Dien Bien Phu might be a small town and not very well known, but it has a few attractions that are worth seeing, which might help you to get to know the culture and the history of Vietnam.
1. Dien Bien Phu victory historical site
Only 500km to the West of Hanoi, the battle ground in Dien Bien Phu is a well-known site marking a victorious exploit of Vietnamese people in the Indochina War. It is located in a valley, surrounded by mountains, hills and paddy fields. The valley has a length of 20km and a width of 6km. All year round, the mighty Nam Ron River provides it with fresh water. Realizing the strategic position of this land, in 1953, the French decided to turn it into a military headquarters and equip it with the most powerful weapons at that time.This was the place where the courageous soldiers of Vietnamese army fought and won the 55 day battle (March 13th – May 7th 1954) against the French Union. The victory indubitable caught the attention of the international community, leading to the end of the war in Vietnam after a few months. The most well-known remnants of the Dien Bien Phu Historical Site are A1, C1, C2, D1 Hills, Beatrice, Isabelle, Independent Hill, Muong Thanh Bridge, Muong Thanh Airport and De Castries Bunker. Nearly 30km away from the center of Dien Bien Phu City, the whole complex (including the shelters of Vietnamese army) situates in Muong Phang village. A 96m underground tunnel connects the working places of General Vo Nguyen Giap and Councillor Hoang Van Thai. As time marches by, the stairs leading to the place of General Giap are now covered with moss, giving the scenery a nostalgic look.
However, even though everybody knows about the Dien Bien Phu victory in 1945, not so many people notice that the site has a much longer history. In the past, Dien Bien Phu used to be the economic and cultural intersection of the Viet, Laos, and Chinese ethnic groups. It was also a crucial place hunted after by many feudal lords. After many battles on the MuongThanh paddy field, in 1777, Dien Bien Phu officially became an administration unit, where people can settle down and enjoy a peaceful life. In addition, because of its unique location, the thriving land became the trading center for entrepreneurs from Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and China.
Nowadays, the distinctive beauty of Dien Bien Phu captures the hearts of every traveler. Everywhere in the valley, we can easily spot the beautiful and friendly ethnic people engaging in their daily activities in the early market by Muong Thanh Bridge, on the paths to their villages, inside the waiting room in Dien Bien Airport, etc. Together with the primitive yet spectacular nature of Dien Bien, these people become parts of the priceless heritage that tourists can find nowhere else in the world.
2. De Castries Bunker
The underground shelter of French General De Castries is located in the center of the Dien Bien Phu Garrison in Muong Thanh, Dien Bien. Even though it was severely damaged during the combat in 1945, nowadays, the bunker’s structure and arrangement still remain. Standing on any high hill in the garrison, we can see this famous bunker, which took the Viet Minh army 55 days and nights to win over it.
The bunker is 20m in length and 8m in width, including four rooms for both boarding and working. In the past, the French used logs and bags of sand to build a trench connecting the bunker with a blockhouse on A1 Hill. The trench is no longer there today, but we can still easily see the steel arches and bags of sand on the roof top of the bunker.
This was the place where General De Castries met many influential leaders such as French Prime Minister Joseph Laniel, American President Dwight Eisenhower, English Prime Minister Winston Churchill, as well as many famous reporters and journalists. The bunker also witnessed the capture of De Castries on May 7th 1954.
If you are visiting Dien Bien in general and Dien Bien Phu in particular, seeing De Castries Bunker is a must because this humble bunker is, no doubt, a symbol of the victorious Dien Bien Phu Battle of the Viet Minh Army and also a symbol of the bravery of Vietnamese people.
3. A1 hill and Cemetery
It was the last hill taken by the Viet Minh, marking the end of the battle, and was the scene of some of the most intense fighting, and loss of life.
The hill was eventually blown up from underneath by the Vietnamese, so what's on display here is mostly a reconstruction, making it, by our reckoning, the world's largest, open-air, diorama in situ.
Nevertheless, it does provide a vivid and striking picture of what the Viet Minh took on, in terms of military logistics, and if you can imagine the challenge of taking on such a well-entrenched hill from the ground, and then multiply that by six, you'll understand why the Vietnamese are deservedly proud of the victory, and why it had world-wide repercussions.
The maze of trenches is extensive and elaborate, and would have provided cover for hundreds of troops to fire from a protected position on high ground at any force attacking from any direction. The French certainly didn't lose for lack of trying, and that's what A1 Hill is on display to demonstrate. They lost due to a fatal miscalculation. They were unaware that long before they broke ground on the garrison at Dien Bien Phu, the Viet Minh had already anticipated the move, and had begun the long arduous process of moving heavy artillery into secret positions encircling the location.
After you enter the front gate, take the road up the hill to the right. Once you're at the top you'll find some bunkers that can be explored, giving access to the trenches. This commemorates the period during the conflict when the Viet Minh took the hill, but then were pushed back, before finally routing the French troops for the last time.
The nearby cemetery will have deep meaning for those connected to the conflict on the Vietnamese side, but for the casual tourist it's just another Vietnamese cemetery and you might want to skip it.
4. Dien Bien Phu Museum
This well-laid-out museum, contained in a space-agey modern structure, features an eclectic collection that commemorates the 1954 battle. Alongside weaponry and guns, there’s a bath-tub that belonged to the French commander Colonel de Castries, a bicycle capable of carrying 330kg of ordnance, and photographs and documents, some with English translations.
5. Muong Thanh bridge
Afternoon 7/5/1954 taking advantages of the victory, Vietnamese People’s Army crossed Muong Thanh bridge fast progress to the Headquarters of Dien Bien Phu base group, marked the complete collapse of French colonialism in Dien Bien Phu. Muong Thanh Bridge which crosses Nam Rom River was built by French after parachute jump to occupy Dien Bien Phu. Finally, the bridge became means of transport to Vietnamese People’s Army assail and raise the "determined to fight, determined to win" flag high on the General De Castries tunnel.
6. Pa Thom Cave
Parts of Pa Thom Village, the spectacular Pa Thom Cave is located to the west of Dien Bien District, adjoining the border between Vietnam and Laos. Interestingly, the local inhabitants usually refer to the cave as Tham Nang Lai which means the Full-of-Fairies Cave in Vietnamese language.
Accompanied by myths about love and loyalty, Pa Thom Cave is not only a natural wonder but also a holy place in the belief of Dien Bien people. Located up high on the side of a mountain, the cave has a 12m high, 17m wide, arch-shaped mouth. At the middle of this special entrance stands a giant stone resembling the head of an elephant. Along the 350m length of the cave, there are 9 arches of different sizes. Impressive stones, stalactites, and stalagmites are ubiquitous. Right after you enter the cave, you will see a block of three huge stones that looks like a giant snake. Stalactites and stalagmites come in a variety of sizes and shapes, sparkling mysteriously under the candle light. The cave is extremely spacious. Decorated with majestic block of stones, the ceilings looks like that of a luxurious palace. The beautiful curtains made of soft-looking, colorful stalactites hang themselves beside the silver waterfalls inside the cave.
In addition to its magnificent look, the local tales about love make Pa Thom Cave a romantic and attractive destination for travelers from everywhere. When you have a chance to visit Dien Bien, never forget to pay a visit to this wonderful natural site. Surely, it will never let you down!
7. Muong Thanh field
Muong Thanh field belongs to Dien Bien province, the field has a total length 23km, average width 7-9 km, Muong Thanh field is one of the fertile rice field in the mountain valleys spread from Nghia Lo to Dien Bien.
From high, Muong Thanh field stretching along the Nam Rom river, spread out like a petal embracing Dien Bien Phu monument. Traveling to Dien Bien Phu at this time of year, you will be amazed by the beautiful natural landscape of the field.
Located between the basin of Dien Bien, Muong Thanh field is like a giant "warehouses" filled with corn and rice. Muong Thanh is home to the famous brand of rice in Vietnam: Dien Bien rice.
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