Vietnam News

Huge crowds in Vietnam for anniversary of Dien Bien Phu victory over France

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A crowd of more than 10,000 people including war veterans and dignitaries gathered Tuesday in Vietnam’s Dien Bien Phu to mark the 70th anniversary of the battle that ultimately brought an end to the French empire in Indochina.

Outside the city stadium where official commemorations were held, throngs of people — many wearing traditional Vietnamese dress — lined the streets to watch a huge military parade. They cheered on soldiers marching with Vietnamese flags.

Vietnam invited for the first time a government minister from the former colonial power to attend the celebrations, which featured 21 rounds of fireworks and a display by 11 helicopters carrying the Communist Party and national flags.

French Defence Minister Sebastien Lecornu and Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh were among those at the event that drew huge attention from tourists and residents of northwestern Dien Bien province, which borders Laos.

As celebrations began in Dien Bien Phu city’s stadium, 90-year-old veteran Pham Duc Cu spoke on behalf of his fallen comrades.

“It moves me to remember the people who died to achieve this earth-shaking victory,” he said.

“The war has passed. We are so proud to have contributed to making a heroic and beautiful Dien Bien.”

In his opening speech, Prime Minister Chinh said the battle of Dien Bien Phu represented a “victory for justice”, marking the collapse of colonialism. 

“Many martyrs cannot be identified,” he said. “Their blood in this northwestern area was shed for our happiness today.”

In a symbol of the Viet Minh’s staggering feat of military logistics — whereby they transported heavy weaponry in pieces hundreds of kilometres through the jungle — the parade featured around 40 heavily laden bicycles pushed by gun-carrying soldiers.

One onlooker, 55-year-old Nguyen Thi Lan, said she’d travelled 80 kilometres (50 miles) from home to watch the parade.

“I’ve been here since 4 am,” she said.  “It’s a great day that I cannot miss.”

‘Deaths were normal’ –

France surrendered to the attacking Viet Minh on May 7, 1954, putting an end to 56 days of shelling and hand-to-hand combat.

Around 13,000 people were reported dead or missing during the conflict, including 10,000 from the Viet Minh side.

“I fired a shot which hit two people, killing one on the spot and the other one with one more shot,” recalled veteran infantry soldier Hoang Van Bay, 93.

“Injuries and deaths were normal on the battlefield, nothing to be scared of. We fought for our independence and freedom,” Bay told AFP, adding he visited his fallen comrades at Dien Bien Phu city’s cemetery every year.

The French force — about 15,000 men of many nationalities — had underestimated the firepower of the communist forces, who managed to install artillery on the hills overlooking the French camp.

Their victory later led to the Geneva Accords on July 21, 1954, which marked the end of almost a century of French domination in Indochina and the partition of Vietnam, a prelude to future American involvement. 

Relations between the two former enemies are now cordial, despite the human rights abuses of which the communist government is regularly accused.

– ‘More openness’ –

The tree-lined streets of Dien Bien Phu were adorned with communist slogans and banners carrying photos of independence hero Ho Chi Minh and General Vo Nguyen Giap, commander in chief of the Dien Bien Phu campaign.

The province’s battle sites are also undergoing a major facelift, with the Vietnamese authorities keen to turn the area into a tourism hotspot.

“Twenty years ago, it (the commemoration) was much more discreet. There was a sort of holding back on the Vietnamese side because May 7 is sacred for them,” said Pierre Journoud, professor of contemporary history at Paul Valery-Montpellier University, who is attending the commemorations. 

“We are seeing more openness today.”

He said that Vietnam’s invitation to Lecornu reflects shared political interests, as tensions simmer between Hanoi and Beijing over their competing territorial claims in the South China Sea.

After the United States and China, “France wants to be a third voice in the Asia-Pacific region, and this is in line with the position of Vietnam, which is caught between two strangleholds,” he said.

At a memorial Tuesday for the fallen French soldiers, Lecornu said: “This day marks a new beginning” in the relationship between France and Veitnam.

“More than ever, 70 years later, this part of the globe needs France.”

Ninety-two-year-old Jean-Yves Guinard, one of three French veterans who returned to their former camp for the anniversary, told AFP he “remained very attached to this country”.

The three were surrounded as they arrived at the Dien Bien Phu Victory Museum Monday by locals and tourists trying to take selfies with the former “enemy”.

Agence France Presse – May 7, 2024

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