Sunday, June 30, 2019

Relics of Triumph in Điệnbiệnphủ

                                               by Jim Goodman

Vietnamese tourists playing on a tank
        Đinbinph today is a quiet town in northwest Vietnam, close to the Lao border and straddling the Nm Rm River.  It lies 478 km from Hanoi and around the turn of the century, when I first visited, took two all-day bus rides by land.  I flew the first time, which is a better way to arrive anyway, as it gives a much broader view of the landscape, important because of its historical context.  Đinbinph is famous as the site of the 1954 battle that ended French colonialism in Vietnam.  Flying in reveals the whole setting.
       The city lies in the Mường Thanh Valley, heart-shaped and roughly 20 km by 6 km.  High, rugged mountains surround it.  When General Henri Navarre decided in late 1953 to make Điếnbiếnphủ a last stand against the Việt Minh he had to parachute six battalions of French troops into the plain.  The previous year he had defeated Vit Minh assaults on a French base near Sơn La by luring the Vietnamese into set battles in which French firepower could be decisive.  He assumed he could do that again here.
the countryside beyond Điệnbiệnphủ
       After the Sơn La campaign stalled the Vietnamese turned to other fronts like Lai Châu in the north and, with their Pathet Lao allies, Sam Neua province in Laos, adjacent to Điệnbiệnphủ.  They also continued harassing the French garrison at Sơn La.  In August 1953 Navarre abandoned the Sơn La base in favor of a new one at Điệnbiệnphủ.  He knew the Việt Minh would follow, but here he believed he could repeat his Sơn La strategy, lure the enemy onto the plain and prevail with French artillery.
       What Navarre never considered was the possibility that the Việt Minh would be able to haul artillery pieces over the mountains and besiege the French.  But that they did, with the help of ethnic minority allies.  General Christian de Castres, the commander of the new French garrison, probably didn’t even suspect he was actually trapped.  In an interview with the Australian reporter Wilfrid Burchett at this time, Hố Chỉ Minh took off his helmet, placed it upside down and pointed out to Burchett that the French were at the bottom of the helmet, the Viêt Minh on the rim.  There was no way out for the French.
the Nậm Rốm River at Điệnbiệnphủ
       Replicating their strategy at Sơn La, the French established three complimentary defensive sub-sectors.  The central one, surrounding the city center and airport, held two-thirds of the 16,200 troops under de Castries’ command.  Troops manned various resistance positions around the city that de Castries named after the mistresses he’d had in his life—Éliane, Dominique, Béatrice, Gabrielle, etc.  When the Vietnamese began moving through the mountains the French launched artillery and air strikes.  Yet they did not disrupt the transport of heavy artillery and anti-aircraft guns.  In fact, they were not even aware of it.
       On 13 March Việt Minh forces, now swelled to over 50,000, launched their attack.  Thanks to their totally unexpected use of artillery and anti-aircraft guns, within four days they had captured the northern sub-sector and penetrated the central one.  By the end of the month the Viêt Minh were battling the French for control of the central sub-sector.  Meanwhile they took over the southern sub-sector and on 7 May captured the central command post in the city, as well as General de Castries and all of his staff. 
main street in Điệnbiệnphủ
       The remaining 10,000 French soldiers surrendered, but only after blowing up the prison and killing all of the anti-French prisoners they’d been holding.  But the French sued for peace at the just-convened Geneva Conference and not long afterwards the victorious Viêt Minh paraded through Hanoi.
       Among the captives murdered by the French just before surrender were many ethnic minority supporters of the Viết Minh, especially Thái and Hmông, both of whom outnumber the Vietnamese in the province.  The Thái are actually the dominant ethnic group in the plains of northwest Vietnam, of two main sub-groups—White Thái in the north and east and Black Thái in the west.  In pre-colonial times they had a loose autonomous federation called Sipsong Chutai. 
Việt Minh warriors
       This did not evolve into a proper state, however.  Clan loyalties were more important than any sense of pan-Thái identity.  The same held true for the Hmông, who were split up among numerous sub-groups.  If the clan chief backed the French, they fought on the French side.  If the clan chief opposed the French, they joined or supported the Việt Minh.
       As it turned out, though, the great majority backed the Việt Minh.  The colonial government had already experienced Black Thái uprisings at Sơn La in 1897 and 1914-1916, as well as a revolt by the Hmông around Điệnbiệnphủ 1918-1922.  Antipathy to the government increased in the following decades, due to the ruthless exploitation by the French-recognized Thái lord of Sipsong Chutai, the Depression and the harsh years of Japanese occupation. 
Việt Minh troops marching through Hanoi
       The post-war Việt Minh campaign was slow to start in the northwest, but after the siege of Sơn La began picking up rapidly.  The guerrillas could count on widespread sympathy from the minorities.  In the preparations for the Battle of Điệnbiệnphủ, Thái, Hmông, Dao, Sila and others joined Vietnamese peasants making up the 200,000 non-combatants in the ‘Brigade of Iron Horses’ that carried heavy artillery, anti-aircraft guns, ammunition and other supplies over the mountains on foot or bicycle.
       For a long time Điệnbiệnphủ served as the capital of the sprawling northeast province of Lai Châu.  In 2003 the government separated the southern half and created the new province of Điệnbienphủ, with the same city as capital.  It is one of the four provinces in the country where ethnic Vietnamese (Kình) are a minority, accounting for just 20% of the population, mostly in the towns.  The Thái comprise 38% and the Hmông another 30%.  The remainder consists of 19 other recognized minorities, including a community of ethnic Lao.
Vietnamese villagers selling farm produce
Flowery Hmông in the market
       Thái of one kind or another dominated the Mường Thanh plain for over a millennium.  From the 9th-13th centuries it was the center of a Thái Lu kingdom until supplanted by a Black Thái state.  In the early 1700s Thái Phẽ invaders from China conquered it, but later that century the local Thái, led by the Vietnamese insurgent Hoàng Hông Chất, evicted them.  He also built a citadel 11 km south of Điệnbiệnphủ, but only a few stones and the lower part of a rampart have survived.  A temple erected to Hoàng Hông Chất still stands in the vicinity, though.
White Hmông woman
White Hmông in the market
       Hoàng Hông Chất soon became the de facto ruler of a large swath of the northwest.  After his death in 1767 the Vietnamese government in the north, then in the last stages of control by the Trính Lords, moved to reassert its authority.  But then came decades of chaos--the collapse of the Trịnh government, the Tây Sơn Revolt and the slow consolidation of national territories during the establishment of the Nguyễn Dynasty.  Faraway places like the northwest frontier became prey to bandits and foreign aggressors.
village in the Mường Thanh Valley
       To deal with Siamese and Chinese incursions, the Nguyểb government in 1841 established the fortified post of Điệnbiệnphủ.  But peace prevailed only so long as the government was strong.  By the 1870s the Nguyễn regime had fallen into terminal decline.  Renegade soldiers from the failed Taiping Rebellion in southern China moved into northern Vietnam and formed various bandit gangs that ravaged the area.
       The following decade, when the French conquered Hanoi, Siamese forces in 1884 attacked Điếnbiếnphủ in a three-year campaign to claim sovereignty over the Thái of Sipsong Chutai.  Local resistance kept the invaders at bay and a French military campaign in the northwest 1888-89 cleared the area of both foreigners and bandits.  The colonial government established a garrison at Điệnbiệnphủ that terminated invasions and roaming bandit gangs, but left the administration of the area largely in the hands of the Thái lord Đèo Văn Trị, recognizing him as the head of Sipsong Chutai.
Black Thái houses
       Revolts against the Đèo family and the colonial authorities broke out in the early 20th century.  But after the suppression of the Hmông revolt in 1922, Điệnbiệnphủ and vicinity enjoyed three decades of relative peace and stability.  After the commotion of its brief years in the historical spotlight, it reverted to its role as a sleepy provincial town, only with Vietnamese administrators instead of French officials or Thai lords.  It did not suffer from bombing in the American War, for it was far from the Hồ Chí Minh Trail.
       The population today is about 150,000, mostly Vietnamese, who either work for the government or run the businesses.  A short distance from the town lie a few Vietnamese farming villages as well and residents often come to the city to set up produce stalls on the streets.  I was the only foreigner around at the time, but the people were universally friendly—150 ‘hellos’ a day.
Thái women in the market
       There was very little vehicular traffic back then, not even many people riding bicycles.  It was not a large town anyway, and less than an hour’s walk from one end to the other.  The main activity was in the central covered market, a warren of shops and stalls selling a variety of goods.  This was also the best place to see ethnic minorities from the outlying villages and surrounding mountains.  Some of them even ran a few of the stalls.
       Most were Black Thái from the plains and two kinds of Hmông from the nearest hills.  One was the Flowery Hmông, the same sub-group as those around Bắc Hà, whose women wore pleated batik skirts and side-fastened embroidered jackets.  The other was a branch of the White Hmông.  Their women dressed in black jackets, trousers, long aprons and a conical cap festooned with red tassels.
a former French command post
       The Black Thái inhabit most of the villages of the Mường Thanh Valley.  They grow rice and vegetables and live in sturdy stilted wooden houses.  They are animist, not Buddhist, and the only religious structures in their villages are the ancestral shrines and the altar to the local guardian spirit.  A conservative people like the Hmông, their women almost all prefer the traditional dress.  This consists of a pastel colored, long-sleeved blouse, fastened with silver buckles down the front, worn over a black sarong and with a black headscarf, embroidered with bright geometric designs.
       Black Thái villages are within walking distance of the town, separated by rice fields and grazing areas.  And punctuating the spaces in between, still in place after 65 years, stand the intact war debris of burnt out tanks, field posts and bunkers of the fateful battleground.  These, not the ethnic minorities, are what the Vietnamese tourists come to see.  For its national significance, Điệnbiệnphủ attracts a steady stream of them, even the youth.  They inspect the command posts and trenches, explore de Castries’ bunker and crawl over the tanks for photographs. 
typical bunker from the battlefield
       The most important place for visitors pursuing the city’s historical legacy is the Victory Museum.  In a city characterized by modest-sized buildings, the museum is quite extravagant, occupying 22.300 square meters.  It’s shaped like a truncated cone, resembling the netted camouflage hats worn by Việt Minh soldiers.  Erected in time for the battle’s 60th anniversary in 2014, it replaced a much smaller museum and has a greater number of exhibits.
       Tanks and artillery used by both sides stand on the grounds outside the museum.  Rooms inside include lists and portraits of the Việt Minh participants, photos and dioramas of military and Party leaders planning strategy and old photographs and paintings of key decision moments.  Other exhibits display military field gear, weapons, uniforms and conveyances used to porter supplies.
artillery from the battlefield
       By far the most interesting exhibit is in the largest room, containing a huge relief map of the Mường Thanh Valley.  It indicates the positions of the French and Vietnamese forces by the placement of little green and red lights.  Then a narration begins recounting the course of the campaign.  Flashing lights mark the battle sites, followed by an illuminated display of the two sides’ positions afterwards.  The narration is in Vietnamese, but even without a translation it is easy to follow the story.
       After this comes a video of Vietnamese filming of the events, with a little footage from the French spliced in.  Once again, lights flash on the relief map following scenes in the film.  After this show, a visitor knows exactly how the Battle of Điệnbiẹnphủ turned into a tremendous Vietnamese triumph.  The only thing missing is a clip of Hồ Chí Minh turning his helmet upside down in the interview with Wilfrid Burchett. The French are at the bottom.  We’re on the rim.  They can’t get out.  It’s only a matter of time.

graves of fallen Viêt Minh soldiers

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