To hell and back

| September 2, 2010 | 0 Comments
The stunning military victory at Dien Bien Phu remains its major tourist attraction.

The stunning military victory at Dien Bien Phu remains its major tourist attraction.

Dien Bien Phu was made the capital of Lai Chau Province 17 years ago, but partly by default. The previous capital kept suffering devastating floods, caused partly by deforestation. It may soon disappear altogether under the reservoir of a huge hydro dam. But, of course, there was also another reason to elevate the status of DBP: patriotism. The stunning Vietnamese military victory there in 1954, ending French colonialism in Southeast Asia, is an event celebrated in school books, songs and public art, in street names, memorials and museums.
The town’s place in history has brought a certain amount of tourism, leading to construction of such modest local institutions as the Lottery Hotel, the Construction Hotel and the Beer Factory Guesthouse. But the past hasn’t made anybody rich. DBP is a town of small-business people, families mostly, who live upstairs over their shops. Old men kneel on the sidewalk to spit, talk and gamble. Their game resembles checkers except that the pieces are numbered and, like the board itself, very crudely carved from scrap lumber.
Development, such as it is, has chewed up some of the edges of the battlefield but not enough to keep visitors from getting a clear understanding of what the fighting must have been like. In contrast to China, which will often raze some historical site to build a modern replica of it, Vietnam tends to skilfully redo or replace lost or damaged elements without taking away from the original. Examples include some parts of the French blockhouses and bunkers. Others include the surprisingly deep trenches dug by both armies during their deadly and deadly serious game of cat-and-mouse.
One reference puts the town’s population at 22,000, another at 9,000. The latter seems more accurate to me, but judging the number of people in any Asian town or city is an iffy thing for westerners to attempt because density is so high and census-taking is not a cherished art. The place is a world away from Hanoi. There are no stylish shops and no fancy restaurants. The best spot to eat is a depressing seafood place where customers sit crunched together at long tables, as in a prison, and the drinking water is served in old vodka bottles. In short, DBP is a very small and isolated locality with little commotion and less cosmopolitanism. Let me illustrate further.
I have one badly arthritic knee that will need replacing in the next few years. Until then, it acts up from time and time, buckling at inopportune moments. I had one such incident in DBP while climbing stairs at the only place with a vacancy: a combination hotel/massage parlour. The next day I had to hobble about in search of ice with which to bring down the swelling. The only supply I found was in a cell phone shop that also sold beer from an ancient fridge badly in need of defrosting. I paid the owner a few dong for the ice that had built up at the bottom. For days afterward, I was a famous personage in town: the westerner who spends good money on frozen water!
The community, whose local crops include rice and (in nearby tribal areas) opium, sits on red clay soil that reminded me of Prince Edward Island. In the dry season (I was there in February, the driest of the dry), the stuff is hard and dusty, but by the end of the rainy season it has the consistency of pancake batter. For the past 56 years, as it has dripped down the hillsides and embankments at the conclusion of each monsoon, it has revealed artifacts, including bits of human bone and sometimes teeth (French teeth, presumably). I was there to research part of a book about the French in Indochina, and without any effort whatever, I found three dirt-encrusted brass casings from 50-calibre machine gun ammunition. Two days before my arrival, a history buff from Britain discovered a French helmet. Inside was a scrap of scalp. But that was exceptional. After the French War, just as after American War two decades later, the Vietnamese picked the countryside clean of valuable scrap metal.
The Englishman’s discovery of the helmet was somewhat out of the ordinary in another way as well, as relatively few western visitors spend time in DBP. I was the only one aboard the incoming flight, and while there I saw no more than three or four particularly hardy American and Canadian backpackers. Groups of Vietnamese school children on field trips—certainly. People with parents and grandparents buried in neat rows in the huge Vietminh cemetery—of course. But few Europeans, for example. The ranks of Frenchwomen widowed by Dien Bien Phu are pretty thin now, and the place is so far away and so difficult to get to, even from the major Vietnamese cities. In fact, it’s hard to get out of as well.
The tiny airport is built on the site of the French military airstrip whose destruction by General Giap’s artillery ensured the Vietminh victory. After an hour or so on the ground, the empty Vietnam Airlines flight to Hanoi hadn’t refuelled or allowed us few ticket-holders to board. Eventually, two workers came and removed all of our luggage from the hold. Then mechanics, overseen by an official with a clipboard, began to disassemble part of the engine and the fuel system, leaving the components on the tarmac before quitting for the day. Eventually we heard an announcement that no other plane would be available for a day or two.
I had an important meeting in Hanoi the next morning. There being no bus and, of course, no train, I hired a taxi. The fare was astonishingly low but the journey took the rest of the day and all night, over narrow mountain roads, unpaved for long stretches, with rock cliffs on one side and 1,000-foot drops on the other — with no guard-rails or even white lines. The driver played loud Vietnamese rock on a CD player the whole time and honked the horn whenever he feared another vehicle was approaching in the darkness or when, as sometimes happens, a water buffalo, trying to stay cool, had taken refuge in a mud puddle in the middle of road.
I got to my meeting with moments to spare.

George Fetherling is the author Walt Whitman’s Secret, a novel (Random House Canada).

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Category: Delights, Destinations

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