The town of Dien Bien Phu itself is mostly a mix of ethnic Viet Kinh (the majority ethnic group of the country) and White Thai, with other minorities inhabiting the outlying areas. But it is better known as the wellspring of Vietnam’s storied rise to global prominence in the mid-twentieth century.
The long,wide valley that encloses the town was the scene of a fierce, 57-day siege on French positions that decisively ended French rule in Indochina, and, in doing so, inspired anti-colonialist, revolutionary movements around the world and set the stage for some of the most pivotal events of the second half of the 20th century.
Now little remains of the battlefield itself — the trenches, barbed wire, encampments, and battlelines that once criss-crossed the terrain have long since been erased to make room for development and agriculture. But a handful of war vestiges have been carefully preserved, constituting a series of exhibits that tourists can view and learn from, with or without a guide, in the course of a day.
This is, by far, the chief reason any tourist ever visits Dien Bien Phu at all, and for French travellers looking to get in touch with that important, decidedly chequered, chapter of their history, a stop here is de rigeur. But for most other travellers, a trip to A1 Hill and the museum will offer all the coverage of the event that they need.
Aside from the history on display, Dien Bien Phu presents little more that a sprawling, dusty, nondescript border town. Other than checking out the market, with numerous rice wine shops, and heading to the centre of Muong Thanh Ward for something to eat, you’ll have a hard time filling your dance card if you stay here more than two days.
You may also need to pass through Dien Bien Phu if you are coming or going through Tay Trung/Son Hun, the recently-opened border crossing with Laos, 34 km to the southwest.
The Tay Trung Border
This recently-opened border, 34 km to the southwest of DBP, provides and interesting new route for travelling from northern Laos directly to Hanoi without having to dip down to Luang Prabang or Vientiane. The chief downside is the current, wretched state of Highway 6 between DBP and Son La, and it will be years before there is marked improvement on that score.
It’s still sparsely-used by foreigners, but you can get a Laotian visa-on-arrival when crossing into Laos, and, as ever, most nationalities must already have obtained a valid Vietnamese visa when crossing the other way. The 48-hour grace period is honoured here if you overstay your Vietnamese visa. Buses to the border leave from the Dien Bien Phu bus station at 05:30 on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays only, and cost 75,000, which is a bit silly because the xe om guys we talked to said they only charged 100,000 VND.
Tags: Dien Bien Phu