Going Back to Places I Have Never Been 1

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Being a Field Guide to Hanoi and Dien Bien Phu for

Historians, Wargamers and the More Discerning Type of Tourist


by Peter Hunt


Part Three: West of the River and Beyond


The Bailey bridge across the Nam Yum River is still in daily use.  So in this respect the battle is at least doing some good for the people of Dien Bien Phu even 50 years later.  The Bridge itself was a later addition to the infrastructure of the French position.  The original crossing over the river was by a wooden bridge further south, of which I could find no trace.  North of the bridge the river meanders to the new road bridge.  On the eastern side of the river at this point was the “dead arm” of the Nam Yum where a meander had been cut off.  This is now just an area of boggy ground.  From the Bailey bridge or the road bridge you can get good views of the “cliffs of the Nam Yum” where the “rats” ~ the hundreds, perhaps thousands of internal deserters of the camp, lived in dug outs and caves.  The “cliffs” are no such thing, they are really just the steep banks of the river cut by its meanders into the soft alluvial soil about three to six metres high.


The Bailey Bridge and Quad.50


On the western side of the bridge are two things to note.  On the southern side is a marker commemorating the first Viet Minh unit to get across.  Translated it says:-


“At 2 p.m. on 7th May 1954 Company 360, Division 312 attacked and took Muong Thanh Bridge , striking at the heart of the enemy and inflicting defeat on the high command of the Dien Bien Phu group of fortresses.”


The jubilation that those men must have felt after the months of siege can only be imagined.  On the north side is one of the reasons that the Viet Minh took so long to get there: the remnants of a quad .50 calibre machine gun. There were four of these weapons at Dien Bien Phu, two placed further north of the bridge on “Sparrowhawk” and two placed further south on “Juno”, so how this one got to the end of the bridge is anyone’s guess.  It was probably moved after the battle but it might have been moved in the last few days of combat.  The quad 50s kept firing up to the last day.  There was no shortage of ammunition, even for their prodigious appetites, and, unlike the tube artillery they had no recoil hydraulics vulnerable to near misses from Viet Minh shellfire.


Quad.50 at the Hanoi Army Museum


If you want to scratch-build a quad 50 Raventhorpe make the upper body as a conversion for half-tracks.  The lower body is easy to knock up with a couple of aircraft wheels.  Cut up electrical wire provides you with the heaps of brass cartridge cases strewn around that were the hallmarks of these weapons in action.




At the western end of bridge there is now a row of soup and coffee shacks.  At the crossroads beyond them is where the hospital was.  By the end of the battle this had been extended all the way to De Castries bunker.  To understand the horrors and heroism that went on beneath your feet, (for the hospital was mostly underground,) Major Grauwin’s “Doctor at Dien Bien Phu ” is a must read.  Nothing now remains of the hospital except that old photograph in the Air Force Museum in Hanoi .


At the road junction a “Bison” Chaffee tank and pile of aircraft wreckage stand mute testimony to the French defeat.  Turn left and you come to that defeats most memorable visible symbol ~ De Castries’ Command bunker, immortalised forever by the image of that Viet Minh soldier waving the gold star and red flag of the new Vietnam above it.


A small entrance fee gets you into the bunker, which has been preserved with concrete sand bags, but the layout, the corrugated steel roof and the pierced steel plates inside, that were originally used on the French airstrip, are authentic.  The place is cool even on the hottest days but the gloom and the knowledge of what went on down there leaves you in little mood to tarry.  There has been no attempt to turn it into a museum of the battle and the fact that the rooms are mostly empty just adds to the sense of history ~ with nothing there it is easier to imagine the hubbub of the radio traffic, the desperate messages going in and out; and the anguished decisions being made.  It really is an eerie place.


De Castries' Bunker

Walk back to the road and continue south.  Another “Bison” looks out over the flood plain of the Nam Yum towards Elaine on the other side.  The original wooden bridge would have been about here but the river and cultivation have changed things since 1954.  This is a good lookout as it is difficult to get to the river at other points on this side.  You can take in the length of the central position from the Bailey Bridge to the north, to where “Juno” would have been to the south.


The French Memorial

Keep walking south and you come to the French Memorial.  This is an odd little place as it is a “free enterprise” effort created by an “Ancien” of the Foreign Legion, not an official memorial by the French or Vietnamese governments.  Still it’s a touching place and all the more so as a “grass roots” memorial from and to the guys who fought at Dien Bien Phu.  When I visited it was a little bit scruffy and needed some paintwork.  I hope that it is spruced up for the 50th Anniversary.  It deserves it.


Back at De Castries' bunker you are in the centre of the Claudine positions and the gun lines are marked by rusting artillery pieces.  Across the road to the north of the bunker there is a 105 mm howitzer and to the west of the bunker are a 155 mm howitzer and two more 105s.  Further west the Claudine and Francois defensive positions have disappeared under housing and agriculture so there is not much to see here.  From the layout of the housing you can work out the original path of the “Piste Pavie” track which was the main north-south route at the time of the battle but which has now been replaced by the main highway on the eastern side of the river and the smaller road on the western side.  If you follow this north you will come to the valley’s main east-west road and yet another Bison, sitting on its own in a little bog.


The Huguettes


Using this tank as a landmark take the sidetrack to the north and you will be entering the area of the Huguettes positions which were intended to defend the airstrip.  The first landmark is the steep sided creek that flows roughly east to west into the Nam Yum.  At the time of the battle this was bridged at several locations including a special bridge between the airstrip and the dispersal area for the Bearcat fighter bombers and Morane “Criquets” based at Dien Bien Phu .  On my visit all I could find was a narrow footbridge through a farm yard.


Since the airstrip itself has been moved, extended and concreted I wasn’t expecting to find much to justify sinking up to my calves in the paddy fields but I was pleasantly surprised.  Huguette 2 is marked by a marker and the last of the Bisons.  The path of the “Piste Pavie” is quite clear leading off to the site of “Ann Marie”, later renamed Huguette 6 and 7.  Likewise the path of the drainage ditch that used to run on the east side of the airstrip is still clear, although today it is on the west of the new strip.


The Disconsolate Bison


The Bison at Huguette 2 seems the most disconsolate of all the tanks at Dien Bien Phu .  Its gun dips sadly over its shattered body.  Although there is nothing left of the trench works the sharp contrast between the situation on the Huguettes and the “Five Hills” east of the river is brought home to you.  At least on the hills there was dead ground to take cover in.  Here by the airstrip everything is completely flat.  The soldiers on both sides could only survive because of their trenches and both sides paid a high cost in blood to extend their own trenches or take out the enemy’s.  One of the best Viet Minh accounts of the battle is by battalion commander Nguyen Quoc Tri in “Operation on the Stomach” (Vietnamese Studies No. 3, March 1965.)  It was Nguyen’s battalion that was charged with digging an approach trench right up to the airstrip a few hundred meters north of Huguette 2.  The 140 meter trench cost him two thirds of his unit in three nights and two days of fighting in early April 1954.


I wasn’t able to walk up the Piste Pavie to the Anne Marie positions because I was shooed away from the runway by guards as the afternoon plane was arriving.  My advice then is to visit the Huguettes and Anne Marie in the morning.  Unless you are visiting in dry season a good pair of boots is essential for these positions which consist mostly of paddy.  The berms between the fields are narrow and the mud is glutinous.  I went in to my ankles of my jungle boots several times, shoes or trainers would have probably been sucked off.  The walk to Anne Marie would be the longest bit of exploration that you can conveniently do on foot.  To visit the other positions, Giap’s HQ, Beatrice, Gabrielle and Isabelle, you need some kind of transport, either a car or motorbike, both of which you can hire for a day and take in the lot.


Giap’s HQ


Although it is only 14 km from the centre of Dien Bien Phu as the crow flies, the journey to Giap’s HQ in the mountains to the east takes well over an hour.  But the time is well worth it.  Both the journey and the arrival are an education.  The first half of the route is via Highway 279, the old RC 41 which follows the river valley of the Nam Yum as it carves its way through the mountains.  As the road clings to the side of several gorges you get amazing views and an introduction to the ethnic and agricultural background to the area.  The valley bottoms and lower sides of the valleys are populated and farmed by the Black Tai whilst the tops of the mountains above you are the home of the Hmong.  The Hmong fields seem to cling to the very precipices in an almost perpendicular, gravity defying, way.  Leaving the main road at Na Nhan you head south for the Pa Khoang Lake which wasn’t there at the time of the battle ~ it is the result of a hydro-electric project.  Just before you get to the Lake you turn east again on a road not marked on the 1:250,000 series Dien Bien Phu map and travel through Tai villages to Muong Phang.  Here you leave the car and take a 25 minute walk on a well maintained path through the forested hills to the great man’s HQ.


The walk through the woods and over little brooks brings you to a fork in the path and a signboard telling you that you have arrived.  Take the left fork and you will come to Giap’s hut and the entrance to the underground bunker system.  Take the right fork and you will come to the hut of Giap’s chief of staff, Hoang Van Thai and another entrance to the tunnel system.  Just before you get to Hoang’s hut the large briefing hut has been recreated.  This is the building that usually features in the photographs of Giap planning his battle.  Beyond it is an open space where the Headquarters guard post used to stand.


Giap gives a nice description of how his CP was located and operated in “Reminiscing about Dien Bien Phu (Vietnamese Studies No. 3, March 1965.)  He calls his hut a “shed” which is pretty apt, as it really is no bigger than a garden tool shed, and waxes lyrical about the location ~ for which I don’t blame him because it really is an Arcadian setting:-


“Situated on the side of very beautiful hill …

covered with tall, slender, chestnut trees …

The huts roofed with tiger grass were scattered along a small stream.”


Giap's Shed


Reading between the lines of his reminisces also tells you a thing or two.  For instance the construction of the tunnel complex was not begun until late March.  Presumably after the losses taken in capturing Beatrice and Gabrielle had convinced the Viet Minh that the battle would take much longer than they had previously thought.  Likewise if April was bad for the French it was desperate for the Viet Minh too.  Their morale was cracking because of the heavy losses and their supply was a nightmare.  Giap admits to feeling the strain and some considerate staff officer whistled up an Army Folk Dance Ensemble to cheer him up.  After banging off the usual patriotic, morale raising tub thumpers the band started singing traditional country folk songs that seem to have got to Giap:


“Never before had I felt the beauty of music as I did then during those tense moments fraught with a great sense of urgency, close to the battlefield.”


Most of all Giap stresses how Dien Bien Phu was a battle of supply ~ the chart next to his desk recorded supply deliveries, not friendly and enemy casualties.


I really enjoyed visiting Giap’s HQ, the journey, the location and the context were all thought inspiring and very different to the rest of Dien Bien Phu .  For you dear reader though, a few words of advice: TAKE A TORCH! I didn’t, (although I had a perfectly good one back at the hotel,) and thus although the 300 meters of bunkers through the hill between the two entrances seem quite open I couldn’t explore them in the pitch darkness.  I hope that you will have more luck and will not have to retrace your route through the forest saying “Doh!” at every step like I did!




You can drive to Beatrice, or Him Lam as the Vietnamese call it, on the way to or from Giap’s HQ or even walk there from the Muong Tranh Hotel.  Head east along Route 279 and stay on the same side of the road as the hotel.  About 300 meters from the hotel you come to a garage “SUA CHO AUTO”, take a left here down an unpaved lane.  About 800 m down the track you come to a walled enclosure marked “NHA MAY CACN DBP’.  There are ponds on your left and the track makes a 90 degree right hand turn around the enclosure, follow the road and after about 100 m it makes another 90 degree left hand turn.  On this bend is a white house.  Don’t follow the road but from the bend you will see a path leading off to your right: follow this, it leads up a wooded hill and when you get to the top you are at the Beatrice monument.  I did this at the gallop because I was overtaken by a section of PAVN NCO/officer candidates doing a map reading exercise and I didn’t want them to think that steely eyed oriental crime fighters were fat and flabby.  Keeping up their pace almost killed me but I was not the last casualty of Dien Bien Phu and finally got to the top without a heart attack.  They politely but firmly decline my offer of a photo.  The bush is about waist to shoulder high on top of Beatrice. I briefly turned away from the soldiers to photograph the monument and when I turned back they had totally vanished.  This was rather spooky as they could not have been more than a few metres from me but I could not see nor hear anyone.  Clearly the PAVN’s tradition of exceptional fieldcraft is well maintained today.


Beatrice Monument


Beatrice consisted of three hill positions and I had to admit that I had no idea which one I was on.  It must have been an important one for the Viets to erect their monument there.  Given the general lie of the ground, and the distance we were from the road, I suspect I was on B4/B2.  With the state of the bush when I was there it would be difficult to go down and then up again to B1 or B3, I could not see a path but the PAVN boys had got through.  Again this will probably be easier in the dry season.  The hills themselves are steep and the Viet Minh assault paid the cost.  It was here that Giot died leading the attack and blocking the loophole of a French machine gun nest with his own body.  In the end though Beatrice fell because of its isolation.  Although closer to the main position than Gabrielle, Beatrice was more cut off as the hills and jungle closed in around it whereas the routes to Gabrielle and Isabelle were over flat open ground.  Beatrice was not essential to the defence of Dien Bien Phu , if anything it was a relic of the “offensive” role of Dien Bien Phu as an “air-land base” to launch forays of up to brigade size into the Tai Highlands.  Beatrice was the jumping off point for these raids.  When Beatrice fell on the first day of the battle the French made only a very half-hearted attempt to retake it.




Gabrielle or Doc Lap is easier to get to.  You follow the Piste Pavie, (now the paved Route 12) north out of town.  Gabrielle rises like the Torpedo-boat it was first called.  You have to remember that the French were not comparing it to the sharp lines of a destroyer but to the turtleback shape of a torpedo-boat.  There are large cemeteries to the NW and SE of Gabrielle and the road between them crosses Route 12 at the foot of Gabrielle.  There are some small shops and the ubiquitous soup cafes here.  Keep on Route 12 which skirts the western flank of Gabrielle and about 100 meters north of the shops you will see a path leading off up the slope.  It’s a hands on climb to begin with but the steepest part is by the road.  The path leads straight up to the monument and you get a great view of the whole valley.  When I was there they appeared to be planting mulberry trees on Gabrielle, possibly to stop erosion rather than for commercial reasons.


Our Hero on Top of Gabrielle


From the top of Gabrielle two things are clear: first what a tough position it was, secondly how important it was to the defence of Dien Bien Phu .  Gabrielle dominates the land around it, and it was the best fortified of the main positions.  It should have been held and it probably could have been held.  Attacked on the second night of the battle Gabrielle was still holding out the following morning.  A relief force broke through but garbled messages led the Algerian defenders to believe that the reinforcements were being sent to evacuate them so they gave up the hill.  If the French communications had been better the tired but basically sound “Bavowan” Vietnamese Paratroops would have dug in on top of Gabrielle and the Viet Minh would have faced the same task again.  Every day that the French held Gabrielle meant one more day of full air supply as the runway and the drop zones remained clear and the possibility of air evacuation remained open.


Thus if the Viet-Minh had not had their “lucky break” on Gabrielle Giap would have been faced with some hard decisions to make.  Since the losses suffered on Beatrice and Gabrielle anyway obliged the Viet-Minh to reconsider their tactics and resort to digging and strangulation over direct assault, if Giap would have had to pay an even higher price for Gabrielle it is possible that he might have reconsidered the whole operation, as he did at Na San the year before.  Or, as mentioned in the discussion of Dominique 2, if Gabrielle had cost another regiment to take the cumulative effect of the meat grinder may have led to Viet Minh morale decisively cracking after the Battle of the Five Hills.


Having lost Gabrielle the French were in big trouble.  From the top of the hill the valley is laid out before you, especially the runway and the primary French parachute drop zones used for reinforcements and supplies.  The flak batteries that the Viet-Minh were able to establish on and around Gabrielle put a stranglehold on the French Garrison.


Two Roads to the End: Isabelle


South from Dien Bien Phu proper the valley opens up and it is easy to understand how the French believed that it was an ideal place to fight a battle of manoeuvre.  The paddies are dead flat and, although the hills rise to mountains on all sides the feeling is far less claustrophobic than in the main position.  All-in-all a perfect Devil’s playground for the French armour, artillery and airpower to smash the infantry of the Viet Minh on.  All the more credit goes to the Viet Minh then for making their strangulation tactics work on this terrain too.  Fall’s map of Isabelle shows 16 Viet Minh battery positions firing on the strongpoint and these were not dug into the mountains like those in the north but somehow concealed on this billiard table.  There are two roads south to Isabelle, the main highway 279 east of the river and the smaller road to the west of the river.


West of the river follow the single track road south from the French Memorial.  Once you are clear of the main position this road presumably follows the route of the old Piste Pavie.  It is very picturesque.  You pass through Thai villages with their thatched long houses and skirt a wide green sea of rice paddies.  Looking out to the west you can see where Bigeard launched his “flak raid” to neutralize the Viet Minh AAA on 28th March 1954 and it was from Isabelle to the south that Lieutenant Preaud’s three “bisons” came barrelling up across the flat plain to hit the Viet Minh flank and complete the victory.  The raid was a great fillip to French morale and was the epitome of how they had intended to fight the whole battle, combining good quality infantry, armour, artillery and air in a well orchestrated operation.  Sadly for the French Giap gave them little opportunity to repeat such successes.


East of the river the main highway provides the quickest route to Isabelle.  Before you get there though you come to the village of Nhoong Nhai .  Here on 25 April 1954 French aircraft bombed a concentration of civilian refugees, mostly women and children, who had been evacuated from villages nearer the main areas of conflict.  There is nothing to suggest that this was anything other than one of those ghastly mistakes that happen in war, not that would be of any consolation to the victims, or even perhaps to the pilots.  A fair number of French Air Force men were captured at Dien Bien Phu and after the battle the Viet Minh made them dig up the bodies of the women and children and look at them before re-interring them.  It is easy to understand how the Viet Minh felt, and how the French must have felt.


Today the site of this tragedy is marked by a simple but striking monument of a classically dressed woman holding up her dead child in an almost sacrificial gesture.  The monument has not been well looked after but the slight decay justs adds to the pathos.  It’s a very sad place.


Monument to the Bombing Victims

South of Noong Nhai lay one of the main reason for Isabelle’s existence ~ the alternative landing strip for Dien Bien Phu .  This proved useless because the main strip was sufficient for all of Dien Bien Phu ’s needs and the same Viet Minh artillery and flak that rendered the main strip unusable also neutralised the alternative strip.  The second reason for Isabelle’s existence was that it held one third of the French artillery which was to provide flanking fire for the main position.  However because it was so far south of the main position Isabelle’s guns could not reach the northern positions on Gabrielle and Beatrice so, when the Viet Minh assaulted these they did not have to worry about neutralizing the artillery support from Isabelle as well as the main artillery concentration in Claudine.  De Castries was well aware of this problem and, before the battle started wanted to abandon Isabelle or replace it with another strongpoint to house the artillery closer to the main position.  But the false promise of the airstrip kept Isabelle where it was.


The large marker beside the highway says Isabelle but actually, since you are still east of the river you are standing at the tip of strongpoint Wieme.  The terrain is perfectly flat and nothing remains of the old positions which are now covered by a farm and a brick works.  It is a pleasant walk to the river but there is no trace of the bridge that once connected Wieme with Isabelle proper.  If conditions in the main position of Dien Bien Phu were often appalling the conditions on these flat, flooded, shell shot strongpoints were far worse.  This was “Hell in a very small place.”


Isabelle was the last part of Dien Bien Phu to fall.  It held out because, despite the awful location it was well prepared, with the best dug outs in the whole valley; its defenders were determined, well they had nowhere else to go; and although the Viet Minh made several strong assaults, ultimately they were not prepared to pay the necessary price in blood to take it.  When the main position was overrun at 5:30 p.m. on 7th May 1954 Colonel Laland in Isabelle was given permission to attempt “Operation Albatross” ~ the break out.  This was not the last ditch bayonet charge of Foreign Legion legend but a two pronged sortie that was quickly intercepted by the Viet Minh.  Although a few made a clean getaway to safety, and more disappeared in the fire fight or got lost in the jungle clad hills never to be seen again, most of the garrison fell back to Isabelle in disorder.  At 1:50 a.m. on 8th May 1954 Laland signalled to Hanoi : “Sortie failed.  Cannot communicate with you any more.”  The Battle of Dien Bien Phu had ended.


I stood beside the Nam Yum River at Isabelle as the sun went down alone with my thoughts.  It seemed fitting to end my trip where the battle had ended.  It had been a long trip that had taken me over thirty years.  But finally I had got to go to all of those places that I had been to so many times before.


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