Towards Dien Bien Phu


The road from Hanoi to Dien Bien Phu winds its way for 420 km into the Annamite Mountains that mark the frontier with Laos. The round trip from Hanoi and back via Dien Bien Phu and Sapa is about 1200 km and offers, perhaps, the most spectacular scenery anywhere in Vietnam. Opportunities to experience the lives, customs and costumes of some of Vietnam's ethnic minorities abound. The loop can be taken in a clockwise or anti-clockwise direction; the advantage of following the clock is the opportunity to recover from the rigours of the journey in the tranquil setting of Sapa.

Highway 6, which has been thoroughly rebuilt along almost the entire route from Hanoi to Son La, leads southwest out of Hanoi to Hoa Binh. Setting off in the early morning (this is a journey of dawn starts and early nights), the important arterial function of this road to Hanoi can be clearly seen: ducks, chickens, pigs, bamboo and charcoal all pour in - the energy and building materials of the capital - much of it transported by bicycle. Beyond the city limits, the fields are highly productive, with market gardens and intensive rice production.

Hoa Binh

Hoa Binh, on the banks of the Da (Black) River, marks the southern limit of the interior highlands and is 75 km from Hanoi, a journey of about 2½ hours. Major excavation sites of the Hoabinhian prehistoric civilization (10,000 BC) were found in the province, which is its main claim to international fame.

Bao Tang Tinh Hoa Binh
(Hoa Binh Province Museum) contains items of archaeological, historical and ethnographical importance. Relics of the First Indochina War, including a French amphibious landing craft, remain from the bitterly fought campaign of 1951-1952, which saw Viet Minh forces dislodge the French.

Muong
and
Dao minority villages
are accessible from Hoa Binh.
Xom Mo
is 8 km from Hoa Binh and is a village of the Muong minority. There are around 10 stilt houses, where overnight stays are possible, and there are nearby caves to visit.
Duong
and
Phu
are villages of the Dao Tien (Money Dao), located 25 km up river.

Mai Chau and Lac

After leaving Hoa Binh, Highway 6 heads in a south-southwest direction as far as the Chu River. Thereafter it climbs through spectacular mountain scenery before descending into the beautiful Mai Chau Valley. During the first half of this journey, the turtle-shaped roofs of the Muong houses predominate but, after passing Man Duc, the road enters the territory of the Thai, northwest Vietnam's most prolific ethnic minority, heralding a subtle change in the style of stilted-house architecture. This region is dominated by Black Thai communities (a sub-ethnic group of the Thai) but White Thai also live in the area.

The growing number of foreign and domestic tourists visiting the area in recent years has had a significant impact on the economy of Mai Chau and the lifestyles of its inhabitants. Some foreign visitors complain that the valley offers a manicured hill-tribe village experience to the less adventurous tourist who wants to sample the quaint lifestyle of the ethnic people without too much discomfort. There may be some truth in this allegation, yet there is another side to the coin. Since the region first opened its doors to foreign tourists in 1993, the
Mai Chau People's Committee
has attempted to control the effect of tourism on the valley.
Lac
(WhiteThai village) is the official tourist village to which tour groups are led and, although it is possible to visit and even stay in the others, the committee hopes that by 'sacrificing' one village to tourism, the impact on other communities will be limited. Income generated from tourism by the villagers of Lac has brought about a significant enhancement to the lifestyles of people throughout the entire valley, enabling many villagers to tile their roofs and purchase consumer products such as television sets, refrigerators and motorbikes.

Lac is easily accessible from the main road from the direction of Hoa Binh. Take the track to the right, immediately before the red-roofed
People's Committee Guesthouse
. This leads directly into the village. You can borrow or rent a bicycle from your hosts and wobble across narrow bunds to the neighbouring hamlets, enjoying the ducks, buffalos, children and lush rice fields as you go - a delightful experience.

About 5 km south of Mai Chau on Route 15A is the Naon River on which, in the dry season, a boat can be taken to visit a number of large and impressive grottoes. Others can be reached on foot.

Dien Bien Phu

Dien Bien Phu lies in the Muong Thanh valley, a region where, even today, ethnic Vietnamese still represent less than one-third of the total population. For such a remote and apparently insignificant little town to have earned itself such an important place in the history books is a considerable achievement. And yet, the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954 was a turning point in colonial history. It was the last calamitous battle between the French and the forces of Ho Chi Minh's Viet Minh and was waged from March to May 1954. The French, who under Vichy rule had accepted the authority of the Japanese during the Second World War, attempted to regain control after the Japanese had surrendered. Ho, following his Declaration of Independence on 2 September 1945, thought otherwise, heralding nearly a decade of war before the French finally gave up the fight after their catastrophic defeat here. It marked the end of French involvement in Indochina and heralded the collapse of its colonial empire. Had the Americans, who shunned French appeals for help, taken more careful note of what happened at Dien Bien Phu they might have avoided their own calamitous involvement in Vietnamese affairs just a decade later.

General de Castries' bunker
 has been rebuilt on the sight of the battlefield and eight of the 10 French tanks are scattered over the valley, along with US-made artillery pieces. East of the river,
Hill A1
, known as Eliane 2 to the French, was the scene of the fiercest fighting. Remains of the conflict include a bunker, the bison (tank) known as Gazelle, a war memorial dedicated to the Vietnamese who died on the hill and, around at the back, the entrance to a tunnel dug by coal miners from Hon Gai. Their tunnel ran for several hundred metres to beneath French positions and was filled with 1000 kg of high explosives. It was detonated at 2300 on 6 May 1954 as a signal for the final assault. The huge crater is still there. Opposite the hill, the renovated
Nha Trung Bay Thang Lich Su Dien Bien Phu
(Historic Victory Exhibition Museum), has a good collection of assorted Chinese, American and French weapons and artillery in its grounds. Inside are photographs and other memorabilia, together with a large illuminated model of the valley illustrating the course of the campaign and an accompanying video. While every last piece of Vietnamese junk is carefully catalogued, displayed and described, French relics are heaped into tangled piles. The
Revolutionary Heroes' Cemetery
, contains the graves of 15,000 Vietnamese soldiers killed during the course of the Dien Bien Phu campaign. At the north end of town, the
Tuong Dai Chien Dien Bien Phu
(Victory monument), erected on D1 at a cost of US$2.27 million, is the largest monument in Vietnam. The 120-tonne bronze sculpture depicts three Vietnamese soldiers standing on top of de Castries' bunker. It was commissioned to mark the 50th anniversary of the Vietnamese victory over the French.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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