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Last Updated: Wednesday, 5 May, 2004, 23:32 GMT 00:32 UK
Vietnam's independence victory
By Tom Fawthrop
In Hanoi

Vietnam's struggle for independence from French colonialism culminated in one of history's epic battles - the 56-day-long siege of Dien Bien Phu.

General Vo Nguyen Giap, 92, is still telling stories of the battle
The Vietnamese nationalist forces - the Viet Minh - under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh were outgunned by the might of the French imperial army but triumphed against the odds.

On 7 May Vietnam celebrates the 50th anniversary of a stunning victory that brought an abrupt end to French imperial rule throughout Indochina.

Professor Tran Quoc Vuong was a student member of the transportation teams that brought rice from other provinces to support the fighters at the front.

The 71-year-old historian and archaeologist told BBC News Online: "Dien Bien Phu was a turning point in history. It was not only a victory for Vietnam, but it was celebrated in many other colonies, especially in Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia.

13 March - Viet Minh attack French garrison at Dien Bien Phu
French underestimate Viet Minh strength and are soon surrounded
Attempts to re-supply by parachute are unsuccessful
Siege lasts until 7 May, when French surrender
At least 2,000 French forces died, many more Viet Minh
"The name became a metaphor for a great victory in other languages."

Living legend

The Vietnamese general who masterminded the crushing defeat of 21 of the French battalions, General Vo Nguyen Giap, is a living legend.

Now 92 years old, he is still beguiling audiences with his lucid account of his military strategy, and battlefield details.

Though physically frail, his memory is prodigious.

General Giap, who began his career as a journalist and history teacher, eventually became Ho Chi Minh's right-hand man as founder of the Viet Minh and the chief military strategist who masterminded the defeat of both the French and, later, the US forces.

During a two-hour press conference, he proudly recalled: "It was the first time that a colonial power had been defeated."

He said Vietnam "led the wave of independence wars that freed the colonies of the European empires after World War II".

Tran Quoc Vuong, Hanoi University professor (5/5/04)
Dien Bien Phu was a turning point in history
Professor Tran Quoc Vuong
"Vietnam proves that if a nation is determined to stand up, it is very strong; the weak can win, over the strong, if you have justice and humanity on your side," he said.

When asked to identify his best general, General Giap answered: ''My best general was our people."

For some of the younger generation too, Dien Bien Phu also has a special place in their hearts.

"Dien Bien Phu symbolises the unity and independence of the Vietnamese people," said Thu Lang, a 39-year-old writer from Saigon.

"All of our people have deep feelings about it."

Extraordinary sacrifices

In many homes the experience has brought generations closer together.

"My grandfather fought against the French, my father against the US, and we all watched a Dien Bien Phu movie on TV together," a 26-year-old secretary at the privately owned Saonam Technology Development Company explained.

The extraordinary sacrifices made by the Vietnamese people, both in the French war and the US war, have little to do with any belief in communism, according to Professor Vuong.

"It was always nationalism and patriotism that inspired us, and we always saw Ho Chi Minh as a nationalist rather than a communist. It was an anti-colonial war of independence," he said.

On the subject of Iraq, General Giap was cautious, but issued a general warning to the US that "any forces that would impose their will on other nations will certainly face defeat".

Journalists mob General Vo Nguyen Giap
General Vo Nguyen Giap is seen as a national hero

"All nations fighting for their legitimate interests and sovereignty will surely win," he said.

Dien Bien Phu is also a time for reflection on contemporary life.

Professor Vuong and a number of other war veterans are disappointed with current trends in society.

As they see it, Ho Chi Minh's dreams of an egalitarian society have been ditched in favour of market forces development. This, in turn, has given rise to a nouveau riche class whom they dub the "red capitalists".

"Now the young generation only think about getting rich," said Professor Vuong.

Thu Lang said it was wrong to make generalisations about the generation gap in Vietnam.

"It is true some youth are disaffected and only want to make money, but Dien Bien Phu is still alive inside each one of us. But the potential inspiration remains dormant - the question is whether the government can do enough to ignite this feeling," he said.

Waking the spirit of Dien Bien Phu in order to galvanise today's Vietnamese society is a recurring theme in General Giap's speeches.

But in the view of many intellectuals and war veterans, that depends on reviving a concern for social justice and addressing the growing gap between rich and poor.

In pictures: Return to Dien Bien Phu
04 May 04  |  In Pictures
Vietnam 1945 to 1975: timeline
16 Nov 00  |  Asia-Pacific

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