|Bad old days: War veterans sit on the bunker of Christian de Castries in Dien Bien Province. — VNA/VNS Photo Trang Duong
What began as a rather dispiriting journey turns into an awe-inspiring voyage into one of the most glorious chapters in the nation's history for Bui Quynh Hoa as she visits the mountainous Dien Bien Province.
In poor health and low spirits, I began a long, arduous trip to the north-west mountainous province of Dien Bien on a wet, muddy, and overcast Sunday.
I had been suddenly appointed to reinforce the team, replacing a colleague after her last minute withdrawal. There was immense pressure to dole out good stories for the newspaper's special Outlook magazine's issue to mark the 60th anniversary of Dien Bien Phu victory. I was further stressed out as it was quite a task to make good, last-minute arrangements both at home and office while I was away. Sitting in a car the whole day for the 500 kilometre-long, winding ride to the high mountainous area further tested my patience, and the news of a colleague's husband being involved in a car accident during a working trip to a highland area did not help matters.
"Don't worry about the weather, I'm sure it'll be fine when we reach Dien Bien," our driver Nguyen Quang Hiep assured us.
The thick misty curtain eventually got thinner and the sky cleared as the sun shone again. I do not recollect when I stopped worrying and started enjoying the trip. It was breath-taking to watch the scenic mountainous slopes covered with white-coloured flowers of the ban trees in full bloom. The fresh and slightly nippy spring weather, picturesque and tranquil landscapes of the rice fields and houses on stilts, images of goats being grazed by ethnic boys walking uphill at a leisurely pace, and the bright smiles of Thai boys and girls who were on their way to a local market, made my trip truly worthwhile. I quickly forgot all my tiredness and the carsickness experienced by my colleagues and started to explore the historical and scenic land, a city of more than half a million people.
If one is interested in history and is keen to visit an old battlefield, Dien Bien is a perfect destination. Much has been written about the military base of Dien Bien Phu. The extraordinary military strategy, incredible feats of bravery, and transformation of national identities deserve nothing less.
In the late 1953 and early 1954, the French deployed 21 battalions with 16,200 troops, supported by three artillery battalions (one engineering battalion, one tank company, and one air squadron) in the valley of Dien Bien Phu. All the French paratroopers and 40 per cent of their crack mobile force in Indochina were stationed there. These forces were positioned in three sub-regions, North, Centre, and South, with 49 fortified camps. Thus, Dien Bien Phu was transformed into the most powerful complex of entrenched fortifications in Indochina during that period.
After 56 days and nights of bloody conflict, the Vietnamese army, led by General Vo Nguyen Giap, one of the greatest generals of Viet Nam, recorded a historic victory on May 7, 1954, 60 years ago, over a much better-equipped and well-trained French expeditionary army. The victory is not just a vivid manifestation of the giant leaps taken by the Vietnamese army, but an everlasting testament to Vietnamese ingenuity, courage, and determination.
"Talking about Dien Bien Province, we can't help mentioning about its complex of historical sites, including the formal Command Post of Gen Vo Nguyen Giap, a French stronghold in Hill C1 (Eliane 1), the French posts on Hill A1 (Eliane 2), the bunker of Christian de Castries, and strongholds on C2, D, E (Dominique). The other noteworthy sites were Doc Lap (Gabrielle) and Him Lam (Beatrice) hills, Muong Thanh Airport, Dien Bien Phu Museum, Dien Bien Phu Victory Monument, and Dien Bien Phu Martyrs' Cemetery," said Pham Van Hung, the director of Dien Bien Province's Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism.
|Breathtaking: The Pa Khoang River is a site of extraordinary beauty at dusk. — VNS Photo Bui Quynh Hoa
"These are our key tourist sites, which are of keen interest to both the local and foreign tourists," he added.
"I'm very pleased to join a delegation of 800 Dien Bien Phu soldiers and other veterans to congregate at the former battlefield to pay tribute to the nation's war martyrs and legendary General Vo Nguyen Giap on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the Dien Bien Phu victory," said Vuong Van Tan, the director of the D-Media joint-stock company.
"I'm very proud of our country's history," he ecstatically proclaimed.
"In my opinion," said Nguyen Danh Loi from the State Bank of Viet Nam, "General Vo Nguyen Giap was a saint who had been sent to earth to save our nation."
"I can't imagine how President Ho Chi Minh and General Vo Nguyen Giap managed to keep the soldiers' spirits going strong to overcome the numerous challenges faced in such poor conditions to gain a monumental victory at the Dien Bien Phu battlefield, which shook the entire world 60 years ago. Without President Ho, Gen Giap, and other talented Vietnamese commanders and brave soldiers, I wouldn't be standing here to witness the changes of present day Dien Bien Phu, our country would have never become reunified and independent," remarked Loi.
Standing atop Hill A1, veteran Lam Manh Phan from Hoa Binh Province agreed that the wild land has a new shape that he could not recognise when he first came here. He expressed his pleasure to see how the area has changed.
In addition to its historical potential, Dien Bien has also attracted scores of visitors for its scenic landscapes and ecological tourist sites, including Pa Khoang Lake, Muong Phang, and Muong Nhe primeval forests, Pa Thom and Tham Bang grottoes, Pha Din Pass and Shan Tuyet century-old tea tree area. Tam Van Citadel, Fief of Hoang Cong Chat, Muong Luan Water Fall, Nam Rom River, and Uva Mineral Spring are also popular destinations.
|Things to sell: Ethnic minority women on their way to a local market.
"I've been here for four days, and now, I have to return back to my daily life in the city. But surely, I'll come back to visit the Muong Nhe ecological tourist site," D-Media director Tan said.
"The cold fresh air in this area is so great," said State Bank's Loi. "I like the primeval and peaceful landscapes here, and also the ethnic people. Thai and Mong women here look very attractive in their traditional costumes."
Visiting Dien Bien during the season of full-blooming ban flowers, I could not help but take photographs with the white flowers, which are symbolic of the alluring land. I want that gentle image of ban flowers saved in my photo albums to cherish as vivid memories of field trips during my journalism career and also my youth.
To ethnic people in the north-western part of Viet Nam, ban flowers with their soft fragrance and green heart-shaped leaves are a symbol of purity, beauty, and immortal love.
"Dien Bien becomes more beautiful and romantic when spring comes with blooming ban trees. The number of visitors to the regional province has increased considerably, especially in this season," noted Thai guide Ca Thi Minh.
Dien Bien is also famous for its intangible, unique and cultural value coming from 21 ethnic groups, including Thai, Mong, Kinh, Kho Mu, Tay, Nung, Cong, Si La, Giay, Lao, Dao, Ha Nhi, and Xinh Mun. Many local festivals are held year-round, such as the Ban Phu citadel festival, which commemorates hero Hoang Cong Chat who was a leader of an uprising in the 18th century and two Thai commanders, Ngai and Khanh; or the Xen Ban ceremony to pray for a bumper crop and a happy year.
Xoe hoa and sap dances of Thai, pan-pipe dance of Mong, and lam vong dance with gongs of Lao also feature typical cultures of the ethnic people in the north-west region.
People here are also very simple, truthful, and friendly. Though they lead difficult lives, they do live a simple and happy life without ambitions and scrambling for fame and wealth.
"If you do not sample some some specialities, especially nam pia (a kind of sauce made from provender in digestion in the small intestines of buffaloes or goats, you have not really visited Dien Bien and the north-western region," asserted our guide and driver Hiep.
"Mong's fresh vegetables, grilled stream fish, ban flower salad, dishes made from hill goats, chicken, and pigs raised by the locals, cham cheo, which is made from 14 aromatic herbs growing on the high north-western region, Mong's apple wine, chit worm wine, Dien Bien rice, Yen Chau mango, Cao Phong orange, and Shan Tuyet tea are also specialties that you must try," he recommended.
|Natural bouquet: Dien Bien becomes more beautiful during the spring season when ban flowers bloom. — VNS Photos Nguyen Viet Thanh
"The daily life of the residents in Dien Bien Province has considerably improved since the historical victory," claimed Lo Van Bien, the Party's Secretary of Muong Phang Village, Dien Bien Province's Dien Bien District.
"In the past, we used to face hunger. Rice was replaced with corn, sometimes for many months at a stretch. But now, we don't have to worry about food. Our children go to school. I'm glad to see my village grow," Bien added.
According to the Dien Bien Province's Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism, in ten years from 2004 to 2013, the number of visitors to the province has increased rapidly, from 178,000 to 380,500, of which foreign tourists increased from 10,000 to 66,750, and the total income generated from tourism has also risen from VND30.4 billion (US$1.5 million) to nearly VND434 billion ($21.1 million), respectively.
"It is estimated that with several events lined up to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Dien Bien Phu victory, the number of visitors to the province will increase to 440,000 this year, thereby contributing VND540 billion ($26.5 million) to the province's budget from tourism and services," reported Mua A Son, the chairman of Dien Bien Province's People's Committee.
According to Hoang Thi Diep, the vice head of the Viet Nam Administration for Tourism, the complex of historical relics in Dien Bien plays an important role in strengthening and developing tourism not only for the province, but also for the country. Exploring the values of these historical relics will help visitors, especially youngsters, to better understand the nation's history, educate them about patriotism, revolutionary traditions, and the great accomplishments of their previous generations.
"Dien Bien should strengthen co-operation relations with the neighbouring north-west provinces, Ha Noi, and other major cities to develop its tourism potential and turn it into a tourism hub in the northwest region," emphasised director Hung of Dien Bien's department of tourism.
"Creating more tourism options, increasing tour guides' and tourist managers' skills, and improving tourism service quality are of paramount importance. If we can maintain a balance by preserving the historical values, retaining our 21 ethnic cultures together with developing our tourism potential, Dien Bien can become a key centre of historical and ecological tourism, and culture in the northwest region," Hung said.
Dien Bien is so great that it has left a strong, lasting impression on me. I have to thank my colleague who gave me the opportunity to discover and develop a passion for the epic land. Bidding adieu, I promise to visit again in the near future. — VNS