Điện Biên Phủ Vietnam Travel and Destination Guide

Vietnam Map with Dien Bien Phu Highlited

One of the delights of foreign travel is to visit places of historic interest and if they are sited on the road less travelled, then all the better!

Điện Biên Phủ is one of Vietnam’s most significant provincial capitals and lies in the Mường Thanh Valley, approximately 470 kms to the west of Ha Noi and surrounded by steep and densely wooded hills.  The “heart shaped” valley that is about 20 kms and 6 km wide and is home to a population of around 125,000.  It is only some 34 kilometres to the east of the Laos border.

 Dien Bien Phu Muong Thanh Valley


Its significance to Vietnamese history stems from in 1954 this quiet rural setting saw a ferocious 57 day battle fought between the, then, colonial occupier of French Indochina and the Việt Minh, who wanted self determination for Vietnam.  The French had long attempted to draw the Việt Minh into a “set piece” battle and to this purpose had fortified the lush farmlands of Điện Biên Phủ.  The French rationale was that through additional support to its soldiers at Điện Biên Phủ, enacmped deep in the hills of this area of north-western Vietnam, it would cut off Việt Minh supply lines and tactically draw the Việt Minh into a major confrontation.  The French believed that such tactics would cripple the resolve and resources of the Việt Minh.

The French however were unaware of the Việt Minh’s possession of heavy artillery, that they had dissassembled and man hauled over the harsh terrain to strategically place and oversight the French positions.  On 13 March 1954, under the leadership of Senior General Võ Nguyên Giáp (who celebrated his 100th birthday on 25 August 2011) the Việt Minh surrounded and besieged the French with withering artillery bombardments and fearless ground attacks.  The French forces repulsed wave upon wave of attacks until their positions were gradually taken and all the time the Việt Minh anti-aircraft fire took its toll on the French air supplies.

The French garrison was overrun on 7 May 1954, with the survivors captured and taken prisoner, to be released some months later.  This significant event effectively ended France’s colonial reign of Vietnam, which had commenced in 1887, and the completion of the Geneva Convention on 21 July 1954, saw Vietnam freed of colonial influence.

The road from Hanoi (National Route 12) is not an easy trek that takes about 12 hours and although a modern road is anticipated for completion in 2013, the easiest way to travel to Điện Biên Phủ from Hanoi is by air with Vietnam Airlines.  There is a border crossing from Laos at Tay Trang that, when open, allows you to pass into Vietnam at Sop Hun, however, this crossing is frequently closed and does not issue visas.  If you’re travelling from Laos, you’ll need to have secured a visa at Vientiane and confirmed that this border crossing is open, prior to your departure.


Điện Biên Phủ is steeped in its military significance to modern Vietnam history and remnants of the famous siege, such as French General Christian de Castries’ command bunker, General Giáp’s tunnels (some 40 kms out of Điện Biên Phủ), A1 Hill (a fortified French hill), Mường Thanh Bridge, Điện Biên Phủ Museum along with French and Vietnamese War Cemeteries can be readily visited.  A magnificent monument is under construction at D1 Hill to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the victory on 21 July 2014.


 Dien Bien Phu General Christian de Castries Command Bunker

To solely focus on Điện Biên Phủ’s military past does not do this delightful city justice, as its rustic charm is ever present that is reflective of its distance from Hanoi combined with its “off the beaten track” location.  The countryside is fertile and beautiful that, with its relaxed pace, makes a delightful change from the energy of Ha Noi.  The residential and commercial precincts are still distinctively Vietnamese, without too much external influence, evoking the city’s establishment, in the 1840s, as a township developed to assist in preventing attacks on trading caravans to and from China and Burma.  These precincts are predominately located on the eastern side of the Ron River that flows through Điện Biên Phủ.


 Dien Bien Phu Township


Although not catering for a mainstream tourist trade, there are many lovely guesthouses together with numerous places to enjoy the local life and cuisine.  As with all of Vietnam, visitors are made to feel welcome and obtaining guides and transport to visit the varity of places of interest is readily organised through your guesthouse.  Apart from ethic Vietnamese, Điện Biên Phủ’s population is an eclectic mix of Thai and Hmong peoples known as Montagnards.  Điện Biên Phủ also provides for a terrific location to use as a base for day trips further afield to nearby townships such as Sơn La, where Vietnam’s colonial past can be further experienced through a visit to the former French prison and museum.


 Dien Bien Phu One of the Vietnamese Monuments being built in Honour of the Dien Bien Phu battle with the French


Time spent in Điện Biên Phủ is positive, as you are able to experience Vietnam as it used to be before the recent influx of western tourism whilst providing you with an appreciation of the struggle that the Vietnamese people have had to take control of their country’s destiny.