In September 2010 I went back to Australia for a while after spending months travelling in the US, Europe and Asia. My return was to catch up with family and friends, do some travel there and a few months of contract work to boost the coffers, then I had planned to move to the US. But with the economy still in the gutter I thought, what the hell, I am going to Vietnam and Laos for 2 months (via Singapore)! So I put the relocation off for a while and headed to S.E. Asia. I wrote a number of travel emails from that trip and I thought it would be fun to revisit them with some additional info and photos. The following blog is Part 2 of that journey (North Vietnam).
October 31st, 2010
My last day in Hanoi for this leg of the trip was spent visiting the Museum of Revolution that details the struggle for freedom by the Vietnamese from the colonial French, the “US Stooges” (their words not mine!) in South Vietnam and the US itself. There are very interesting photos and displays, including a bullet proof car provided by the USSR for communist government officials and gifts given to Ho Chi Minh by various Communist dignitaries etc. My favourites were metal models of Soviet aircraft.
I have taken to spending some time just sitting in cafe’s in Hanoi sipping a cup of tea or grabbing a bite to eat and just watching the world go by – its fascinating the array of helmets people wear on motorbikes – from bicycle helmets, to old US army helmets you see it all. Also I like to see what is being transported on bicycles – amazing how much stuff they can pack on there, whether its fruit or flowers or just about anything you can imagine! Watching people text whilst riding a motorbike and not looking where they are going in such traffic is somewhat scary!
I went to the Hanoi Air Force Museum by taxi, only to discover it is closed on Fridays (all other museums close on Mondays)! The military guard would not even allow me to just snap a couple of photos of the aircraft out on open display! Annoying Communist red tape! So I went to the old Hanoi Citadel area to have a look around. The citadel was the former home of the Emperor’s here (the area was the royal seat from 1010 to 1810 when it was relocated to the Central Vietnamese city of Hue), but it has mostly colonial buildings left now, apart from the nice dragon stairs.
All in all Hanoi has been an interesting place and very friendly people. Even the traffic has its own charm in the end!
Hell in a very small place – the battle of Dien Bien Phu
Then it was on to Dien Bien Phu in North West Vietnam close to the Laos border – I took the flight option which was relatively cheap and a 1 hour flight beats 14 hours in a bus over terrible roads any day! This place is great, much quieter and the people are incredibly friendly – everyone says hello, I think I shook hands with an entire government construction team at a road works site! DBP is famous for the great defeat of France and its colonial empire of Indochina in the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954 – a siege by the Viet Minh that lasted for 57 days and was led by General Vo Nguyen Giap (he would continue to command communist forces throughout the Vietnam War also). The battle was dubbed “Hell in a very small place” by the French author Bernard B. Fall, and this seems very appropriate.
The French planned to lure the Viet Minh to defeat in this valley. It was a bloody and gruesome battle with trench warfare like WW1. The Viet Minh dragged over 200 cannons and rocket launchers across mountainous jungle (thought impossible by the French – much to their mistake) to blast the hell out of the French. The French had air cover but as airfields were damaged these aircraft were either grounded, destroyed (almost 50 aircraft were lost to antiaircraft guns or while on the ground) or had to travel too far to be truly effective (not enough fuel to hang around too long). They also had a number of M-24 Chaffee (Bison) tanks to provide fire support but one by one these were knocked out of action. Fighting continued day and night.
Eventually 50,000 Viet Minh surrounded 13,000 French troops (including Colonial, Vietnamese and Foreign Legion battalions) and all airfields and road links were cut off. Everything had to be parachuted in (troops and supplies), but as more and more territory was ceded this eventually became impossible too and surrender was the only option. 11,000 French troops were captured with over 2000 killed or missing (plus deserters). The Viet Minh suffered nearly 8,000 dead and 15,000 wounded. It truly was a brutal place.
The French commander Brigadier General Christian de Castries had to order a cease-fire and surrendered to General Giap from his command bunker. Today this bunker has been restored and can be explored (you need a torch). It was interesting standing on this spot thinking about how it must have been an absolute madhouse in the fog of war, with the chaos and fear these French troops must have experienced as they knew their Colonial rule was coming to a bloody end. The taste of defeat must have been humiliating for de Castries who came from a proud military family. He was held as a prisoner for 4 months until an armistice agreement was reached in Geneva. His troops were marched off to prisoner of war camps over 482 kilometres / 300 miles away. Many of them did not survive the ordeal of the march or the camps themselves and joined their fallen comrades.
I felt sorry for the one armed French artillery commander Piroth – he totally underestimated the Viet Minh and made many bad judgements resulting in the failure to provide adequate artillery support for the French troops. When offered more artillery pieces before the battle, he turned them down stating he already had more than he needed! He was so ashamed that during the battle he blew himself up with a hand grenade – not easy at the best of times, yet alone when you only have one hand! There is a memorial marker where this occurred near the modern-day market in town.
For a history buff such as myself it is a fascinating place to visit, a valley with farmland and various villages surrounded by mountains, dotted with old bunkers, trenches, cannons and tanks that were used by the French (with charmingly French site names such as Claudine, Bazailles, Eliane 1 – 4, Dominique 1 & 2, Beatrice, Gabrielle etc. and the not so French sounding Hill A-1). I have spent a couple of days exploring these places – going into dark tunnels, dark bunkers etc – nothing is overly touristy or even lit up, a torch is always required. For the first lot of tunnels I had unfortunately left my torch in the hotel and I had to use my camera flash to navigate in the pitch black and very low tunnels – must have been hell down there during the battle! For the others I was more prepared.
Hill A-1 was an interesting location. The French trenches, pill boxes and command bunker have been restored. I stood in many of these places looking out at the surrounding countryside and not so distant mountains trying to imagine what it must have been like in the heat of battle with wave after wave of Viet Minh attacking the defensive line and artillery shells crashing down on top of you constantly. Chilling. An interesting sight on this hill is a massive crater which was created by the Viet Minh tunnelling into the hill and placing massive explosives to destroy French fortifications.
Opposite Hill A-1 on one side is the Viet Minh Martyr’s Cemetery which is beautifully maintained and has numerous memorial statues to their fallen troops. On the other side is the Battle of Dien Bien Phu Museum that has numerous weapons, artifacts and information on display and is well worth a visit to get a good overview of the history on the battle.
I went to see a smashed French tank and memorial on the other side of the Dien Bien Phu airport (it used to be the main French military airbase) – I saw a trail going across farmland so I followed it, crossed a muddy creek, ran across the airstrip (!) – hilarious – no fences! Then scrambled across another muddy creek (with thistles this time) and suddenly appeared in front of a farmer plowing a field with a buffalo. Not sure who was more surprised – me, the farmer or the buffalo! Once I was done taking photos etc I had to scramble back over the airfield – no one even seemed to notice! Luckily there are only a few flights in and out a day.
I met a retired Australian man (Nev, 65 from Queensland) in DBP who served in Vietnam in the Royal Australian Artillery during the war in the 1970’s, he is also an author and has become a “grandfather” at a local SOS Orphanage for 110 little kids. We watched Australia vs NZ in the rugby at the hotel. Interesting bloke, he invited me to come and visit the kids – this was so much fun, I had many of them hanging off me at all times, we played games with them with a tennis ball, a football etc. I had them hanging off my back, standing on my feet as I walked along holding them etc – they loved it. One little girl wouldn’t let go of my hand the whole time. She became my “minder” trying to control the other kids (she is the one in the blue and white striped t-shirt in my photos – never far from my side). We took a lot of photos and of course they all had to look at the picture – this caused quite a frenzy.
Visiting the orphanage was a good experience and I think it made the kids day too. Nev has bought them washing machines etc – a good man and very funny. Many locals seem to know him even though he lives in Malaysia he spends a few months in DBP each year.
Today, my last full day in DBP I hired a car and driver to travel about 35km up into the mountains (very winding road) to visit the legendary General Giap’s HQ during the battle. This man along with Ho Chi Minh orchestrated the defeat of the French and ultimately victory in the Vietnam War (or American War as it is known in Vietnam). The trip passed through many Hmong Hill Tribe villages and had some spectacular views of valleys, rice fields and mountains.
Giap’s HQ was a series of rebuilt huts and bunkers – once again pitch black in the tunnels but I had my torch so all good. It was interesting to visit the place were he developed the strategy to defeat the French and end Colonial control. Then after looking around my driver who couldn’t speak english passed me his phone, someone on the other end spoke english and wanted to confirm if it was ok for the driver to pick up his daughter and her baby to take them back to DBP? I had no issue with this and off we went, but what I didn’t realise was that she lived about 3 or 4 villages away in the opposite direction! Anyway it was an interesting drive and I got to see other places I wouldn’t have otherwise. Eventually I got dropped back at my hotel and paid the agreed fee….then he asked for 100,000 more Dong because we went over time because we picked up his daughter!!! What?! Ha, he graciously backed down when he saw the look on my face!
On the last evening in Dien Bien Phu, Nev and I decided to buy about 130 fresh big bread rolls from a local bakery (run by a old matriarch who keeps here sons under tight control mind you!) and take them out to the kids at the SOS orphanage. We got enough for each kid and their carer (“Mother” or “Aunty”) as a treat and a change from the same food each day. The kids were so excited, we were greeted by the constant chant of “hello, hello…”, they helped us hand over 11 rolls, plus one large sweet bun to each house at the orphanage – all trying to count in English (some perfectly). The kids seem to range in age from about 2 to 11, but mostly little kids. Then we spent an hour playing, kicking little Aussie Rules footballs and soccer balls around with the kids. By that time I think all the bread had been soundly demolished! Another great experience and something I have certainly never done before.
Tomorrow I fly to Vientiane, the capital of Laos (via Hanoi). A new language and culture to explore. I will travel in Northern Laos for a couple of weeks before returning to Hanoi and then onto Central Vietnam.