Dien Bien Phu, the capital of Dien Bien Phu District of Lai Chau Province, is in one of the most remote parts of Vietnam, The town is 43km from the Lao border in the flat, heart-shaped Muong Thanh Valley, which is about 20km long and 5km wide and surrounded by steep, heavily forested hills.
For centuries, Dien Bien Phu was a transit stop on the caravan route form Myanmar and China to northern Vietnam. The town itself was established in 1841 by the Nguyen dynasty to prevent raids on the red River Delta by bandits. More recently, Dien Bien Phu was the site of that rarest of military events – a battle that can be called truly decisive. On 6 May 1954, the day beofe the Geneva Conference on Indochina was set to begin half a world away, Viet Minh forces overran the beleaguered French garrison at Dien Bien Ohuy afrer a 57-day siege. This shattered French morale and forced the French government to abandon its attempts to re-establish colonial control of Indochina.
History is the main attraction here and the scenery – though pleasant enough 0 is just a sideshow enjoyed during arrival and departure overland. Not surprisingly, the majority of travelers who come here now are French – Dien Bien Phu seems to hold the same sort of fascination for them as the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) does for North Americans.
The area is inhabited by Montagnards, most notably the Thai and H’mong. For greater detail on northwestern hill tribes, Tim Doling’s Mountains and Ethnic Minorities: North West Vietnam, available in most Hanoi bookshops, makes a good companion on a tour of the region. The government has been encouraging ethnic Vietnamese to settle in the region and populate the relatively new provincial capital. They currently make up about a third of the Muong Thanh Valley’s total population of 60,000.
Tourism is having quite an impact on Dien Bien Phu – most of the buildings you see are very new. Another reason for the construction booms is that Dien Bien Phu was made the capital of Lai Chau Province in 1993. This honour was bestowed upon it mainly because the old capital (Lai Chau) may be submerged under water in a few years (see the Lai Chau section later in this chapter for details). The size and look of the city is surprising considering the remote location (especially if you survived getting here overland). There’s even Internet access for 10,000 per hour at a café about 300, towards town from the Muong Thanh Hotel.
Things to See & Do
The site of the battle is now marked by the Dien Bien Phu Museum (824871). The bunker headquarters of the French commander, Colonel Christian de Castries, has been re-created, and there are old French tanks and artillery pieces nearby, There is monument to Viet Minh casualties on the site of the former French position, known to the French as Eliane and to the Vietnamese as A1 Hill, where bitter fighting took place. Each of these sites charges 5000d admission, and is open 7.30am to 11am and 1.30pm to 4.30 daily.
The old Muong Thanh Bridge is preserved and closed to motorized traffic. Near the southern end of the bridge – though not much more than a crater in the ground over-grown with weeds – is the bunker where Chief Artiller Commander Pirot committed suicide.
A memorial to the 3000 French troops buried under the rice paddies was erected in 1984 on the 30th anniversary of the battle. The stylishly-designed Dien Bien Phu Cemetery commemorates the Vietnamese dead, and you cant catch a good view over it by climbing the stairs inside the main entry gate.
Places to Stay and Eat
The cheaper accommodation in town comes care of the local airline, lottery commission, construction ministry and – get this – the beer brewery!
Dien Bien Phu Airport Hotel (825052; air-con rooms 150,000d) is above the Vietnam Airlines office. The higher floors have bigger, lighter rooms but it’s pretty ordinary and on a noisy street.
The Lottery Hotel (rooms with bath 120,000d), close to the post office, has basic rooms and is in a quiet location.
Construction Hotel (824386; rooms 80,000d) is right by the river and is as basic as you’d expect for the price.
Beer Factory Guesthouse (Nha May Bia; 824635; rooms 100,00-120,000d) has basic rooms popular with beer afficinados, as there’s an bia hoi pub attached.
Muong Thanh Hotel (826719; fax 826720; twins with bath US$15-18) is the nicest place in town, but it’s often full with tour groups so you may want to book aheah. Get a room in the new wing – the standard is much better for the same price. There’s a decent-sized swimming pool (not so clean though, so it’s a good idea to wear carplugs and goggles), large restaurant, karaoke and ‘Thai Massage’. Rates include breakfast.
Binh Long Hotel (824345; 429 D Muong Thanh; air-con rooms US$12) is run by a friendly family and has clean, if tiny twin-bedded rooms with bathrooms. Rates include breakfast.
May Hong Hotel (826300; twins 100,000d), near the bus station, is a mini-hotel that’s just about OK for the price if you can get past the snapping, braking guard dog chained up in the courtyard.
Dine Bien Phu Hotel (825103, fax 825467; D 7.5; air-con rooms US$12) is a large, state-run hotel that is centrally located but with fairly grotty, musty rooms. Some serious maintenance work is needed.
As far as eating goes, Lien Tuoi Restaurant (824919; D Hoang Van Thai; mains around 30,00d) is the best eatery in town and is about 400m from the Dien Bien Phu Museum. The menu is in English and French with some wacky translations. Ever wanted to try boiled wild boor? Now’s your chance. There are private dinning rooms on the 2nd floor.
Nga Luan Restaurant, next to the Dien Bien Phu Airport Hotel, serves a good mix of standard Vietnamese fare.
Beside the restaurants in some hotels, there are a couple of decent local com pho joints on D 7.5.
Getting There & Away
The overland trip to Dien Bien Phu can be more intriguing than the actual battlefield sites for wihch the town is so famous. Of course, you miss out on this if you fly.
Air Vietnam Airlines presently runs flights between Dien Bien Phu and Hanoi four times a week. The schedule varies according to demand, with the majority of the flights during July and August.
Vietnam Airlines (824692, fax 826060; open 7.30am-11.30am & 1.30pm-4.30pm daily) has a booking desk at the Airport Hotel.
The airport is 1.5km from the town centre, along the road towards Lai Chau.
Bus There is a direct bus service that runs from Hanoi to Dien Bien Phu (100,000d, 16 hours) and it leaves at 4.30am, 8.30am and 10.30am.
Buses to Lai Chau (25,000d, three hours) leave at 8am, 9am, 10am, 11am and 1.30pm. The daily bus to Son La (38,000d, five hours) leaves at – ouch – 4.30am.
Although the bus is cheap, it’s not really much fun. Buses are so packed that the only scenery you get to admire is the armpit of the person sitting next to you. If overloaded vehicles, bad roads and bad brakes worry you, consider flying or traveling overland by 4WD or motorbike.
Car & Motorbike The 470km drive from Hanoi to Dien Bien Phu on Hwys 6 and 42 takes 16 hours (if you’re lucky). Conceivably it could be done in a single direct journey, but almost everyone stays overnight in Son La. You certainly wouldn’t want to attempt this road in the dark!
Tay Trang (Lao Border) The Lao border is only 34km from Dien Bien Phu and there is much speculation about this crossing being opened to foreign tourists. We spoke with the border guards in mid-2002 and their information was that authoristaion has been given to upgrade the crossing to an open international border, and that the final paperwork should be completed by 2004 at the latest. So keep your ear to the ground!