The grasshopper versus the elephant
  • | | May 06, 2010 09:43 AM

In the first of a five part series on Dien Bien Phu, Laura Lam explores the beginnings of big changes in Viet Nam.

>> Part 1: The grasshopper versus the elephant

>> Part 2: Tunnels and trenches

>> Part 3: The battle of Dien Bien Phu

>> Part 4: Bleeding the elephant

>> Part 5: Those are hills with a strong burning smell

It was 1999. I was sitting in the flower garden at my country house with Colonel Phan Duong and some friends, who were visiting France for the summer. Ironically, this suburb of Fontainebleau was where General Henri Navarre, the Commander of French forces in Indochina, had spent his childhood years. Duong talked about wars, especially about the battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954. Every time he came to a dramatic episode in the story, Duong would sing a song he had shared with Viet Minh’s soldiers during the battle. Duong himself had then been an army officer of junior rank, engaging in direct combat.

Viet Nam’s strategic team: Pham Van Dong (2nd left), Ho Chi Minh (center), Truong Chinh (in white), and Vo Nguyen Giap
General Vo Nguyen Giap
France’s strategic team: Rene Cogny (1st left), Christian de Castries (without hat), Henri Navarre (center)
Colonel Christian de Castries at Dien Bien Phu (would be promoted to General during the battle)

During the seven years war with the Viet Minh army, which began in 1946, the French had suffered a loss of their former glory with huge casualties on the battlefront. By 1952, they counted 90,000 men as dead, wounded, or missing. Observing the war situation closely, a senior officer with the US Defense Department, John Ohley, made a public statement, ‘Officers are being lost at a rate faster than they are being graduated from officer schools in France.”

Being driven back on the defensive, the French were most concerned about how to regain the upper-hand against their guerilla tormentors. It became clear to them that a decisive settling was needed. International opinion was now moving toward the kind of negotiated settlement they did not want. This added urgency to their military agenda.

To demonstrate their mastery of the country, the French fatefully chose a confrontation at Dien Bien Phu, which had long been one of their strongholds, as it controlled access to Laos. Located in a remote area, 450 km from the coast and 200km from Ha Noi, Dien Bien Phu, in practical terms, was only serviceable by air. This tranquil valley, 20km long and 5km wide, was surrounded by a ring of mountains. It had a total population of over ten thousand, scattered in tiny villages over the flat farmland. The area had the highest rainfall in the High Region and lay green amid the surrounding brown hills stretching to the horizon.

For nearly a century, the colonial regime had been using Dien Bien Phu valley as the main supply centre for their Indochina opium monopoly. There was always a French officer stationed there. His bungalow and its surrounding brick buildings would soon enter history as the notorious French outpost named ‘Eliane’. To fight against the Viet Minh army, the French were clearly intending a pitched battle on an open plain, and would be ready with the most powerful tanks.

The Vietnamese would have to bring troops and supplies the same distance, but by land. Vo Nguyen Giap planned to deploy 50,000 men and women for combat and 20,000 volunteers of all ages for the supply routes. To reach Dien Bien Phu, the Viet Minh would have to build simple roads and pontoon bridges, and the typical journey would take at least two weeks on foot, by bicycle, or by small rivercraft. For Giap himself, he would be traveling on horseback. But his men might capture an enemy jeep on the way, to help reduce his travel time!

In November 1953, with air power, ‘Operation Castor’ dropped 9,000 troops into the area within three days, and the French started setting up fortress-like outposts and strongpoints. They committed more than 10,000 troops and with later reinforcements, the total would reach 16,000. French troops included French air-borne, Foreign Legion, African Rifles, Vietnamese colonial regiments, and Thai-Lao-Muong auxiliaries.

General Henri Navarre decided to celebrate Christmas with members of his troops at Dien Bien Phu to boost their morale. Colonel Christian de Castries was instructed to host the feast in a huge tent erected outside the main headquarters, assisted by his personal secretary, Paule Bourgeade. Addressing the troops in multicolored camouflage uniforms, Navarre assured them of victory. Navarre talked about Vo Nguyen Giap. He didn’t give much credit to Giap for leading an army, noting that Giap had been a history teacher, held a law degree, and had never attended any military academy.

It was Ho Chi Minh who had instructed Giap to take military training in the jungle in 1940, following the national uprising (Nam Ky Khoi Nghia) led by Nguyen Thi Bay, nicknamed the ‘Red Queen’ by the French. At that time both men were hiding near the Sino-Vietnamese border. Giap commented then to Ho that his hand was for holding a ‘pen’ and not a ‘sword’. They would share a further decade of jungle experiences, with Ho spending a year in prison in China. For the battle of Dien Bien Phu, Ho chose Giap as the Viet Minh’s commander.

In the winter of 1953, Richard Nixon, then Vice President of the United States, made a secret trip to Ha Noi. He toured the Red River, observed a battle southwest of Ninh Binh and listened to a detailed plan presented by Navarre. The Navarre plan had been carefully designed in consultation with the Premier of France, Joseph Laniel, and the American Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles. The plan was fully supported by nearly two dozen French and American senior military personnel. Colonel Christian de Castries, a gallant cavalry officer with an impressive military record in the Second World War, was appointed Commander at Dien Bien Phu.

As soon as Ho Chi Minh heard the French choice of Dien Bien Phu for this decisive battle, he took off his hat and threw it upside down on a table nearby. Pointing at the upside down hat, which symbolized the large and hollow valley, he said to Giap, “The French will be buried in there.”

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