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‘So much sweat and blood’: Vietnamese veterans recall Dien Bien Phu

Ho Chi Minh proclaimed national independence in 1945, prompting a lengthy resistance campaign against French colonialists.

Screenshot 2024 05 05 080848Vietnam: Ninety-six-year-old Hoang Vinh proudly shows off a metal badge picturing a communist soldier holding a rifle, a reminder of the battle he fought in Vietnam’s Dien Bien Phu to push out French colonisers.

Vinh is one of the few surviving veterans of the battle in Vietnam’s northwestern hills, which unfolded over eight weeks in 1954 and ended in a decisive victory for the Viet Minh that ultimately brought an end to the French empire in Indochina.

“So much sweat and blood, so much sacrifice and hardship for a badge like this,” Vinh told AFP from his central Hanoi apartment, where photos of late president Ho Chi Minh were displayed in a glass-fronted cupboard.

Vinh enlisted when he was only 19 years old and without knowing he would spend a large chunk of his working life in combat, fighting first the French and then the United States until the early 1970s.

“As a young man, I joined the army to fight the French because they invaded our country, our home,” Vinh said as Vietnam and France prepared to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the battle.

“I found the right path to contribute to my country’s independence. I have no regrets, no questions on what happened.”

Vinh was part of an anti-aircraft gun regiment which, together with the infantry, brought down 62 French aircraft during the campaign that ended on May 7, 1954.

The Dien Bien Phu badge, emblazoned with the red military flag of Vietnam, was given to all those involved in the 56-day campaign.

‘No one complained’

Ho Chi Minh proclaimed national independence in 1945, prompting a lengthy resistance campaign against French colonialists.

His Viet Minh forces then made what Vietnam terms a “strategic decision” in late 1953 to eliminate France’s biggest defence stronghold in Indochina, Dien Bien Phu, appointing general Vo Nguyen Giap as commander in chief of its largest military campaign.

Soldiers, civilian volunteers and frontline workers were mobilised to transport weapons, artillery and other crucial supplies through jungles and across mountains to reach the remote battle site near the border with Laos.

Ngo Thi Ngoc Diep, aged just 17 and from Hanoi, was given the “precious opportunity” to march through the night for several weeks with soldiers, carrying five kilograms (11 pounds) of rice and a shovel.

She moved only in darkness, between 5 pm and 2 am each day, to avoid being seen by the enemy.

“My task was to talk, crack jokes and keep up the spirits of the soldiers,” Diep, now 86, told AFP.

Between marches, “we sang, danced or performed role plays, using mostly patriotic and traditional folk themes”, said Diep, wearing her military uniform and playing a homemade musical instrument built from the lids of cigarette lighters — a replica of one she used at the time.

“We did not have enough to eat, not enough warm clothes to wear, not enough blankets, and we slept on rice straw,” Vinh recalled.

“But no one complained. We talked and sang to cheer ourselves up. It was really fun.”

Around 55,000 people, most drawn from Vietnam’s elite forces, were directly involved in the fighting, according to official figures.

Another 260,000 people helped with logistics, including walking 21,000 bicycles loaded with rice, salt, oil and weapons to Dien Bien Phu.

Bodies scattered

Vietnam says 10,000 soldiers and civilians were killed or went missing fighting for the “earthshaking” victory.

France says 3,000 of their troops were killed in the battle.

Vinh recalled the moment a bomb hit his camp close to Dien Bien Phu.

“I saw my comrades killed on the spot, their bodies scattered on tree branches,” he said. “I hated those that took the lives of my fellow soldiers.”

The memories of those bloody months live on for him and Diep, who both survived without a scratch.

Each has visited France with their families, but Vinh said he did not tell anyone about the battle while he was there.

“Though I am proud of my life, I am no hero. I just performed my service as a military man for my country, an ordinary mission with nothing to show off about, even towards the French.”

Given the chance, Diep said she would like to shake hands with French war veterans.

“We can never forget history, but we should close the past. The painful chapters should be left behind us,” Diep said.

“We are friends.”

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