners of war. Before moving into their huts in remote villages, they were subjected to a routine body search. Most French soldiers carried small items of defense inside their pockets. The Vietnamese would confiscate all items of defense and return all other personal belongings, such as identity cards, pictures, money bills, coins, watches, letters…

General Vo Nguyen Giap visiting war veterans after Dien Bien Phu battle

General Vo Nguyen Giap visiting war veterans after Dien Bien Phu battle

On May 9, two days after the end of the battle, General Giap made a tour of Dien Bien Phu battlefield, traveling in a small truck with some of his subordinates.

Along the roadside leading to Dien Bien Phu valley, Giap saw many French prisoners, scattered in small groups. What struck him was the scene of Vietnamese soldiers — small in size and young in age, with a sympathetic look in their eyes, guarding the big and tall foreigners. The prisoners were bathing and washing their clothes at the water streams. They looked cheerful and were talkative to one another. One soldier was singing a French song. Giap was moved by the lyrics and thought about their fate after a meaningless mission. He thought of the cruelty of the colonial regime and had pity for them. In the tranquil forest, the singing voice was like a haunting lament, carried by the chilly wind to the person’s faraway homeland.

Giap wanted to stop by the mountain ridges for a look at the artillery pieces. When he went into the dugouts where members of the artillery force had stayed, he was impressed at their tidiness. None of the dugouts had been damaged by the enemy’s bombs or gunfire.The truck stopped at the old French outpost Beatrice (Him Lam), which consisted of three joining hills. The red earth surfaces were hollowed and blackened by smoke from artillery attacks. He walked past each hill, stepping over damaged barbed wire fences, remnants of used weapons, broken pieces of furniture, and a large quantity of litter. While observing the French defence system at this outpost, Giap was impressed with their sophistication. He thought the French defeat was a proof that his army had “grown up”. A chill went through his spine when he saw a piece of special radar detection equipment the French had used — to detect the presence of Viet Minh troop movements at night. Right below these hills were many craters caused by artillery and French air raids. He noticed the Viet Minh’s old trenches and was surprised at how shallow they were.

Leaving Him Lam, the lowland of Muong Thanh appeared in front of Giap. The cold morning rain had stopped and the air was crisp and cold. The vast green valley stretching all the way to the west of the mountain range was dotted with thousands of parachutes – white, green, yellow, blue, floral. From the distance, this looked like a massive, gigantic flower garden. Glancing at the white clouds in the distance, a sense of peace penetrated Giap’s mind. Traveling a bit further, suddenly he heard the sound of explosion and thought of a landmine.

Approaching the eastern side, Giap saw another disastrous scene of the French resistance. All the hills were barren, revealing giant mounts of darkened red earth, filled with craters. Giap climbed to the flag post at hill C1 (Eliane 1), where his troops had begun their third phase of assaults, and where they had fought for an entire month to gain control. This was the tallest hill of Dien Bien Phu.

On the right side of the road, along the curved Nam Rom River, another disastrous zone, littered with lumps of soil from the trenches, tangled barbed wire, and other debris. Giap’s mind returned to the second phase of the battle. He visualized images of the heroic soldiers who had fought fearlessly and died for their homeland. He looked at the River and the foot of the bridge. The cloudy and contaminated water surface was loaded with broken tree branches, barbed wire, cans and bottles, and garbage materials. He stared at the French blockhouses and the burnt rifle pits. Only two days before, French troops had emerged from the valley and lined up along the riverbank to surrender, holding their white flags.

General De Castries bunker at Dien Bien Phu

General De Castries' bunker at Dien Bien Phu

A male farmer standing by the bridge spoke to Giap, “May I shake your hand, Big Brother?” Giap stretched out his arm and shook his hand. He was one of the volunteers for the supply line. They began talking about the many contributions by the villagers in the area.

In the evening Giap arrived at Hill A1 (outpost Eliane 2). He stopped and looked at a damaged army tank. Its body had been hit by howitzers and left with large holes along the sides. This was the place where the two sides had fought relentlessly, gained control, lost control, and regained control – at least ten times. This was where large numbers of Viet Minh troops and French troops had died.

That evening, Giap went into General De Castries’ old bunker for a look. Slowly descending along the twisting and turning staircase, Giap didn’t show much emotion. After studying the layout, he decided to sleep in the bunker for the night.

Lying on De Castries’ abandoned bed, Giap must have thought about the naivety and the foolishness of the French. Images of familiar mountains, forests, and rivers kept flashing through his mind. An image of the red flag with the golden star floating in the wind, symbol of Viet Nam’s new independence, kept him awake in the night. His mind and his heart were overwhelmed with the mixture of euphoria, happiness, pride, sadness, and sorrow. Eight thousands of his compatriots had lost their lives at Dien Bien Phu. Fifteen thousand had been wounded and now were in urgent need for medical care. While celebrating the greatest victory of the century, the Vietnamese were in deep mourning for the losses of loved ones.Blowing war dead souls, the wheezing of windsThe soldier’s face is glistening in the moonlightHow many soldiers, alive and dead, can one count?By a painting of their face, they are rememberedBy conjuring up their soul, they are mourned…

Doan Thi Diem (1705-1748)

The author visiting De Castries bunker

The author visiting De Castries' bunker

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