Xin Chào from Điên Biên Phủ,
When Lyndon Johnson was discussing war strategy with Robert McNamara and others during the Việt Nam War, he blurted out – in his inimitable style – “I don’t want no more Deen Been Foos.” He was saying that the big powers didn’t want any tinpot, upstart Third World country upsetting the prevailing world order with surprise victories.
Here in Điên Biên Phủ, in the far north of Việt Nam, the freedom-fighting Việt Minh had shocked the mighty French in 1954 in the battle which not only shaped a nation but the whole world. Điên Biên Phủ has a very special place in the minds of oppressed people everywhere. Linda and I have made the journey to see the terrain for ourselves.
The township of Điên Biên Phủ is surrounded by steep mountains. The colonising power here in Indo-China had established an air base here, using the proximity to the Hồ Chí Minh Trail to interrupt the Việt Minh and the terrain to establish what they believed to be an impregnable fortress. Road access to the base was so limited, they had to move everyone and everything by air. They parachuted hundreds of tanks in here with millions of parachutes. The ground was reportedly littered with used parachutes.
Howitzers into position
When Hồ Chí Minh was asked how his forces intended to breach the defences, he quietly inverted his battle helmet and illustrated the plan: to surround the French on all sides of the basin. Moving the giant Howitzers into position was thought – by the French – to be impossible. The Viêt Minh spent months quietly moving hundreds of Howitzers in by muscle power. If one slipped into a ravine – as they occasionally did – they had to leave it there. These nocturnal preparations were overseen by General Võ Nguyên Giáp who, along with Hồ Chí Minh himself, became a national hero (died in 2013).
waiting until victory is assured
We can see from the ground that the flat valley floor is perhaps five kilometres across, a lot more than any historical readings give the impression. After the painstaking preparations, General Giáp waited until victory was assured, postponing the attack several times. When the attack was launched, the battle took 56 days. It was one of the greatest moments in the war for independence. Every sizeable town or city in Việt Nam today has a prominent street named after Điên Biên Phủ.
After Điên Biên Phủ, colonised peoples all around the world – especially in Africa – began campaigning for their own freedom. They had been emboldened by the Việtnamese. The decolonising phase was on. First Guinea removed the French, then Gold Coast (now Ghana) threw off the British shackles in 1957 and no fewer than 13 countries became independent in 1960.
Quỳnh is our host this long weekend. She has a very neat homestay (maintaining a score of 9.1 on Booking.com) in Điên Biên Phủ. Nowadays the town is a rural centre as it was prior to the arrival of the French. Quỳnh says that most local people understand the significance of the Điên Biên Phủ battle, and not just because of the massive statue on top of D1 (and not because of propaganda, in my humble opinion). Through Google translate Quỳnh refers to Hồ Chí Minh as “our prince of armistice”. Around the township there are several historical reminders of the battle. Quỳnh’s homestay is at the foot of A1, which is the name of the hill from which bombardments took place.
When Lyndon Johnson made his famous outburst about Điên Biên Phủ, oppressed people all over the world were saying, yes we do. I’m with them.
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