Dien Bien Phu holds a magical attraction for Vietnamese visitors with its associations of victory against a hated foe, but unless foreign visitors have a particular fascination with war zones, there’s really not a lot to see. Nevertheless, this borderland region has a raw beauty that can be experienced by anyone making the loop tour from Hanoi to Sa Pa, and the recently-opened border with Laos at Tay Trang, just 35kms away, opens up intriguing possibilities for adventurous travellers.
Dien Bien Phu Sightseeing
De Castries’ Bunker
Just across the river from the museum stands a reconstruction of the bunker occupied by Colonel de Castries at the end of the battle. De Castries was leader of the French forces, and after he committed suicide, the Viet Minh flag was flown from here, signifying the end. A few rusting tanks and anti-aircraft guns stand nearby, and behind the bunker there’s a memorial to the French who lost their lives here.
Dien Bien Phu Museum
If, like most people, you are unfamiliar with the events that took place at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, the best place to begin your tour of the war zones is at the museum, which is located directly opposite the cemetery. The displays show photographs of tanks being airlifted in to the site by the French as well as sledges that were used to drag the Vietnamese artillery over the mountains. There’s also a small-scale model of the battleground at which guides will recount the unfolding events that led to the French capitulation, and there are also a few shovels, maps and military clothing.
Viet Minh Cemetery
Located directly opposite the museum and fronted by relief carvings of battle scenes, the Viet Minh Cemetery is perhaps the most moving of the battle sites. Row after row of grey marble headstones stretch out into the distance and bring home to visitors just how costly this victory was.
This small hill that stands adjacent to the cemetery saw some of the heaviest fighting as the battle reached its climax, and now there’s a reconstruction of a bunker as well as a disabled French tank and a few memorials to the fallen. Though it’s not very high, the hill offers a panoramic perspective of the now peaceful hills of North Vietnam that contrast sharply with the region’s turbulent past.
Highway 6 loops around the northwest extreme of Vietnam by the borders with China and Laos and features breathtaking scenery. From Hanoi, many people choose to rent a motorbike and tour through the dramatic Mau Chau Valley and to Moc Chau and Son La before reaching Dien Bien Phu. Then the journey continues to Muong Lay and on to Lao Cai or Sa Pa.
The trip is not for novice drivers with countless hairpin bends, frequent landslides blocking the route and general poor road conditions throughout. But for the adventurous there are plenty of smaller paths leading to ethnic minority villages of the Dao, Hmong, White Thai and Muong communities. Or guided motorbikes tours are also available.