Dien Bien Phu sits in a valley among the remote hills of northwest Vietnam, and would attract little attention if it wasn’t the site of one of the most famous battles of the 20th century.
It was here that the French were finally defeated in 1954, bringing to and end their colonial dominance in Indochina. As such the town is visited by patriotic Vietnamese and curious French tourists, but unless you are a big fan of rusting tanks and bombs or lines of identical gravestones, there is little of interest here.
The battle of Dien Bien Phu sent shock waves round the world as it was one of the first instances of a poorly-equipped army defeating an enemy with unquestionably superior military equipment. It was in late 1953 that the French decided to parachute several battalions into Dien Bien Phu in order to establish a base and cut Viet Minh supply lines from nearby Laos.
General Giap, the Vietnamese commander, realised that the location suited guerrilla warfare and mobilised hundreds of thousands of peasants to haul canons and other supplies to the hills surrounding the valley. After a 55-day siege that ended on May 7, 1954, the Vietnamese raised their flag above the bunker of Colonel de Castries, the French commander.
The town’s principal attraction these days is the museum, which as you might expect displays weaponry left from the war, as well as rusted tanks and jeeps. There is also a scale model of the battlefield where guides wax lyrical about the events leading up to the glorious victory. Directly opposite the museum is the cemetery, which brings home the terrible cost of this victory – rows of identical graves stretching out as far as the eye can see.
It is thought that around 20,000 Vietnamese lost their lives at Dien Bien Phu, compared with less than 10,000 French (in fact more than half the French force consisted of foreign conscripts). The wall beside the entrance to the cemetery lists thousands of names of the fallen, and concrete bas reliefs depict battle scenes.
Adjacent to the cemetery is A1 Hill, which saw some of the most ferocious fighting of the battle. You can visit a reconstructed bunker on the summit and wander round a few rusting jeeps. Across the river at de Castries’ bunker, the symbolic heart of the battle, there’s another reconstructed bunker, and more rusting tanks and weaponry.
Where to stay in Dien Bien Phu
There’s no accommodation in Dien Bien Phu that you’d want to write home about, but there are a couple of places that offer clean rooms at reasonable prices. More on Dien Bien Phu hotels.
Getting to Dien Bien Phu
The distance between Hanoi and Dien Bien Phu is nearly 500 kilometres, across rugged and often beautiful landscapes, and there are daily flights from the airport just outside town. However, half the fun of a visit to Dien Bien Phu is the journey into ever more remote areas, so it’s worth considering taking the bus (about 14 hours).
Another popular way to go is to hire a motorbike or 4WD vehicle with driver and complete the northwest loop, heading out through Mai Chau and Son La, passing through Dien Bien Phu to Muong Lay and Sa Pa, then returning to Hanoi via Lao Cai and the Red River Valley.