“When we entered into the bunker, we ordered the French officials to surrender. General de Castries kept a straight face while [the] others … [put] their arms up. I was so tense that I pushed my rifle against de Castries’ abdomen … thus forcing him to put his hands up,” Hoang Dang Vinh, a Vietnamese veteran of the 1954 Dien Bien Phu battle, recalls with clarity, miming the scene as though he were still in the bunker.
Sixty years have passed since the victory that marked the end of the French colonial empire in Indochina. Now, seated in his garden, 30km from Hanoi, the former Viet Minh soldier remembers how the general talked to him in French: “Please do not shoot me.”
General Christian Marie Ferdinand de la Croix de Castries surrendered on May 7, 1954, after enduring almost two months of pressure from 50,000 Viet Minh soldiers under the command of General Vo Nguyen Giap, who the following day, together with Ho Chi Minh, the “father of the nation”, wrote to soldiers and citizens praising their victory. “Although the victory is great, we have only begun,” Ho Chi Minh noted.
Vinh was 20 years old when he first fought. He had joined the resistance movement 21 months earlier after being arrested and tortured by French soldiers. “In 1949, my older brother was killed by the French, and when they occupied my village they burned homes and killed innocent people. I was then arrested and forced to work for them in the logistic unit until I was able to escape. It was then that I decided to join the army,” he recalls.
Located in northwest Vietnam, a few kilometres from the Laos border, Dien Bien Phu was a heart-shaped basin famous for its opium traffic and a source of rice for the Viet Minh, who started to converge there after the area was fortified by the French Union force in the biggest airborne operation of the first Indochina War.
In the summer of 1953, French General Henri Navarre – who took command of the French force the previous May – presented his plan to bring the war to “an honourable end”. In September, Soviet intelligence secured a copy of Navarre’s plan and passed it on to their Chinese counterparts, who, in turn, forwarded it to the Viet Minh.
According to Giap, Ho Chi Minh responded to the plan by declaring: “We needn’t be afraid. We’ll make the French disperse their forces. Their strength will evaporate.”
The plan was to fight “a major battle somewhere in the northwest,” recalls Nguyen Viet Diem, who joined the Viet Minh in 1946, just a year after Ho Chi Minh declared Vietnamese independence in Hanoi. Diem left his village and was arrested three times.
He was eventually sentenced to death and led before a firing squad. “That day, I was sure I was going to die, but when I heard the shot, I was still alive. They decided not to kill me and instead took me back to jail,” he recalls.
When Diem was later freed, he decided to join his comrades in Dien Bien Phu in March, 1953. “Our strategy was to stage guerrilla attacks. We had to attack French positions near Dien Bien Phu and retreat immediately, even though this pullback resulted in a major waste of force and soldiers,” Diem explains.
As well as fighting, they had to move their artillery and weapons across difficult mountainous terrain, sometimes digging tunnels through the hills surrounding the French positions. “We could dig as much as one kilometre per night, but it was a very hard and dangerous procedure. Many fell, hit by the French artillery and also due to malaria,” says Vu Dinh Binh, who has never forgotten how he often had to step on the corpses of his fallen comrades in order to enter the tunnels they had dug.
“The saddest moments were when we got back from the guerrilla attacks and had lunch together. When you did not see your comrade you knew that he was certainly dead,” explains Truong Minh Duc, sitting on the sofa of the quiet home in Dien Bien Phu where he has lived with his daughter-in-law since the death of his son.
Special units were given the task of gathering the rescued bodies of dead soldiers. Ngueyn Kim Sao, who also participated in the second Indochina, or Vietnam, war, against the United States, was in one such unit and recalls with emotion the torment of bringing corpses back through the forest.
After almost eight years of fighting, the French surrendered. “When we came out from the trenches that day we saw the French soldiers surfacing from their positions with their clothes used as white flags. They were surrendering. We had won the war,” says Vu Dinh Binh.
The long march
It was proof that a Western colonial power could be defeated by a revolutionary force. But, recalls Nguyen Viet Diem, after the victory “many of us were worried that the Americans would drop nuclear bombs. Some battalions were ordered to stay in the Dien Bien Phu area, while I joined the unit … [that] led the French prisoners 600km south”.
Years later, Vo Nguyen Giap concluded in his memoir: “The work of peace drew us forward, but the general elections and other points in the Geneva Agreements were never implemented. Our people prepared once again for a new stage in the long march towards independence and unification. That long march would turn out to be more miserable than the one we had just completed.”
As US officials began to arrive in Saigon, the Geneva Agreements, which were issued on July 21, 1954, carefully worded the division of northern and southern Vietnam as a “provisional military demarcation line on either side of which the forces of the two parties shall be regrouped after their withdrawal”.
“After 1954, the government of South Vietnam made an appeal to all Catholics claiming that their God had moved to the south,” says Nguyen Xuan Dung, who was responsible for persuading northerners that there was no need to flee south.
“The Virgin Mary is moving South” was one of the slogans fashioned by the CIA to further influence Catholic Vietnamese. With this appeal, “the then Franco-American puppet government was able to convince about 10,000 Catholics to move from the north to the south”, Dung says. At the same time, thousands of mainly Viet Minh members and their families from the south went north.
The biggest bombing campaign
Between 1956 and 1960, many Viet Minh soldiers went back to their villages and married. Others decided to stay on in the army.
“We realised that Dien Bien Phu was just the first step and as Ho Chi Minh said, we had to unify the country and this was our final aim,” explains Dinh The Van, who joined the Viet Minh movement in 1953 and led an anti-aircraft unit during the war against the Americans.
After being trained by Soviet advisers, he became a captain in 1964. “I was in Hanoi during the 1972 bombings to protect the city and my unit was the first to strike an American B-52,” he recalls with pride, showing pictures of a B-52 on fire.
In December 1972, the US army started Operation Linebacker II. It was President Richard Nixon’s attempt to hasten the end of the Vietnam war.
That military operation was the biggest-ever bombing campaign by US B-52 aircraft. At least 20,000 tonnes of explosives were dropped on North Vietnam, mostly Hanoi, killing more than 1,000 Vietnamese.
“Today we can say that our resistance during those 12 days helped to bring about the deal, signed a month later, that led to an end of US involvement in the war,” recalls Van.
That war ended on April 30, 1975.
The “last battle”
After the war ended, Van – like many of his comrades – found it difficult to return to “normal” life.
“During the 1980s and soon after I retired, I began my last battle – the one to support my family,” he says.
“It was not easy to start a new life. The memories of the war became more and more present in my daily life.
“I went through hard times, but I was able to manage it over time and eventually overcome it thanks to my writing. I started to write a diary. Writing helped me to free myself from my fears of the war.”
This article first appeared in the August 2014 issue of the Al Jazeera Magazine.
In pictures: Vietnam’s war veterans