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Songs from a fierce battle

Update: April, 24/2014 - 19:37
Frontline porters transported food, ammunition and other necessities to the Dien Bien Phu battle.

Sixty years ago, an empire was collapsing, a nation was being forged, and soldiers were dying in their thousands. The battle of Dien Bien Phu was monumental in bringing about a change, not only in Viet Nam, but also around the world. On the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the Dien Bien Phu victory, Outlook reporter Bui Quynh Hoa joined a delegation of 800 Dien Bien Phu soldiers and other veterans who congregated at the former battlefield to pay tribute to the nation's war martyrs and legendary General Vo Nguyen Giap.

Associate Professor and Doctor of Medicine Nguyen Thi Ngoc Toan, 84, widow of late General Cao Van Khanh

I survived two wars in Viet Nam: the resistance war against the French between 1945 and 1954 and the war against the US between 1960 and 1975. I lost my husband and two of my four children during the war with the US. During those years, what gave me the strength to carry on was that I was fighting for our nation's independence and freedom. It was an ideology I shared with my husband, who was a general of the Viet Nam People's Army (VPA).

Six decades have passed, but I can still recollect the strange and excited feelings I experienced on joining the revolution. At that time, I was very young, barely 15, and my only dream was to stand in the ranks of independence fighters. At first I worked for the Viet Minh forces in the royal capital city of Hue, as a member of the army medical first aid team, then a nurse of an army medical group. There, I saw many wounded soldiers and even deaths, but I didn't know why I, a daughter of a high-ranking mandarin in the Royal Court, who was brought up in love and comfort by my parents and 14 siblings in a beautiful house, was not scared but sympathised with the suffering soldiers. I was not afraid of anything, neither hardships nor hunger. I was arrested on several occasions, but I wanted to devote myself entirely to the revolution for the country's independence and freedom.

It is said that the revolution gave me an opportunity to meet my husband, the deputy commander of the 308th Brigade of the VPA, Cao Van Khanh, a fellow countryman, a comrade who was a bid stern and 13 years older than me but very talented, mature, iron-willed, simple, and his love letters were especially very endearing.

Time has passed quickly, but I still distinctly remember my heart throbbing and the feelings I experienced when he kissed me at our wedding ceremony, which was held right in the bunker of the defeated French General Christian de Castries in Dien Bien Phu, 15 days after the victory, under the witness of our soldiers and officers.

A captured French parachute served to cover a tank, which acted as a platform for taking photographs, and the entire setting was complete with wine and candies dropped by the French aircraft.

The wars had finally ended and millions of soldiers had fallen, leaving millions of Vietnamese in pain and sorrow, especially the Agent Orange victims.

I'm luckier and I think I should work and devote myself more for the country's development and prosperity.

Thai farmer Lu Thi Doi, 100, one of the last living witnesses of the Dien Bien Phu campaign, who met General Vo Nguyen Giap on several occasions in Muong Phang Village, Dien Bien Province

To me, Gen Vo Nguyen Giap is a war hero that Then (God in local language) sent to earth to help us defeat the invaders and help our paddy fields gain more bumper crops.

Before the campaign, Gen Giap's men asked me to lead a sapper squad to Muong Phang to study and build a command post in the battlefield. They also asked me to mobilise the local ethnic people to support and partake in the campaign. After a short while, my team received eight tonnes of rice, three buffaloes, and some pigs and chicken from the locals to support the Viet Minh soldiers.

I once again had the opportunity of meeting Gen Giap when the country was liberated, and yet again, when he made his final trip to the former Muong Phang command post ten years ago in 2004, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Dien Bien Phu victory. He called me to take a picture with him as a gesture of appreciation. That was the last time when I met him.

Trinh Ngoc Lam, 76, senior lecturer at the University of Industrial Fine Arts, Ha Noi

I was 16 years old when I took part in the war as a frontline supplies porter in 1953 in the Southwest Ninh Binh campaign, and later in the Hoa Binh and Dien Bien Phu campaigns against the French. We transported ammunition, bicycles, food and other neccessities. It was a very challenging time. We had to transport only during the night, walking barefooted in the mud through cold and wet jungles, which led to most of us suffering from malaria and rheumatism for many years.

We also had to work under the threat of being killed by wild tigers whenever we passed through the jungles. I wonder why I am still alive today. Though facing many dangers, hunger, and challenges, our spirit was still going strong. We were also optimistic about our bright future. We sang all the time. Revolutionary songs, such as Qua Mien Tay Bac (Marching Through the North-west Region), Vi Nhan Dan Quen Minh (For the People, We Sacrifice), Diet Phat Xit (Destroying Fascism) and later Giai Phong Dien Bien (Victory at Dien Bien) were our favourite. At that time, although we did not have much understanding about how we would be during peace time, yet we all dreamt of victory. We were willing to have thin rice gruel with wild vegetables from the jungles, face hunger and thirst or even devote our lives for the country's independence, freedom and peace.

Dien Bien Phu victory was a miracle that I could not imagine. I'm very proud to have made a small contribution to the victory, in particular, and the country's independence and freedom, in general.

Ca Van Yeu, 85, former squad leader in Dien Bien Province's Muong Phang Village

In December 1952, I took part in the Dien Bien Phu campaign. Those days were so hard, but we strongly believed that we will emerge victorious. We were not threatened by death. We fought with only one objective in mind to free ourselves from poverty. If we were miserable, our parents too would be going through the same, and our nation would also sink into darkness and poverty. And finally we did.

The feeling of seeing the French troops coming out in long lines with white flags in their hands and dropping their weapons in big heaps was truly amazing. I'll never forget that moment.

I'm very proud to be a Dien Bien soldier, an ethnic Black Thai local who was born in the historic land which shook the entire world 60 years ago. I think Gen Vo Nguyen Giap who I met twice in my life, was a hero, a saint who helped our brother ethnic minorities to be well-fed and clothed. I'm also happy to see many veterans, who have deep wrinkles on their faces and their health having deteriorated with time, but they all came back here recently in strong spirits.

Songwriter and composer Hoang Van, 84, from Ha Noi

I joined the army when I was 16 under the real name of Le Van Ngo.

The hardships of war had left a lasting imprint in my life.

The images of barefooted soldiers in mended clothes, who constantly faced hunger and cold, but were brave, optimistic and strong-spirited, made me – a college student born into a well-educated Hanoian family, well-versed in English, French, Chinese and Russian, and a sport and music aficionado – feel a sense of great admiration and determination to join the revolution.

During the Dien Bien Phu battle, I can never forget the hardship experienced by thousands of Vietnamese soldiers pulling heavy artillery pieces to high positions in the mountains. Each 105mm gun weighing about two tonnes took 60 persons to move it up the mountain. Often the ropes used for pulling the guns would break on the slopes. It's so fierce. It took me a half day and a night to write Ho Keo Phao, (Cannon-pulling Chant) to encourage our soldiers at work although that time I was just 23 years old and without any knowledge of music composing.

That song was highly appreciated and soon became very popular on the front and everyone knew it by heart. This and Quang Binh Que Ta Oi (Quang Binh, My Native Land) were the two songs that Gen Giap used to listen to during his final years.

It is said that the Dien Bien Phu campaign played a significant role in my music career with nearly 100 works, which got me the Ho Chi Minh Prize in 2000. My Dien Bien Phu Symphony and Chorus is also a work of art that is highly appreciated by music experts and the Vietnamese government. The government office gave me two sapphires, each having a diameter of 5 centimetres, bearing the image of Gen Giap as a present after my "Hoang Van's Night" live show.

Pham Van Ngai, 87, from Phu Tho Province

I served in the 312th Brigade of the VPA in 1947. Today, returning back to Muong Phang, I have an indescribable and strong feeling. I want to cry whenever I think of my fellow comrades who all lost their lives at a young age. I miss them. I miss the moment we shared a cigarette, a gulp of water, and a love letter from a dear one. They were so young. All had a dream to bear witness to victory, but they didn't get a chance. This place was soaked with my fellow comrades' bones and blood.

During those days, our young army had nothing except a high and strong spirit to achieve victory over a much better-equipped and well-trained French expeditionary army.

I'm also happy to see how this area has changed. I hope Dien Bien will further develop.

Vietnamese soldiers were pulling heavy artillery pieces to high positions in the mountain.

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