Dien Bien Phu – Vietnam by the Book destination focus

Military junk from the Battle of Dien Bien Phu
© Mark Bowyer

Vietnam’s far north – the region that borders China to the north and Laos to the west – is an extraordinary part of the country that, even now, sees surprisingly few travellers. It’s a unique element in our Vietnam by the Book small group journey.

The strange thing about being in Dien Bien Phu, is the modesty with which this remote town wears its historical significance. It would be easy to make the case that Dien Bien Phu, located in Vietnam’s northwest, stands among the twentieth century’s most significant battlegrounds. You get the sense that the historians haven’t told the locals.

When the name Dien Bien Phu first became known in the West in 1954, the Cold War was ramping up and a tiny remote border settlement was capturing global attention. A battle was escalating. A ragtag army of fighters loyal to Ho Chi Minh had assembled, determined to liberate their country from the shackles of French colonial rule.

France had initially expected a pushover at Dien Bien Phu. But a name now known in military strategy schools throughout the world, Vo Nguyen Giap, had other ideas. Giap, a teacher turned self-taught military tactician, mobilised his men and artillery power around French positions. The range of the Viet Minh arsenal was beyond the wildest French expectations. As was the courage and determination of Viet Minh fighters. In a pattern that would be repeated often in the decades that followed, against an even better armed foe, Vietnamese revolutionary forces  would surprise their superior enemies with their mastery of assymetric warfare, tactical agility and bravery.

Dien Bien Phu
Dien Bien Phu’s spectacular setting © Mark Bowyer

On May 7 1954, Vo Nguyen Giap’s men overran French positions at Dien Bien Phu, forcing a humiliating surrender. It was the first time in modern history that a colonial force had been defeated by an anti-colonial militia in conventional battle. It brought the end of French colonial rule in Indochina and presaged a much larger and even more consequential showdown with the United States. Back in 1954 at Dien Bien Phu, the US government already had a huge financial and arms investment in the battle against Ho Chi Minh’s revolutionary forces.

The humiliated French forces of the 1950s would have had little opportunity to admire the extraordinary setting for their historic showdown. These days though, travellers spend most of their time in these parts, admiring the setting and exploring ethnic minority villages.

Geopolitical events get little attention from locals, nor most visitors.

The battle of Dien Bien Phu isn’t centre-stage in any of the books we read for our Vietnam by the Book tour. But it’s in the background for all of them.

And the area around Dien Bien Phu is compelling for travel in its own right. Inhabited by ethnic Thai and Lao minorities, the cultures are distinct and have their own rich traditions. The countryside is magnificent. 

Our overnight stay in an ethnic Lao village is an experience of Dien Bien Phu completely removed from its twentieth century historical importance.

On our Vietnam by the Book tour, we’re interested in both the cultural life and the history of this remarkable place. We’ll read extracts from Bernard Fall’s acclaimed book Hell in a Very Small Place. These will bring the battle, its characters and political implications to life. We’ll also explore the villages and landscapes.

If you’re travelling with us and you’d like to do some reading about the Battle of Dien Bien Phu beyond our main books, check out Fall’s, Hell in a very small place. Fall who died in 1967 near Hue, during the Amercan phase of the Vietnam conflict, is considered a master of war reporting. His book is a masterpiece of the grim realities of battle and history.

This is the most remote experience of our tour – and a very special one.

Travel with us to Dien Bien Phu on our Vietnam by the Book small group tour.

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