- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 6, 2004

DIEN BIEN PHU, Vietnam — Atop a tranquil, sunlit hill, the raw memories of battle amid red-earth trenches and barbed wire are still vivid for the elderly men who make the pilgrimage here.

With their ramrod-straight backs, mismatched green uniforms and chests decorated with medals, the veterans of Dien Bien Phu are hard to miss. Hundreds have filed into this small border town in recent weeks to celebrate their long-ago victory, mourn fallen comrades or to just remember.

“I was in hell back then. Today feels like I’m in heaven,” said Vu Van Nay, 77, leaning heavily on a cane, his left sleeve swinging empty.

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the fall of Dien Bien Phu after an epic battle that ultimately ended France’s colonization of Indochina. It comes upon a nation of 80 million that still adheres to the communist ideals that propelled its war of liberation, but steadily is embracing the capitalist lifestyle. In contemporary Dien Bien Phu, Internet cafes mingle among busy markets.

But the victory of a Vietnamese peasant army over a military giant still is remembered as a strategic masterpiece that continues to be studied by military historians.

“It was a defeat that reverberated around the world,” said Carlyle Thayer, a Vietnam authority at the Australian Defense Force Academy. “For Vietnam, it was electrifying on a global level. This was a major defeat for a colonial power at the hands of a Third World population.”

It wasn’t supposed to turn out that way. In this remote valley 260 miles northwest of Hanoi, ringed by mist-shrouded mountains, the French chose to make their stand, hoping to strangle supply routes from Laos and China to Ho Chi Minh’s ragtag army.

Commanded by Vo Nguyen Giap, the military strategist, the peasant army had been inflicting significant damage. The French plan was to draw the Vietnamese into a conventional battle and crush them.

Instead, the French ended up trapped in the small valley when the Vietnamese managed the virtually impossible logistical feat of disassembling and dragging heavy artillery over the mountains before beginning the 56-day siege that choked their foreign rulers.

Col. Christian de Castries, the French commander, surrendered on May 7, 1954, as the Vietnamese raised their flag above his bunker. It was the end of a colonial war and a triumph for communism that set the stage for the American war in Indochina a decade later.

The human price was terrible. The French suffered more than 2,000 deaths in battle, and countless others died during a forced prison march. The Vietnamese suffered at least three times as many deaths during the fighting, plus tens of thousands wounded.

From the last hill captured by the Vietnamese during the fighting, there is a clear view of one of three war cemeteries below, its neat rows of gravestones and a marble wall of gold-printed names a silent testament to the costs of yesteryear. Trenches and barbed wire have been left on the hill for tourists to see.

The town of Dien Bien Phu, population 70,000, sprawls below, a patchwork of colorful blocks surrounded by emerald rice paddies. The main boulevard is named 7th of May. Over the decades, the bomb craters and trenches have been filled in and flattened into farmland.

This, too, is part of the veterans’ legacy, for when the battle was won, their jobs were just beginning. In 1958, Ho Chi Minh sent hundreds of soldiers back to Dien Bien Phu to secure the supply routes and rebuild the tiny outpost.

“Fighting the enemy and rebuilding my country — they were both my tasks,” said Nguyen Tieu, 79, who raised his four children here. “I was a soldier and a farmer for my country.”

Mr. Tieu and others came back to clear away the dense forest and work on a collective farm, turning the scorched earth into rice and fruit farms.

“It was still jungle then — a battlefield of old trenches and barbed wire. There were only 24 houses in town. It took three days to travel to Hanoi,” he said.

About 300 veterans still live in Dien Bien Phu, and for the anniversary of their battle, the old men dusted off their memories, some probably for the last time.

In the one-room home of Tran Quang Huu, a half-dozen veterans — the eldest 82, the youngest a spry 70 — talked excitedly after being visited by their former commander, Gen. Giap. Now a frail 92, the general is regarded as a national treasure — the most famous of Ho Chi Minh’s contemporaries still alive.

“We’ve been waiting for years to see General Giap,” said Nguyen Van Chua, 75. “It was wonderful to see him again. This is probably the last time we will see him and the last time he will see us.”

In the easy rhythm of old friends, they retell their war stories, cutting into one another’s memories with another detail, another bit of hardship — not enough food, not enough weapons, constantly being bombed, huddling in trenches alongside dead comrades. And never doubting they would win.

The French “thought they had their tanks, their planes and their artillery. They thought we had nothing. But they underestimated us,” said Nguyen Van Ky, 74.

Their lives have been far from easy. The struggle against the French was followed by more than decade of war with the United States before the country was reunified by communist troops in 1975. Debilitating isolation and poverty came after that.

But in the past decade, Vietnam has begun to modernize, and things are different. These old soldiers, simple peasants who didn’t get beyond elementary school, have watched their children and grandchildren go on to college and stable jobs — the first generation of Vietnamese in a century to have never known war.

Not everything is perfect, said the one-armed Mr. Nay, back in Dien Bien Phu for the first time in 50 years. Vietnam, population 80 million, remains a poor nation.

Still, he said, “I’m very moved to be here. When I was in the trenches, I kept imagining a world without war, without killing. We sacrificed ourselves for our children and the next generation.”

The old veteran believes the price he and his comrades paid was worth it. “Their lives are much better. Their only job is to study and work hard,” he said. “They don’t have to worry about war.”

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