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.
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.
The aides hovered around Giap like officious grandchildren. As the general started to talk to us, one of them leaned over and straightened his tie. It didn't need straightening, and Giap pretended not to notice.
Giap's voice was unexpectedly quiet and his eyes - invariably described in the past as flashing - were sleepy. He has been in poor health for several years and in virtual retirement since resigning as minister of defense in 1980.
We had been warned that our talk would be brief, and we were asked to submit questions in advance.
Giap was asked what his strongest impression of Dien Bien Phu had been. Unlike Colonel Chinh's, Giap's answer contained no personal reminiscences; instead he looked back on the whole last 40 years of war.
Our enemies, he said, were always confident of success. They had artillery, air power, modern equipment. But they were always surprised.
''The most important thing is people,'' he explained in his professorial way (he was a teacher in the 1930s). ''An army fighting for its freedom has great powers of initiative. Unfortunately the imperialists never learn this. They are very stupid pupils. They never learn from experience.''
Though couched in the usual rhetoric, Giap's answer went to the heart of the thinking of the Vietnamese leadership today. In the last half century of struggle - Vietnam's Communist Party was founded in 1930 - they have surprised not just their enemies but themselves.
Another leader, Foreign Minister Nguyen Co Thach, decribed his feelings this way: ''When I became a revolutionary, I expected either to be beheaded or spend my life in jail. Instead, I moved from dream to dream'' - first independence, then victory over the French, and finally victory in 1975.
Giap and Thach have had not just one high point in their lives, like Col. Chinh, but a whole series.
Giap's career exemplifies this. He spent less time than most in prison - apparently just a short spell as a teen-ager. In 1940, however, he slipped into the jungle to avoid a roundup. His wife, also a Communist, was arrested and died in prison. His sister-in-law, one of the top party organizers in the south, was shot by the French in 1941. French officials who met Giap later say he did not bother to hide his animosity for them.
In 1944 Giap organized the first unit of the People's Army: 34 men, 19 rifles. A photograph of the occasion shows him administering the oath of allegiance in the jungle, wearing a business suit, homburg, and revolver. In 1945 the Vietminh took over Hanoi in the wake of Japan's surrender, in 1954 they defeated the French. In 1975 they reunified the country.
This unimaginable series of successes has left the leadership with massive self-confidence. The key to victory, they say, is sheer determination. Given time, their position and policies will ultimately be proved correct.
This single-minded determination served them well in war. With the more complex problems of peacetime, it has been less reliable. Giap resigned from the Politburo in 1982 - under duress, according to some Western analysts, though more likely of his own free will. The other leaders are still holding on, looking for answers.
As the general walked down the hill back to his car, there was a flash of his old ego.
A photographer ran ahead of him to get a last shot. Giap noticed this and turned to the aide alongside him.
''Drop back a bit,'' the general said.