Dien Bien Phu

Itinerary Route Map

Around Dien Bien Phu on 7 May 1954, the French colonial forces were defeated by the Viet Minh in a decisive battle, and the days of their Indochina empire became numbered.

Dien Bien Phu (DBP) sits in the heart-shaped Muong Thanh Valley, surrounded by heavily forested hills. The scenery to or from DBP is stunning, with approach roads scything through thick forests and steep terrain. The city itself lies more prosaically on a broad dry plain. Thai, H’mong and Si La people live in the surrounding mountains, but the city and valley are mainly inhabited by ethnic Vietnamese.

Previously just a minor settlement, DBP only achieved town status in 1992. It became a city in 2003, and a year later was elevated to provincial capital. Expansive boulevards and civic buildings have been constructed, and the airport now receives daily flights from Hanoi. With the nearby Sop Hun–Tay Trang Vietnam–Laos border open to foreigners, more travellers are passing through the city.

History is the city’s main attraction, with colonial-era bunkers and museums.

History

In early 1954 General Henri Navarre, commander of the French forces in Indochina, sent 12 battalions to occupy the Muong Thanh Valley in an attempt to prevent the Viet Minh from crossing into Laos and threatening the former Lao capital of Luang Prabang. The French units, of which 30% were ethnic Vietnamese, were soon surrounded by Viet Minh forces under General Vo Nguyen Giap. The Viet Minh outnumbered the French by five to one, and were equipped with artillery pieces and anti-aircraft guns, painstakingly carried by porters through jungles and across rivers. The guns were placed in carefully camouflaged concealed positions overlooking the French positions.

When the guns opened up, French Chief Artillery Commander Pirot committed suicide. He’d assumed there was no way the Viet Minh could get heavy artillery to the area. A failed Viet Minh human-wave assault against the French was followed by weeks of intense artillery bombardments. Six battalions of French paratroopers were parachuted into DBP as the situation worsened, but bad weather and the impervious Viet Minh artillery prevented sufficient French reinforcements from arriving. An elaborate system of trenches and tunnels allowed Viet Minh soldiers to reach French positions without coming under fire. The trenches and bunkers were overrun by the Viet Minh after the French decided against the use of US conventional bombers, and the Pentagon’s proposal to use tactical atomic bombs. All 13,000 French soldiers were either killed or taken prisoner, and Viet Minh casualties were estimated at 25,000.

Just one day before the Geneva Conference on Indochina was set to begin in Switzerland, Viet Minh forces finally overran the beleaguered French garrison after a 57-day siege. This shattered French morale, and the French government abandoned all attempts to re-establish colonial control of Vietnam.

Sights

Dien Bien Phu Museum 

(0230-382 4971; Ð 7-5; admission 5000d; 7-11am & 1.30-5pm) Commemorating the 1954 battle, this well-laid-out museum features an eclectic collection. Alongside weaponry and guns, there’s a bath-tub that belonged to the French commander Colonel de Castries, a bicycle capable of carrying 330kg of ordnance, and photographs and documents, some with English translations. At the time of writing, a new modern structure to house the collection was under construction.

Bunker of Colonel de Castries 

(admission 5000d;  7-11am & 1.30-5pm) Across the river the command bunker of Colonel Christian de Castries has been re-created. A few discarded tanks linger nearby, and you’ll probably see Vietnamese tourists mounting the bunker and waving the Vietnamese flag, re-enacting an iconic photograph taken at the battle’s conclusion.

A1 Hill 

(admission 3000d;  7-11am & 1.30-5pm) There are more tanks and a monument to Viet Minh casualties on this former French position, known to the French as Eliane and to the Vietnamese as A1 Hill. The elaborate trenches at the heart of the French defences have also been re-created.

Cemeteries 

A formal French War Memorial , erected on the 30th anniversary of the 1954 battle, commemorates the 3000 French troops buried under the rice paddies. On the other bank of the Ron River, the immaculately maintained Dien Bien Phu Cemetery commemorates the Vietnamese dead, each gravestone bearing the gold star of the Vietnamese flag and a clutch of incense sticks.

Muong Thanh Bridge 

WORTH A TRIP The old Muong Thanh Bridge is preserved and closed to four-wheeled traffic. Near the southern end of the bridge – though not much more than an overgrown crater – is the bunker where Chief Artillery Commander Pirot committed suicide.

CHOW DOWN IN MOC CHAU & YEN CHAU

Many travellers heading west enjoy the beautiful scenery around Mai Chau before kicking on to Laos via Dien Bien Phu, or heading north to Sapa. If you have a hankering for local flavours, especially if you’ve got a sweet tooth, it’s worth stopping off at a couple of other towns along Hwy 6.

Around 200km west of Hanoi, Moc Chau boasts a pioneering dairy industry launched in the late 1970s with Australian and UN assistance. The dairy provides Hanoi with fresh milk, sweetened condensed milk and little tooth-rotting bars called banh sua, and the town is a good place to sample fresh milk and yoghurt. Moc Chau also produces some of Vietnam’s best tea, and the surrounding area is home to ethnic minorities, including Green H’mong, Dzao, Thai and Muong. Vietnam in Focus offers annual photographic trips from Hanoi to Moc Chau’s fascinating H’mong Love Market in late August/early September, and Handspan Adventure Travel runs two- and three-day trips to the area, staying in a Black Thai homestay in Ban Doi village.

A further 60km west, the agricultural Yen Chau district is known for its abundant fruit production. Apart from bananas, all fruits grown here are seasonal. Mangoes, plums and peaches are harvested from April to June, longans in July and August, and custard apples from August to September.

Yen Chau mangoes are renowned as Vietnam’s tastiest, although travellers may initially find them disappointing, as they are small and green, rather than big, yellow and juicy like those of the tropical south. Most Vietnamese actually prefer the tart flavour of the green ones, especially dipped in nuoc mam (fish sauce) and sugar.

Both Moc Chau and Yen Chau can be reached on departures to either Son La or Dien Bien Phu from Hanoi’s My Dinh bus station. Once on the road, travellers should find it relatively easy to flag down onward transport along Hwy 6 ranging from local minibuses to air-con coaches.

Sleeping

Viet Hoang 2 

(0989 797 988; 69 Ð Phuong Thanh Binh; r 250,000-350,000d; ) Tucked away opposite the bus station, this guesthouse is the newer (and much cleaner) offshoot of the older, nearby Viet Hoang 1 (rooms 150,000d to 200,000d). The extra dong are worth it.

Binh Long Hotel 

( 0230-382 4345; 429 Ð Muong Thanh; d & tw US$10; ) Another small, friendly, family-run place, but on a busy junction in the thick of things. The twin rooms aren’t exactly huge, but the owners know about onward transport to Sapa and Laos.

Muong Thanh Hotel 

(0230-381 0043; www.muongthanhthanhnien.com; Ð Muong Thanh; r US$50-80) Modern rooms include satellite TV, elegant furniture and marble bathrooms. Added attractions include a swimming pool watched over by a not-so-scary concrete dragon.

Him Lam Hotel 

(0230-381 1999; www.himlamhotel.com.vn; Hwy 279; r US$30-45; ) This resort-style hotel is one of Vietnam’s best government-run places, with attractive wooden stilthouses and modern rooms, and extensive grounds, tennis courts, pools, and a bar and restaurant. Weekends might see your lakeside reverie interrupted by a local wedding. A taxi from the DBP bus station is around 60,000d. Count on 30,000d for a xe om.

Eating & Drinking

Dining options are limited in DBP, though the Muong Thanh Hotel has an OK restaurant. It’s also worth considering eating at the Him Lam Hotel.

Pho Stalls 

(Dishes around 30,000d; 8am-10pm) There’s good-value eating at the inexpensive pho stalls and simple restaurants opposite the bus station; some serve delicious fresh sugar-cane juice.

Bia Hoi 

(Ɖ Hoang Van Thai; noon-10pm) You’re probably only in town for a night so meet the locals at the bia hoi gardens along Ɖ Hoang Van Thai. There’s decent and cheap grilled food also if you’re tired of rice and noodles.

Information

Agribank (0230-382 5786; Ð 7-5) Has an ATM and changes US dollars.

Main post office (Ð 7-5)

Getting There & Away

Air

Vietnam Airlines (0230-382 4948; www.vietnamairlines.com; Nguyen Huu Tho; 7.30-11.30am & 1.30-4.30pm) operates one flight daily between Dien Bien Phu and Hanoi. The office is near the airport, about 1.5km from the town centre, along the road to Muong Lay.

Bus

DBP’s bus station is on Hwy 12, at the corner of Ð Tran Dang Ninh.

Buses from Dien Bien Phu:

Destination

Cost (d)

Duration & Frequency

Hanoi

375,000

11½hr; frequent 4.30am–9pm

Lai Chau

130,000

6–7hr; frequent 5am–1.15pm

Muong Lay

57,000

3–4hr: 6.30am, 2.30pm, 4pm

Son La

97,000

4hr; 4.30am, 8am, noon, 2pm

Car & Motorcycle

The 480km drive from Hanoi to Dien Bien Phu on Hwys 6 and 279 takes around 11 hours.

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