A subdued General Giap revisits Dien Bien Phu
Dien Bien Phu, Vietnam
LOOKING thinner and more subdued than in his heyday, Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap returned recently to Dien Bien Phu, the battlefield where his troops had destroyed the French colonial Army in Indochina 30 years earlier.Skip to next paragraph
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On May 7, 1954, the 10,000-man French force surrendered after 55 days of fighting.
Dien Bien Phu was intended to be a trap for the Vietnamese: The French would entice them into a major military confrontation and then destroy them. The Vietnamese turned the tables, gradually strangling the enormous base.
The defeat marked the end of French Indochina. Two months later the Geneva agreements were signed, and France withdrew its forces to southern Vietnam.
The defeat also marked the beginning of American concern about Vietnam. Shortly before the French collapse, the United States contemplated, then rejected, the idea of a massive air strike to help the French. The use of atomic bombs was even considered. Within two years of the French defeat, US military advisers were in Vietnam.
After Dien Bien Phu, General Giap came to symbolize Vietnamese military prowess to the West. He obviously did not mind this. He stood out from the rest of the communist leadership. They were deliberately self-effacing. He seemed to like being filmed and interviewed.
For the anniversary, he was meeting a small group of journalists on Hill Eliane, the French strongpoint whose capture on May 6 was the death knell for the French. Despite its war memorial and the few houses around it, Eliane still had the bleak look of a World War I battlefield. The grimness was emphasized by the weather: Low gray clouds hung over the surrounding hills. This time 30 years ago, the French were fighting in a sea of mud.
While we waited, we talked to Lt. Col. Luong Dinh Chinh, a veteran of the fight for Eliane. Colonel Chinh had taken a few minutes to warm up. Until the recent spate of visitors coming for the 30th anniversary of the battle, he said, the last Westerners he had met were the French he had captured in 1954.
Now he was happily describing the 36-day fight for Eliane. How the attackers had dug trenches toward the hill, starting 5 kilometers away. This had taken a month. How at one point they had taken half the hill, only to be forced back. And how during the last fight for the hill they had stood on the top, throwing grenades into the French bunker below.
''But we were too hasty,'' he said, grinning. ''We threw the grenades in too early, and the French kept throwing them back out at us.''
I asked how many of his comrades were killed in the fight for Eliane. ''Hundreds?'' I prompted him.
He smiled at my naivete. ''Thousands,'' he replied.
(The Vietnamese have still not released their casualty figures, but French historian Bernard Fall estimates that at least 8,000 Vietminh died.)
Dien Bien Phu was the high point of Chinh's life. He was wounded and decorated here. He joined the Communist Party during the battle. And, though he came from the far northeast, he says he will retire here.
Several years after the battle for Dien Bien Phu, veterans were urged to settle in the area. Chinh and his wife, a doctor's assistant and a second-generation member of the Communist Party, did so.
Then General Giap arrived. He got out of his small East European Fiat, a perquisite of the top leadership, and walked slowly up the hill. He was accompanied by the local military commander, a cheerful Dien Bien Phu vet we had met earlier, and several brisk young military aides.