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Traveling in Northern Vietnam — War Years and Independence

Traveling around Northern Vietnam winter 2018-19, first of the three part posts.

What a delight to have real keyboard. Been traveling in Southeast Asia and piling up material, now lets blog some!


Scenery in Lung Cu at Chinese border, at northern tip of Vietnam.

Sparsely populated northern regions of Vietnam have often been safe heavens for groups having trouble with the established order, such as revolutionaries, smugglers and militias groups. In mountainous and forested Cao Bang, right next to Chinese border, revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh first setup a shop 1941 in a cave.


Cave in Ho Chi Minh jungle camp in Pac Bo, near town of Cao Bang, where he was hiding Japanese troops and organizing movement in the country. Decades later when Chinese troops were occupying the region, they vandalized it with explosives, knowing the importance to Vietnamese.


Memorial temple in Pac Bo. Location has long been pilgrimage like destination in Vietnam.

Ho was on a mission to build an movement that would evolve into a regime fighting first the Japanese occupiers, then wrestle control from French colonialists (Chinese troops were also in country because of Japanese, complicating things further), then thwart American advances and their bid of independent South Vietnam, and finally Chinese again because of Vietnamese war with their Red Khmer ally in Cambodia. Wars also spread to neighboring Laos. All this while building new nation in a process. Ho Chi Minh was a Communist icon of twentieth century much like Lenin, Tito, Mao, Castro. Like them, Ho Chi Minh didn’t hesitate using also ruthless and coercive methods, as he deemed required. When wars finally had quiet down, Uncle Ho was long embalmed in a mausoleum in Hanoi downtown. Today he is important historical figure in Vietnam, his statues, posters and flags can be seen everywhere.

Dien Bien Phu. From the valley floor, one can awe low mountains surrounding plateau from both sides. Looking easygoing life in this small provincial town, sun setting behind western hills and people minding their businesses, it’s hard to grasp the role it has to play in the country’s history. Old Japanese built airfield is still in same place, and has flights to Hanoi, pretty much as it did in late 1953…


@Dien Bien Phu museum: General Navarre, Commander-In-Chief of French army in Indochina, inspected Dien Bien Phu fortification group (29th of November 1953)

Couple days go fast visiting in war memorials, museum and cemetery and looking the scenery, although they can be done easily in a one day if in a rush. Many travelers en route to or from Laos simply treat Dien Bien Phu as a bus transit point. There are couple low hills in the valley, that became French only strong points, a far cry from what their enemies had. Unbeknownst to French, Viet Minh (Communist led independence movement of Vietnam), after realizing the base building deep in the mountain region, had started their own concealed effort to counter it. Arduous work of transporting artillery pieces, mortars and anti-air weapons to region, hauling them to mountains, digging them to positions in tunnels. When all was said and done, guns could be pointed downward to valley and shot with direct fire.


French trench system in strong point Eliane and large crater made by Vietnamese mine detonated under defenders.

Judging the valley scene, it is perhaps around 5-10 kilometers east-west, but is longer north-south. If they had wanted, Viet Minh could have shot from one side to another, over the valley, with their bigger guns. French, when eventually realizing something big was going on, underestimated the its scale and overestimated their own abilities. When Viet Minh guns finally opened up, they soon cut the only lifeline of French garrison had, the airfield unusable. French could not get out and could not defeat the surrounding forces. Their air-power and artillery proved useless against camouflaged and well defended enemy, artillery commander made his own conclusions and committed suicide after his earlier confidence had been shattered by the reality. Patrols to mountains were facing an enemy of 2-3 times of their own size. With a benefit of time its easy to be armchair general and make all the right decisions, but one cannot still help but wonder what went on in the heads of French military leaders (Henri Navarre in Hanoi, Christian de Castries in the valley). War museum in town can give some insight. By looking how primitive weapons Viet Minh were known to have, what chances they would have opposing WW2 veteran troops from all across the French empire, equipped with modern weapons and technology.


@Dien Bien Phu museum: Viet Minh air defense system (assumed by French)

What was less well known was the level of Soviet and Chinese material and advisers. Combined with cunning of Viet Minh commander Vo Nguyen Giap, and endurance of Viet Minh soldiers and workers, French surrounded after bitter deference in a hopeless situation. A mere decade later US forces led by William Westmoreland would face similar problems and eventually, the same end result for Americans.


@Dien Bien Phu museum: Viet Minh air defense system (actual, on transport)


French command bunker where Col. de Castries isolated himself, once the situation had become evident for everyone.


Clips from movie Jump Into Hell. Cel. de Castries in the center right.

Jump Into Hell movie now on YouTube was done soon after the actual events. Watching today, it’s quite comical experience and shows how movies have changed. French commander is depicted as gentleman with a strong will and admiration of his men. Movie also offers a glimpse of Red Scare mentality in American experience of Cold War.

After French left Vietnam in mid 1950’s, Americans would enter almost a decade later in increasing numbers. Their presence in North Vietnam was limited to using air power. Historic sights and places are further south and central Vietnam.


“Dien Bien Phu in the air”. Poster from 2012 (my first trip to Hanoi) is an allusion to earlier victory over the French.


@Museum in Hanoi. Much to dismay for Americans during late 1960’s, latest Soviet surface to air missiles were available for their Vietnamese comrades. Americans would later turn the favor, by providing missiles to Afghans when Soviet Union tried occupation there.

Old American TV series Wings Over Vietnam can be found from YouTube. Series show how different branches of American air-force evolved during to war, from mid -60’s to end of war in early -70’s. It also has distinct Cold War ethos and is interesting to watch from this perspective. More contemporary conversation about Vietnam War is on Foreign Policy Research Institute (American think tank based in Philadelphia) YouTube.


Road sides in Vietnam are full of surprises.


Street scenes in Hanoi.


Haiphong downtown, kids playing football at old opera house.


Haiphong downtown.

Haiphong. Air feels moist with a tiny tinge of salt in it. Actual Gulf of Tonkin starts from pretty far from downtown, at the mouth of Red River. Haiphong is main port of North Vietnam and Hanoi. During the Vietnam war it became lifeline to arms and supplies from China and Soviet Union, and was thus heavily bombed especially in 1972 when Nixon administration tried to force reluctant Vietnamese leaders to negotiating table (Paris Peace Accords). Today it still is a large port city with lot of industry and businesses. There are not many sights for travelers, but nearby Cat Ba island and Hua Long Bay are must see for everyone in Haiphong.


Tanker heading to Haiphong port. Seen in nearby Hua Long Bay.

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