Northwest Vietnam

Hoa Binh - Song Da Reservoir - Mai Chau - Moc Chau - Yen Chau - Son La - Tuan Giao - Pa Khoang Lake - Dien Bien Phu - Muong Lay - Muong Te - Sin Ho - Lai Chau - Sa Pa - Lao Cai - Bac Ha - Ha Giang Province


IDD Code: (+84) 23
Dien Bien Phu is famous as the site of a battle that was truly decisive. The French colonial forces were roundly defeated at the hands of the Viet Minh on 7 May 1954 and the days of their Indochina empire were finally numbered.Dien Bien Phu, known as DBP for short, now enjoys the prestigious status of provincial city, like Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, although it is not quite in the same league. Set in one of the most remote parts of Vietnam, the town is 34km from the Lao border in the flat, heart-shaped Muong Thanh Valley, surrounded by steep, heavily forested hills. The size and look of the city is surprising considering the remote location, especially if you managed to survive gelling here overland. History is the main attraction here and the scenery is more stunning on the journey to or from Dien Bien Phu than around the town itseft. Not surprisingly, the majority of trav-ellers who come here now are French - Dien Bien Phu seems to hold the same sort of fascination for them as the Demilitarised Zone (DM2) does for Americans. For centuries Dien Bien Phu was a transit stop on the caravan route from Myanmar and China to northern Vietnam. The town itself was established in 1841 by the Nguven dynasty to prevent raids on the Red River Delta by bandits. The area is inhabited by Montagnards, most notably the Thai and H'mong. The government has been encouraging ethnic Vietnamese to settle in the region and they currently make up about half of the Muong Thanh Valley's total population.
Orientation & Information
It may enjoy the same status as metropolises such as HCMC and Danang, but in reality Dien Bien Phu is an overgrown village when it comes to navigating. The Ron River splits the town in half, but most of the accommodation and attractions are on the east bank. To the west is the airport and what might pass J.S suburbs. Internet access is available at several little cafes along Đ Muong Thanh. Agriculture and Rural Development Bank (tell: 825 786; 07-5) Represents Western Union and can change cash. Main post office (Đ 7-5) Post and phone services and internet access.
Sights & Activities
The site of the decisive battle is now marked by several monuments, including the Dien Bien Phu Museum (tell 824 971; admission 5000d; 7.30-11 am & 1.30-4.30pm), an informative if dry look at one of Vietnam's finest hours- Across the river the bunker headquarters (admission 5000d;730-nam& 1.30-4-30pm) of the French commander, Colonel Christian de Castries, has been re-created, and there arc old French tanks and artillery pieces nearby. There is a monument to Viet Minh casualties on the site of the former French position, known to the French as Eliane and to the Vietnamese as A1 Hill (admission 5000d;7.30-11am & 1.30-4.30pm), where bitter fighting took place. The elaborate trenches at the heart of the French defences have recently been re-created. The old MuongThanh Bridge is preserved and closed to four-wheeled traffic. Near the southern end of the bridge - though not much more than a crater in the ground overgrown with weeds - is the bunker where Chief Artillery Commander Pirot committed suicide. A memorial to the 3000 French troops buried under the rice paddies was erected in 1984 on the 30th anniversary of the battle. The stylishly designed Dien Bien Phu Cemetery commemorates the Vietnamese dead, and you can catch a good view over it by climbing the stairs inside the main entry gate. Looking over the endless headstones begs the question: arc there any victors in war?
Beer Factory Guesthouse (Khach San Cong Ty Bia; tell: 824 635; r 150.000-180,000d;Đ Tran Can; A beer drinker's idea of heaven, unfortunately the mini-bar does not include free draught beer. This brewery-run guesthouse is clean and good value, and the popular rooms include hot water and TV. Just mind your head on the stairs up, particularly if you have taken advantage of the countless bia hoi pubs lining the nearby streets. Binh Long Hotel (tell: 824 345; 429 Đ Muong Thanh; tw US$12;A small and friendly family-run place, the rooms here are all twins. The rooms aren't exactly huge, but the cleaners take their job very seriously. Rates include breakfast. Muong Thanh Hotel (tell:810 043; fax 810 713; Đ Muong Thanh; r US$15-25;Deservedly the most popular place in town, this is the residence of choice for many tour groups, so book ahead. Split into several buildings, try for the newer wing, as the old wing is showing signs of age. Facilities include a swimming pool, plus a huge barn-like restaurant. Throw in karaoke and 'Thai Massage' (honest), and it is the place to be in DBP. Dien Bien Phil-Hanoi Hotel (tell: 825103; fax 826 290; 279 0 7-5; r 250,000-350,000d;Possibly the smartest hotel in town right now, it is a bit business-like and somehow lacks the coy charm of the Muong Thanh. All the rooms are well finished, with satellite TV. minibar and snappy bathrooms. Breakfast included.
Given the size of the town, there are surprisingly few dining options. Some of the better restaurants are located at the bigger hotels, including the Muong Thanh.
Lien Tuoi Restaurant (tell:824919; Đ Hoang Van Thai; mains 20,00-50,000d) Long popular for a combination of good Vietnamese and Chinese food this eating establishment is a good choice after a long day on the road. The menu is in English and French with some imaginative translations. It is about 400m up the road from the cemetery. There is a superb little Cafe Sua Chua opposite the Beer Factory Hotel, turning out some of the tastiest pho in the northwest and it is always heaving with locals. There are also a few decent local com pho joints on Đ 7-5.
Getting There & Away
The overland trip to Dien Bien Phu can be more intriguing than the actual battlefield sites for which the town is so celebrated. Of course, you miss out on this if you fly,
AIR: Vietnam Airlines (tell: 824 948; fax 825 536; 730-11.30am & 1.30-4.30pm) operates daily nights be-tween Dien Bien Phu and Hanoi. The office is
just before the airport, about 1,5km from the town centre, along the road to Muong Lay.
BUS: The bus station is on Hwy 12, at the corner of Đ Tran Dang Ninh. There is a direct bus service that runs from Hanoi to Dien Bien Phu (120,000d, 14 hours) leaving at 6am and 8am. Buses to Muong Lay (35,000d, three hours) leave in the morning. Daily buses to Son La (50,000d, four hours) start at 4.30am, but for normal people who like to get up at normal times there are regular departures until noon. Although the bus is cheap, it's not really much fun. Buses are so packed that the only scenery you get to admire is the armpit ofthe person sitting next to you. If overloaded vehicles, bad roads and bad brakes worry you, definitely fly or travel overland by 4WD or motorbike.
The 470km drive from Hanoi to Dien Bien Phu on Hwys 6 and 42 takes at least 12 hours (if you're lucky). Conceivably it could be done in a single direct journey, but almost everyone stays overnight in Son La. Speaking from experience, it's no picnic hanging on to the hairpins on a motorbike in the dark!
In early 1954 General Henri Navarre, commander of the French forces in Indochina, sent 12 battalions to occupy the Muong Thanh Valley to prevent the Viet Minh from crossing into Laos and threatening the former Lao capital of Luang Prabang. The French units, of which about 30% were ethnic Vietnamese, were soon surrounded by a Viet Minh force under General Vo Nguyen Giap that consisted of 33 infantry battalions, six artillery regiments and a regiment of engineers. The Viet Minh force, which outnumbered the French by five to one, was equipped with 105mm artillery pieces and anti-aircraft guns, carried by porters through jungles and across rivers in an unbelievable feat of logistics. The guns were placed in carefully camouflaged positions dug deep into the hills that overlooked the French positions. When the guns eventually opened up, French Chief Artillery Commander Pirot committed suicide. He had assumed there was no way the Viet Minh could get heavy artillery to the area. Now it was a reality, Dien Bien Phu would only end in defeat. A failed Viet Minh human-wave assault against the French was followed by weeks of intense artillery bombardments. Six battalions of French paratroopers were parachuted into Dien Bien Phu as the situation worsened, but bad weather and the Viet Minh artillery, impervious to French air and artillery attacks, prevented sufficient French reinforcements and supplies from arriving. An elaborate system of trenches and tunnels allowed Viet Minh soldiers to reach French positions without coming under fire. The trenches and bunkers were overrun by the Viet Minh after the French decided against the use of US conventional bombers - and the Pentagon's proposal to use tactical atomic bombs. All 13,000 men in the French garrison were cither killed or taken prisoner; Viet Minh casualties were estimated at 25,000. Just one day before the Geneva Conference on Indochina was set to begin haif a world away, Viet Minh forces overran the beleaguered French garrison at Dien Bien Phu after a 57-day siege. This shattered French morale and forced the French government to abandon its attempts to re-estabiish colonial control of Vietnam. For the fuli story of this incredible siege, pick up a copy of Hell in a Small Place - The Siege of Dien Bien Phu by legendary French reporter Bernard S Fall.