Sixty Years On, Dien Bien Phu's Battle Against Oblivion

France's May 1954 defeat in this battle in north Vietnam marked the beginning of the end of centuries of Western colonialism. A visit to the battle scene that should have been a warning to others.

Reinforcements occupying positions in the dug-outs during the battle of Dien Bien Phu
Reinforcements occupying positions in the dug-outs during the battle of Dien Bien Phu
Bruno Philip

After 57 days of fierce fighting, on May 7, 1954, the French soldiers were defeated by General Giap’s troops. Sixty years later, former Viet Minh fighters want to turn the basin into a site of remembrance.

DIEN BIEN PHU — They are three syllables that, in France, strike like three blows of a highly symbolic defeat: Dien Bien Phu.

On May 7, 1954, after 57 days and 57 nights of extremely violent combats between soldiers of the French expeditionary corps and the Viet Minh troops, the defensive camp fell into the hand of General Vo Nguyen Giap’s forces. It was 5.30 p.m in Dien Bien Phu, a nice name for a collapse.

This confrontation, which, as the French historian Jean-Pierre Rioux notes, was “the only pitched battle lost by a European army in the entire history of decolonization,” marked the beginning of the end for the French empire.

The victory of Ho Chi Minh’s soldiers later weighed on the negotiations in Geneva, on July 21, 1954, where the French President of the Council of Ministers Pierre Mendès France signed the agreements that put an end to the Indochina War.

It had lasted for eight years and resulted in 3,420 deaths or missing and 5,300 wounded on the French side; a lot more, according to sources, on the Viet Minh side.

According to the expression used by soldiers of that time, Dien Bien Phu was a “basin.” But landing on the runway, which was built by the French and is now permanent, gives a different impression. The place is more like a big bathtub, admittedly surrounded by mountains and hills, but which form the contours of a large valley.

Second impression: Dien Bien Phu, a town of more than 100,000 people, is quite graceless, with colorful houses made out of scrap, more or less kitsch architecture, all aligned along a few large streets crossing the town.

The main city of a province that, at first sight, is not reminiscent of the 1950s valley, when it was scarcely populated by the Tai ethnic minority. When walking down these streets, one can no longer see those famous hillocks that used to stick out in the plains and formed a corolla of “standpoints” aiming to “cover” the camp, and that the French soldiers had reinforced and given women’s names: Eliane, Béatrice, Gabrielle, Huguette.

Hill A1, the venue where the most intense fight occured between Vietnamese and French military forces during the Dien Bien Phu Battle, in May 2014. Zhang Jianhua/Xinhua/ZUMA

The view has now been masked by urbanization. In Hanoi, veterans of the battle told us they were unhappy with this evolution. They would have wanted Dien Bien Phu to remain in the same state, a site of remembrance and the living museum of one of the biggest victories of their modern nation's history.

Mother of all...

It all started on the hills of this valley, these strongholds that surrounded the headquarters of General de Castries, the head of the defensive camp. When, on March 13, the Viet Minh decided to attack, the French were eager to fight. “Let them come,” they shouted, convinced that their firepower, their aviation, their fortifications would allow them to push back the Viet Minh army in a trap set by the expeditionary corps.

But, on both sides, Dien Bien Phu was considered as the “mother of all battles.” The French thought it would be a strategic block that would allow them to push back the “Viet” progress towards Laos. General Giap, who mobilized a large part of his forces for the battle, also saw a way to trap the French troops in the “basin.”

In Hanoi, Nguyen Phuong Nam, an 84-year-old Dien Bien Phu veteran who was both the commander of a regiment of 800 men and a political commissioner, remembers: “In order to transport the cannons, the men had to pull them on the mountains around the valley after having dismantled them and carried on rafts. All that in the heat, walking through waterfalls and the jungle. But we did it, because we wanted independence. Before anything else, we were a force of peasant soldiers who knew that victory would change our lives. Such a moral strength was unimaginable for the French…”

At 5 p.m., on March 13, 1954, the Viet Minh cannons shelled the “Béatrice” peak, made up of three distinct heavily fortified and defended parts. The officers were killed and, little by little, the bunkers fell into the hands of the enemy. At midnight, “Béatrice” was no longer responding.

The French were stunned: they could not have imagined that the “Viets” had such a strike force, which was thanks to the Chinese and, to a lesser extent, the Soviets: 105mm cannons, 75mm mountain cannons, heavy mortars, flak… Giap could also bring in 30 regular battalions — around 40,000 soldiers, without taking into account the “volunteers.” Opposite them, the French had infantry units, backed by the soldiers of the 1st colonial parachute battalion and the legionaries of the 1st Foreign Parachute Regiment. Altogether, 15,700 men, among which many African and Moroccan infantrymen.

A surprise break

Walking around today in the recreated trenches of “Béatrice,” one can imagine the chaos of this tropical Verdun: the French soldiers trapped in their trenches under a rain of shells, their relentless defense behind the machine guns.

Mid-March, things arrived to a point where General Cogny, who was at the head of the French troops in Tonkin, told General Navarre, the head of the expeditionary corps, that “the fall of Dien Bien Phu might happen the next night.”

But General Giap, whose forces suffered heavy losses in the assault against the French, decided to take a break. Dien Bien Phu was temporarily saved. But not for long: on March 30, what would be remembered as “the battle of the five hills” began: the “Huguette”, “Dominique”, “Claudine” standpoints fell one after the other. It was in “Eliane”, a series of strongholds located near de Castries’ HQ, starting May 1, that it all played out: the final battle on “Eliane 2”, the place of the last, heroic, almost suicidal, French resistance.

The cover of the French newspaper Le Parisien libéré, the day French troops lost the Dien Bien Phu battle. Credit: Manhhai.

The area is a major location of the Vietnamese museography on the battle. Because, apart from a new museum that opened on May 7, the official representation is generally limited to commemorative plaques, barely ever in French or English. At “Eliane 2”, it is possible to visit the fortified headquarters, see the wreck of a US-designed M24 Chaffee tank, now placed on a platform and protected by a window pane.

And, most importantly, there are those trenches that give an idea of how close the opposing combatants were to each other. The final battle showed how the Viet Minh strategy evolved: the attack of the Bodoi (soldier) was no longer a simple frontal assault; he now relentlessly dug his own trenches until he faced the enemy position. It was one of the reasons for their success.

Hand to hand

In Hanoi, another veteran, the battalion commander Nguyen Dung Chi, 28 years old at the time, says in perfect French: “I was in the trench that was closest to the French. I was always on the front line. On March 30, we failed in taking the "Elianes." We made tactical errors. On May 6 and 7, we decided to take hold of the positions on the flanks and behind. The fights became hand-to-hand combat.”

His memories are precise and terrible: “We couldn’t see anything anymore, we stopped aiming, we moved forward, we jumped from one trench to another. We were walking on corpses. When the French position fell, I saw the lifeless bodies of a White man and an African. In our ranks, there was naturally some who were demoralized, but very few.” It was nearly over. The “Viets” exploded dynamite in front of the most forward French positions, giving the signal for the final attack. The gigantic hole can still be seen.

Nguyen Dung Chi, a mischievous and lively old man, remembers the first hours that followed victory. He was not the first man to enter the HQ of the commander, but he did so soon after the defeat. “Silence fell upon Dien Bien Phu,” he remembers. “It stinks. The smell of the dead, but also of the rotting wounds of all the French soldiers lying here and there.”

Parachutists capture Dien Bien Phu in November 1953. Credit: Keystone Pictures USA/ZUMA.

He walked by Geneviève de Galard, nicknamed “the angel of Dien Bien Phu,” the nurse who stayed until the end to care for the wounded and the dying. “I walked up to her, she put her hands up and said: ‘Don’t shoot!’ I asked her: ‘Where is the headquarters?’ She waved her hand and said: ‘Over there!’ I went to the HQ. It was empty. On the table of the general, I saw an atlas that was open at the page of a USSR map, a Parker pen and a paratrooper knife.” He smiles: “I took the pen and the knife as a souvenir…”

There are still grey areas, uncertainties: the famous photograph of Vietnamese soldiers planting the red flag with the yellow star on the HQ was staged, as wrote Dao Thanh Huyen, a French-speaking journalist who co-wrote the book Dien Bien Phu, vu d’en face: paroles de bo doï (“Dien Bien Phu, seen from the other side,” non-translated). There also never was a Viet Minh flag on de Castries’s HQ, even though it was a symbolic scene of the victory of Vietnam against a large nation and its fading empire.

Another legend reconsidered: the French high command had famously asked its officers not to give in to a humiliating surrender. The Vietnamese version is different: “After the shots stopped, Nguyen Dung Chi says, I saw lots of white-colored material, parachutes, shirts or other, waved by the French soldiers.”

Sixty years after the battle, the war of history is still being written.

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food / travel

The True Horrors Behind 7 Haunted Locations Around The World

With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.

Inside Poveglia Island's abandoned asylum

Laure Gautherin and Carl-Johan Karlsson

When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.

And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.

Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan

photo of  ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola,

The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan

Dai He/Xinhua via ZUMA Wire

According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.

In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.

The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.

Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.

photo of rocks and trees in Gettysburg

View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA


Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!

The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.

Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.

Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain

photo of sunset of old Belchite

Old Belchite, Spain

Belchite Town Council

Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…

That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.

Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.

If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.

Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan

photo of Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) i

Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Chris Bradley/Design Pics via ZUMA Wire

The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.

The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.

Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."

Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.

Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden

a photo of The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden


After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).

Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.

Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia

a photo of ort Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Flickr/Eli Duke

During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.

Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.

Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy

a photo of Poveglia Island, Italy

Poveglia Island, Italy

Mirco Toniolo/ROPI via ZUMA Press

Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).

During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.

In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.

Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.

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