MEANWHILE : Au revoir, Dien Bien Phu
DIEN BIEN PHU, Vietnam: Graham Greene described the last poignant embraces. Before the final bombardment, wives and sweethearts of French officers flew in for a few daylight hours, and there were "ardent little scenes in the dug-outs."
"It was pathetic and forgivable," Greene wrotes in his memoirs, "even though it was not war."
Greene, who noted the valley's isolation and vulnerability, overnighted uncomfortably in a trench, fortified by excellent wine served at dinner by French commander General Christian de Castries. The French had shrewdly stashed 48,000 bottles of fine vintage here. Greene described de Castries as having "the nervy, histrionic features of an old-time actor."
But after a 56 day siege beginning March 13, 1954 there were no histrionics as French colonialism died in Indochina after almost 100 years, in one of the 20th century's crucial battles. The last words de Castries radioed his superior in Hanoi, General René Cogny, were, if anything, understated. "I'm blowing up the installations. The ammunition dumps are already exploding. Au revoir."
Cogny replied: "Well, then, au revoir, mon vieux."
Vietnam has begun celebrating the 50th anniversary of the victory of the communist Vietminh in the battle of Dien Bien Phu with television programs, cultural events and newspaper articles. The celebrations are expected to culminate in early May.
The French had begun fortifying this remote northwestern valley near Laos in late 1953, wanting to lure the communists into a set-piece battle in which aerial and ground bombardment would destroy Ho Chi Minh's forces fighting to end foreign rule. Yet the French themselves were caught in a noose when the Vietminh heaved big guns into the encircling mountains.
The last flight into the airstrip was on March 27, 50 years ago. It evacuated 19 wounded.
In the hills was the implacable foe, General Vo Nguyen Giap, history teacher turned masterful military strategist, and his 49,500 Vietminh. There was some frontline chivalry, unlike in the later American war, and heroics on both sides. But, basically, as Greene wrote: "The battle was fought with the maximum suffering and loss." Over 15,000 died on both sides.
The French surrendered on May 7, though no white flag appeared before the Vietminh raised their red standard atop de Castries' command bunker. The defeated soldiers were force-marched 500 miles to prison camps; many didn't survive.
In Geneva, on May 8, the great powers began discussing Vietnam, and divided it in two, paving the way for American involvement.
Giap is still alive at 92, his mind alert, his body now weak. When I last interviewed him some years ago, his face glowed as he re-fought the battle. It's uncertain whether his health will allow him to attend 50th anniversary ceremonies here, at which he would be the center of attraction. De Castries' descendants are expected.
In the restored command bunker, I met Tran Thi Mac, 80, a female former Vietminh arms porter who journeyed 300 miles here because "I felt such pride in our victory, I had to see it again after 50 years."
There were women then, too, inside the French encampment. One was a French nurse the press called "the Angel of Dien Bien Phu."
There were also two "bordels mobiles de campagne," French mobile field brothels, with 18 Algerian and Vietnamese girls. When the siege ended, the puritan Vietminh sent the Vietnamese girls and their madame for "re-education," as happened to Saigon bar girls after 1975.
Yet now, my hotel, like others in Dien Bien Phu, had its own willing courtesans in a large annex marked "Thai massage." Puritanism has gone the way of state central planning as the free market flourishes. So much for "re-education."
For Vietnam, peace and reunification have been hard, with many cruelties and mistakes, but now life slowly improves for most, even in remote Dien Bien Phu, population 70,000.
The French went on to fight and lose in Algeria. They sometimes faced Algerians who fought for France at Dien Bien Phu. The Americans then suffered their own Vietnam debacle. But not before, in 1965, they bombed Dien Bien Phu again.
James Pringle covered the Vietnam War for three years as a correspondent for Reuters.
[Not to be reproduced without the permission of the author.]
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