NORTHERN VIETNAM: ETHNIC VILLAGES, CAVES AND DIEN BIEN PHU

NORTHERN VIETNAM

NORTHERN VIETNAM is known for its spectacular limestone formation, green, misty mountains, thick forests, dizzying mountain roads and ethnic minorities. Many battles between the Vietnamese and French and Chinese have taken place here over the years. The highlands and mountain plateaus in the north and northwest are inhabited mainly by tribal minority groups. The ethnic minorities include Tai, Nung, Hmong, Man and Dao in the northeast and Thai, Khu, Lao, Kinh Tay, Muong, Dzao, Dao, Hmong and Chinese in the northwest.

The main roads in the region are Route 1 (heading northeast to Lang Son and the Chinese border); Route 3 (heading north to Cao Bang and the Chinese border); Route 70 (heading northwest along the Red River to Lao Cai, Sapa and the Chinese border); and Route 6 (heading west to Son La and Dien Bien Phu and the Laos Border). A train also follows the Red River to Lao Cai (near Sapa) and the Chinese border.

THAI NGUYEN PROVINCE

THAI NGUYEN PROVINCE (80 kilometers from Hanoi) covers 3,526.2 square kilometers and is home to 1,131,300 people (2010). The largest ethnic groups in the province are the Viet (Kinh), Tay, Nung, San Diu. The capital is Thai Nguyen City. Administrative divisions: Town: Song Cong; Districts: Dinh Hoa, Dai Tu, Vo Nhai, Dong Hy, Phu Luong, Phu Binh, Pho Yen. Situated in far northeast Vietnam, Thai Nguyen Province is surrounded by Bac Kan Province on the north, Tuyen Quang and Vinh Phuc provinces on the west, Lang Son and Bac Giang provinces on the east, and Hanoi on the south.

Mountains account most of Thai Nguyen's topography with Tam Dao, Ngan Son, Bac Son ranges. The complex network of rivers includes Cau, Cong, Du, and Rang. The main natural resources are coal, iron, steel, and titan. Thanks to good soil, Thai Nguyen tea, especially tea of Tan Cuong origin has long been a nation- wide famous product. There are two seasons: winter lasts from November to April and summer is from May to October. Annual average temperature is 25 degrees C.

Places of Interest in Thai Nguyen Province has revolutionary tradition, historical sites including Van, Vo mountains, Dinh Hoa ATK vestige, and Duom Temple. Places of interest to tourists include Nui Coc Reservoir. This 2,500 hectares lake includes 89 islands, concealing mysterious legends. Near the lake, Coc Mountain stands imposingly. Phuong Hoang Cave and Mo Ga Stream attract many visitors to Thai Nguyen every year. The cave consists of three layers: Doi (Bat), Sang (Light) and Toi (Dark). Reaching the mouth of cave, visitors can see the landscapes of this land. Getting to Thai Nguyen Province: Thai Nguyen City is on National Highway No.3 (Hanoi- Cao Bang), 80 kilometers from Hanoi. There is daily train from Hanoi to Quan Trieu, about eight kilometers from center of Thai Nguyen City.

Museum of the Cultures of Vietnam's Ethnic Groups (center of Thai Nguyen City) was established in 1960 in an area of 39,000 square meters of which 3,000 square meters is used for exhibition. It contains more than 10,000 documents, and artifacts belong to the cultural heritage of 54 ethnic groups of Vietnam. The museum also presents an extensive collection of agricultural, handicraft, and hunting tools. Typical ritual clothes with bright colors and decorative motifs of different ethnic minorities are also exhibited. The unusual costumes of the Tay and Nung ethnic groups used in shaman rituals are embroidered with lines and designs that supposedly perceive magical sounds.

The Viet-Muong showroom presents nearly 500 documents, objects, and photographs illustrating archaeological articles discovered in Phung Nguyen, Dong Dau, and Go Mun in the North of the country. Exhibits of Vietnamese national agricultural and handicraft productions and brocades woven by Muong ethnic minorities are also displayed. Exhibited in the Tay-Thai showroom are nearly 500 documents and artifacts related to the slash-and-burn agricultural technique and traditional trades of minorities, such as the Tay, Thai, Lao, and Lu. Women's clothes and musical folk instruments such as the tinh string instrument, the flute, as well as displays of the traditional ceremonies of several minorities are also exhibited.

The Hmong-Dao showroom displays approximately 600 documents and artifacts reflecting the agricultural practices of the Hmong, such as slash-and-burn farming, terraced rice fields, hunting weapons, and clothes of the Hmong-Dao ethnic group. The museum is open Tuesday to Sunday from 8:00am to 11:00 am and 2:00 to 4:30 pm. Entry costs VND 10,000.

LANG SON PROVINCE

LANG SON PROVINCE (154 kilometers northeast of Hanoi) is a mountainous province that shares a border with China and is home to Tai, Nung, Hmong, Man and Dao ethnic minorities. Attractions include market with exotic items, minority villages, limestone mountains, Chi Lang Gorge, Tam Thanh caves, and trading center for Chinese goods.

Lang Son covers 8,323.8 square kilometers and is home to 735,600 people (2010). The capital is Lang Son City. The largest ethnic groups in the province are the Viet (Kinh), Tay, Nung, Dao. Districts: Trang Dinh, Van Lang, Van Quan, Binh Gia, Bac Son, Huu Lung, Chi Lang, Cao Loc, Loc Binh, Dinh Lap. Lang Son is a frontier mountainous province in the North-East of Vietnam. It shares border with Cao Bang Province on the south, Bac Giang Province on the north, Guangxi (China) on the east, Quang Ninh Province on the north-east and Bac Kan, Thai Nguyen provinces on the west.

Mountains and hills cover over 80 percent of the province's total area. The complex network of rivers makes a good condition for agriculture. Main rivers that run through the province are: Ky Cung, Ba Thin, Bac Giang, Bac Khe, Thuong, Hoa, and Trung rivers. The climate is cool and temperate. Annual average temperature is 21.5 degrees C. Annual average rainfall is from 1200 millimeters to 1600 millimeters.

Lang Son has an important strategic position in northeast Vietnam. It has potential for mineral, forestry, tourism and trading wealth. Star aniseed (hoa hoi) is a specialty. The province is proud of many culture and historical sites. These including the Rampart of Mac Dynasty, Doan Citadel Vestige, Chi Lang Defile, Ky Cung and Bac Le temples. Apart of these, Ky Lua Market, To Thi and Mau Son mountains, Tam Thanh, and Nhi Thanh grottoes also attract many visitors every year. Ky Lua and Tam Thanh markets are known for their abundant selections cheap goods Tourists also come for the Ky Lua or Long Tong traditional festivals and to taste special dishes such as roast duck, roast pig, Mau Son wine and lam rice.

Getting to Lang Son Province Lang Son is 154 kilometers from Hanoi, 60 kilometers from Thai Nguyen, 48 kilometers from Quang Ninh, 55 kilometers from Cao Bang, 73 kilometers from Bac Kan. The Hanoi-China international railway line has over 100 kilometers that run through Lang Son. Lang Son has two international border gates including Dong Dang railway border gate and Huu Nghi road border gate, two national border gates such as Chi Ma (in Loc Binh District) and Binh Nghi (in Trang Dinh District).

Road: National highway routes on the territory of Lang Son province: A) No.1A: It departs from Huu Nghi Quan (Friendship Gate) and runs through Lang Son Province to Hanoi. B) No.1B: between Lang Son and Thai Nguyen. C) No.4A: between Lang Son and Cao Bang. D) No.4B: from Lang Son to Tien Yen Townlet of Quang Ninh Province. E) No.31: between Dinh Lap and Bac Giang. F) No.279: Binh Gia of Lang Son Province to Bac Kan.

Mau Son (Loc Binh District, about 30 kilometers from Lang Son City) is a hill station near highest peak in Lang Son region. The view is great. To the north is Ninh Minh, China, to the east is Na Duong and to the west is Dong Dang, all merging beautifully into one spectacular landscape. The winding narrow mountain path, like a snake, lies tucked between 2 steep mountains.

About seventy years ago before this path existed, there were only two ways to the top, walking or on horseback. At that time, this panoramic area attracted the French to Mau Son for relaxation. The weather was cool all year round and in addition, the Dear Mountain View of the northeast was the gateway to China, and the French built a military base there at the early of the 20th century to guard the border. The site's original inhabitants, members of the Dao ethnic minority, were moved to make way for the French settlement. Only authorized personnel were permitted to enter the French base.

Later, Mau Son tourists were also welcome to the hill station. In January 1936, Dr.O.Pflot, a student of the famous bacteriologist Dr. Alexandre Yersin, visited Mau Son. Some local people say that the doctor first came to Mau Son to collect traditional medicinal herbs, which were cultivated in the region. And then, he petitioned Mr Tholace, then French governor of the North, for permission to build tourist villas at the site. In 1936 he got the goaded to buy land and to start the construction.

There were thousands of local people working on the project, all mining, breaking and carrying stones to bad a number of massive villas, all in all it took seven years of work to accomplish this task. There were no bricks available to build with; the only materials available were stones, bled to ruins. Blocks of orange moss-covered stories are scattered throughout the site, lying dead amongst the old foundations, where even now, it is possible to identify the houses former kitchens, fireplaces and staircases. Like sleeping beauty, after almost five decades, it was all but forgotten. Until 1987 motorbikes were not even allowed onto the torturous road up the mountain.

CAVES AND NATURAL SIGHTS IN LANG SON PROVINCE

Chi Lang Defile (Chi Lang District, 110 kilometers from Hanoi and 60 kilometers from the Sino-Vietnamese border) consists of a valley surrounded by high mountains and through which runs the Thuong River.The mountains were opened in two locations to form two gates. The northern gate was named Quy Mon Quan, meaning "monster gate," after the Chinese invaders who entered Vietnam through this gate. The southern gate was called Ngo The, meaning "swearing gate." Vietnamese ancestors who swore to sacrifice their lives to protect their motherland and to prevent invaders from entering Vietnam via this defile built the gates.

In the past, in this area that King Le Hoan defeated the Chinese Sung troops in 981 and killed all the enemies. In 1076, Prince Consort Than Canh Phuc set a front line against 300,000 Sung enemies. Led by Quach Quy in 1285, Nguyen Dia Lo killed traitor Tran Kien in the second National Resistance against Yuan-Mongol invaders. In 1427, Lam Son righteous army killed invader leader Lieu Thang, caught Hoang Phuc, killed 10,000 Ming enemies and overthrew all their maneuvers. Now Chi Lang Defile is considered a historical site with imposing landscape where visitors stop to enjoy the natural scenery.

Tam Thanh Grotto (Thanh Ward, Lang Son City) features a poem by Ngo Thi Si carved on the grotto wall praising the magnificent natural beauty of the area. Tam Thanh Grotto is one of the famous grottoes in Lang Son, lying west of Ky Lua Street. Its door is approximately eight meters high, opening to a corridor with 30 stone steps carved into the mountain. There are dense groves hiding the grotto from the sun. Poet Ngo Thi Si (1726 - 1780) carved one of his texts on the grotto wall while he was a Mandarin guard in Lang Son. The poem praises the magnificent natural beauty of the area, more specifically the sound of the water stream falling on hundreds of rocks, almost like a graceful murmur. Vong Phu Mountain, meaning "waiting for a husband," is located nearby. Here, one can explore a grotto with marvelous stalactites and a statue of Buddha.

Nhi Thanh Grotto (in Nhi Thanh Street, approximately one kilometer from the Lang Son City) is 600 meters long. On the cliffs at the entrance are 20 inscriptions that are precious historical and literary documents, including autographs of famous scholars. The statue of scholar Ngo Thi Sy on the cliff engraved in 1779 is a precious work of art. The grotto has numerous stalactites and stalagmites in different shapes. Above the grotto is Tam Giao Pagoda, which was built in 1779. The pagoda is dedicated to Confucian, Buddha and Laotze. Tam Giao Pagoda and Nhi Thanh Grotto is one of the eight sites that attract a large number of visitors in Lang Son.

BAC KAN PROVINCE AND BE BE NATIONAL PARK

BAC KAN PROVINCE (166 kilometers from Hanoi) covers 4,859.4 square kilometers and is home to 296,500 people (2010). The capital is Bac Kan Town. The largest ethnic groups in the province are the Viet (Kinh), Tay, Hmong, Dao. Districts: Ba Be, Ngan Son, Cho Don, Na Ri, Cho Moi, Bach Thong, Pac Nam. Bac Kan Town is 166 kilometers from Hanoi. It is located on the Hanoi - Cao Bang inter-provincial No. 3.

Bac Kan is a mountainous province, sharing its border with Cao Bang Province to the north, Tuyen Quang Province to the west, Lang Son Province to the south-east, and Thai Nguyen Province to the south. The topography is mainly midland, mountainous. The province has a complex network of rivers and springs. There are two seasons: dry and cold lasts from April to October and hot and rainy from November to December. The cold season lasts longer in the north region. The annual average temperature is 25 degrees C. The annual rainfall is about 1,400 millimeters- 1,800 millimeters. The weather has drizzling rain and high humidity in March, April and August.

Bac Kan has mineral resources and forests. Interesting sights include Ba Be National Park, Dau Dang Waterfall, Ba Be Lake, Puong Cave. Bac Kan was a cradle of the Vietnam revolution so it has many revolutionary sites such as the ATK. Bac Kan is famous for Ba Be Lake Spring Festival which features many rituals and activities such as boat racing, wrestling, dancing and nem con (colorful ball throwing). The festival attracts a lot of people around the region.

Ba Be National Park (70 kilometers from Bac Kan Town and 250 kilometers north of Hanoi) covers an area of 7,610 hectares and has 3,000 inhabitants of the Tay, Mong and Dao ethnic groups living there. The national park boasts primeval forest on an old limestone range that surrounds clear water lakes. The park contains 1,281 species of plants including 162 families, among which 25 species have so far been recorded in the Red List of The International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources-IUCN

The fauna of national park is include 81 species of animals, 27 species of reptiles, 17 species of amphibians, 322 species of birds, 106 species of fishes, 553 species of insects and spiders, of which 66 species has been listed in Vietnam and World Red Book such as Great hornbill (Phuong hoang dat), Rhinopithecus avunculus (Vooc mui hech), Presbytis francoisi francoisi (Vooc den ma trang).

Ba Be Lake cover 500 hectares and is home to 106 species of freshwater fishes,including rare species such as Ba Be paramesotriton deloustali (ca coc), Bagarius yarrelli sykes (ca chien), ca lam xanh, ca sinh ga In addition to Ba Be Lake, the national park has tourist spots such as Puong Grotto, Dau Dang Waterfall, Tien Pond, Ba Be National Park is situated in Ba Be District, Bac Kan Province.

CAO BANG PROVINCE

CAO BANG PROVINCE (270 kilometers north of Hanoi) is another mountainous province that shares a border with China (in this case almost 320 kilometers) and is home to Tai, Nung, Hmong and Dao ethnic minorities. Attractions include market with exotic items, minority villages, limestone mountains, 100-foot-high Giac Falls, wild orchids, BeBe national park, and horses. The Tai (Tay) group makes up a large portion of they population. They have own handwriting (Tay-Nung language group). Their village festivals feature vi and then singing. Some of the highest mountains here receive snow.

Cao Bang covers 6,724.6 square kilometers and is home to 513,100 people (2010). The largest ethnic groups in the province are the Viet (Kinh), Tay, Nung, Dao, Hmong and San Chay. The capital is Cao Bang City. Districts: Bao Lac, Bao Lam, Ha Quang, Thong Nong, Tra Linh, Trung Khanh, Nguyen Binh, Hoa An, Phuc Hoa, Quang Uyen, Ha Lang, Thach An.

Cao Bang Province is located in the far northeast of Vietnam. It shares borders with China on the north and east, Bac Kan and Lang Son provinces on the south, and Ha Giang and Tuyen Quang provinces on the west. The topography is complicated so inter-transportation is limited. Cao Bang has temperate climate. There are four seasons: spring, summer, autumn, winter. The average temperature is 25 - 28 degrees C in summer and 16 -17 degrees C in winter. Snow sometimes falls in winter on high mountains such as Trung Khanh, Tra Linh. The cool weather combines with many high mountains to create beautiful wintertime scenery.

Sights in Cao Bang Province include Thang Hen Mountainous Lake in Tra Linh, Ban Gioc Fall and Nguom Ngao Cave in Trung Khanh. Ban Gioc Fall is among the most beautiful waterfalls in Vietnam. Several sites where Uncle Ho lived and worked before the August 1945 Revolution include Pac Bo, Coc Bo Cave, Lenin Stream, and Khuoi Nam Stream. Traditional festivals such as the Long Tong Festival and Inviting the-Moon-Mother Festival (Moi Me Trang) and important to specific ethnic groups.

Getting to Cao Bang Province Cao Bang is 272 kilometers north of Hanoi following National Highway No.3. Cao Bang has National Highway No.4B and 3 linking to Lang Son, Bac Kan, Ha Giang provinces and to China. There are direct buses from Hanoi, Thai Nguyen and Lang Son.

CAVES AND NATURAL SPOTS IN CAO BANG PROVINCE

Pac Bo Cave (accessible from Cao Bang Town, 350 kilometers north of Hanoi) is known nationwide as a revolutionary resistance base. Located in Trung Hoa Commune, Ha Quang District, it is set amid rice fields, green mountains, small hamlets with dozens of houses on-stilts under the shade of towering clusters of peach trees, and the winding streams with thatch-roofed bridges. The main historical sites in this area consist of Pac Bo, Coc Bo, Bo Bam Cave, Lenin Stream, Karl Marx Mountain, Co Rac Ground and Khuoi Nam. The famous Coc Bo Cave is where Ho Chi Minh established his residence and worked on Vietnam’s revolutionary course after returning from 30 years abroad.

Walking on the rocks along the side of the stream, where Uncle Ho used to work and fish, visitors reach a wooden bridge over Coc Bo rivulet where Lenin Stream starts. The water is clear, cool and so tranquil that one can see the fish and pebbles on its bed and the green watercress in the water. Beyond the bridge is the place where Uncle Ho often cooked soup with vegetable and bamboo shoots. By the side of a rugged rocky mountain is Pac Po Cave. Looking down into the cave from its mouth, you can see the words "February 8th, 1941" written by Uncle Ho on the wall. That was the day he came to live in this small cave, a wet and cold place lying deep in a mountain gorge that nobody paid much attention to.

Inside the cave there is a wooden board as a bed for Uncle Ho. In this place, Uncle Ho, in the simple dress of the Nung ethnic group, often sat by the fire at night to talk with his assistant Pham Van Dong, Vo Nguyen Giap and Phung Chi Kien... about the situations at home and abroad. Here, Uncle Ho predicted: "In four or five years, the Vietnamese revolution will be successful." His words became true. On September 2nd, 1945 the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, the first State of workers and peasants in Asia, came into being. One night when staying in this cave, General Vo Nguyen Giap was advised by Uncle Ho: "Undertaking revolutionary activities requires di cong vi thuong which means, common benefits must be put above all". His teachings were short, clear and precise as a truth, but to implement them were not easy.

About one kilometer from the mouth of Pac Bo Cave, there is a small shack by the side of Khuoi Nam Mountain. In this shack Uncle Ho held the eighth Party Central Committee Meeting, which promulgated a resolution on preparations for the armed insurrection and the establishment of the Viet Minh and the revolutionary war zone. Adjacent to the shack is milestone 108 marking the Vietnam-China border, where 59 years ago, Uncle Ho bowed to kiss the beloved land of his country, after many years living abroad. At that time he was 50 years old with grey hair.

Ban Gioc Waterfall (89 kilometers north of Cao Bang Town) is regarded as the most beautiful waterfall in Vietnam. The waterfall originates from Quay Son River. On the Viet Nam side, the river has a picturesque scenery, fresh environment with grass cover, evergreen forest, bobbing white clouds mingling with the peaceful atmosphere of villages of mountainous ethnic minorities. On the other side is the neighboring country of China.

With a height of 53 meters and a width of 300 meters, the waterfall is divided into 3 layers consisting of small and large upper flows. Large water blocks fall into limestone steps, making a curtain of white sprays. From the distance, visitors can hear the roaring of waterfall echoing through a large area. Rising from middle of the waterfall is a large water mound covered with trees, splitting the river into three spouts that look lie three white silk strips. At the foot of the waterfall is a large river that is calm as glass surrounded by many precious flowers. On hot summer days, it is still cool here. Every early morning, the sun shines through steam creating a sparkling rainbow. Ban Gioc waterfall is situated in Dam Thuy Commune, Trung Khanh District,

Nguom Ngao Cave (three kilometers from Ban Gioc Waterfall) is located in Gun Village, Dam Thuy Commune, Trung Khanh District. Considered one of the most beautiful caves in northeast of Vietnam, it was discovered in 1921 by local people and opened to tourists in 1996. Over 2,144 meters in length, Nguom Ngao cave has three main entrances with 900 meters open to tourists. Visiting cave, tourists come in Nguom Luom entrance and go out Nguom Ngao entrance.

Inside the cave, visitors will be dazzled by seven-colored stalactites hanging down from high stone cliffs. Nature is clever to create stone statues of which some look like human bodies, some look like forest plant, animals, a fairy combining her hair or a lotus bulb, etc. Since 2006, an asphalted road from Highway 206 was built to Nguom Ngao site and cement ways spreading inside cave combined with light systems.

Phja Den (240 kilometers from Hanoi) is a natural area with the total area of 24,631 hectares in Thanh Cong, Phan Thanh, Quang Thanh communes, Tinh Tuc Townlet of Nguyen Binh District. Located at an elevation of between 1,000 and 2000 meters above the sea level, it is rich in plant and animal life, high mountainous terrain, caves, and large tracts of primitive forest. Rare fauna includes knootweed, false ginseng, black chics. Phja Den was used as a vacation spot by the French. A few French weekend villas and compounds have been preserved. The Dao ethnic group has villages in this area.

Thang Hen Lake (about 20 kilometers from Cao Bang Town) is situated at a height of 1,000 meters above the sea level and regarded as one of the 36 most beautiful mountain lakes in Vietnam. Rows of trees rising from steep cliffs are reflecting in the blue water. The lake has basin shape with the length of over 500 meters and the width of 300 meters. On the far side of the lake is a large cave from which a water source runs out day and night. In the rainy season, while the other lakes turn reddish, the water in Thang Hen Lake is still clear and blue. In the dry season, the water level drops by about 10 meters. Near by Thang Hen Lake is Thanh Luong lake, in the middle of which rises a very beautiful mountain. Thang Hen Lake is located in Quoc Toan Commune, Tra Linh District. From Cao Bang Town, go to Hoa An District (19 kilometers) by the Nation Road 3, turn left along Road 205 for about five kilometers, then turn left 3-4 kilometers to reach Thang Hen Lake, east of Cao Bang Province.

TUYEN QUANG PROVINCE

TUYEN QUANG PROVINCE (165 kilometers from Hanoi) covers 5,870.4 square kilometers and is home to 728,900 people (2010). The capital is Tuyen Quang City. Districts: Na Hang, Chiem Hoa, Ham Yen, Yen Son, Son Duong, Lam Binh. The largest ethnic groups in the province are the Viet (Kinh),Tay, Dao and San Chay. Situated on Far-North East, Tuyen Quang Province is surrounded by Ha Giang, Cao Bang, Yen Bai, Bac Kan, Thai Nguyen, Phu Tho, Vinh Phuc provinces. The province is on National Highway No.2: Hanoi- Viet Tri- Tuyen Quang- Ha Giang.

Mountains occupy almost the entire area of the province. The main rivers are Lo and Gam.Influenced by tropical climate, the summer is very hot. There are two seasons: dry and rainy. Annual average temperature is 24 degrees C. Tuyen Quang has over 300 historical and cultural sites. Tan Trao Historical Site is the site of a resistance base before the August 1945 Revolution. The main places of interest include Tan Trao Communal House, Hong Thai Communal House and small jungle hut where President Ho Chi Minh lived from June to August 1945. Na Hang Primitive Forest is home toof valuable fauna and flora such as dinh, mun (ebony trees), sen (bassia), panthers, flying squirrels, antelope, and upturned-nosed monkey.The sounds of the waterfall, birds and gibbons, and silver light going through the thick layers in Thac Mo (Mo Waterfall) provide enjoyable feeling for visitors.

Mo Waterfall (100 kilometers from Tuyen Quang town), or Thac Mo, means “Dream Waterfall.” Located in Na Hang Natural Reserve in Na Hang District, the waterfall has silver hues and is composed of three layers. To reach the second layer, visitors have to climb up 100 meters by a rope ladder. At the foot of the second layer, there is a small and pure lake. Here, visitors will see the imposing landscape with the caves, which have beautiful stalactites and stalagmites. The water flows slowly through the green moss-covered rocks, which look like a velvet rug. Climbing upwards, visitors reach the third layer. Here the water pours down very strongly and there are panoramic views of Na Hang Town, which is surrounded by 99 mountains. The sounds of the waterfall mixes with sounds of birds and gibbons, The road to Thac Mo is convenient. One can hear the noise of water pouring far from above. The closer visitors draw to the waterfall, the cooler they feel. Visitors can take a small boat to reach the waterfall.

SON LA PROVINCE

SON LA PROVINCE covers 14,174.4 square kilometers and is home to 1,092,700 people (2010). The largest ethnic groups in the province are the Dao, Thai, Viet (Kinh), Hmong, Muong. The capital is Son La City. Districts: Quynh Nhai, Muong La, Thuan Chau, Phu Yen, Bac Yen, Mai Son, Song Ma, Yen Chau, Moc Chau, Sop Cop. Situated in northwest Vietnam, Son La Province shares borders with Yen Bai, Lao Cai, Lai Chau provinces to the north, Dien Bien Province on the west, Phu Tho and Hoa Binh provinces on the east and Laos on the south. The province has many mountains, rives and mineral resources. Abundant water supply is suitable to hydroelectricity. Moc Chau Plateau is an ideal place to breed milk cows, plant tea and fruit. Annual average temperature is about 21 degrees C. The weather is cold and dry in winter and hot in summer.

Son La connects Hoa Binh by National Highway No. 6, Yen Bai by Highway No.37, Lao Cai by Higway No.279. Son La is 328 kilometers from Hanoi. In Na San Airport, Vietnam Airlines has daily flight from Hanoi to Son La. Na San Domestic Airport: Airport to City transport: VND 10,000 (for a taxi); Vietnam Airlines Sales Office: 419 Chu Van Thinh Street, Tel: 3858 199; Fax: 3858 198.

Son La Town (328 kilometers west of Hanoi) is a stop for travelers on their way from Hanoi to Dien Bien Phu. There are Black Tai, Meo, Muong and White Tai hill tribes in the area. Sights include the old French prison, hot springs, a lookout tower, a market, a forestry research station, Tam Toong Caves.

Son La Former Prison and Museum preserves revolutionary remains and exhibits precious objects introducing the historical and cultural traditions of the 12 ethnic groups living in Son La. Stretching out 150 meters long, Tham Tet Toong Cave is a wonder of nature. Along the walls of the cave, there are numerous stalactites and stalagmites. Ban Hin (Hin ethnic minority hamlet) is marked by the traditions and culture of the Tai. There, tourists enjoy drinking ruou can and watching xoe dance by Tai women. At Yen Chau Site visitors can try special bananas, longans and mangoes. In the Second lunar month (late February or March), when ban flowers begins to blossom, coloring the mountains in white, Thai ethnic group held Hoa Ban Festival. Boys and girls go flower picking to celebrate the spring and entertain themselves by singing, playing tinh and khen flute, dancing xoe.

Son La Provincial Museum is located in the center of Son La City, in a building that was originally a penitentiary built by the French in 1908. Thousands of Vietnamese revolutionaries were imprisoned here. At first, it was only a small provincial prison. But between 1930 and 1945, it was enlarged to house more Vietnamese prisoners. Key individuals who later would become leaders of the Revolution for National Liberation were incarcerated in the Son La Prison. In 1962, it was classified by Vietnam’s Ministry of Culture as one of the numerous revolutionary heritage sites in the Vietnam.

The penitentiary was partially rebuilt after 1952 bombings and visitors can visit the subterraneous tiny cells with food-serving hatches and leg irons. The museum also exhibits precious objects and introduces the historical and cultural traditions of 12 ethnic groups living in Son La Province. Son La Provincial Museum welcomes tens of thousands of visitors every year.

LAI CHAU PROVINCE

LAI CHAU PROVINCE covers 9,112.3 square kilometers and is home to 382,400 people (2010) and Dien Bien Phu, where the Vietnamese defeated the French in a pivotal battle in 1954 that lead to the departure of France from Southeast Asia. The largest ethnic groups in the province are the Thai, Hmong, Viet (Kinh), Giay and Dao. The capital is Lai Chau Town. Districts: Phong Tho, Tam Duong, Muong Te, Sin Ho, Than Uyen, Tan Uyen.

Lai Chau is situated in a high mountainous region in the northwest of Vietnam, north of the Da River. Its neighbors are Yunnan (China) on the north, Laos on the west, Lao Cai Province to the northeast and Dien Bien and Son La provinces on the south. A range of mountain trending northwest to southwest trend occupies a large share of the province. Pu Sa Leng point, the highest point on the province, is 3,096 meters in height. There are numerous sloping mountains, hill valleys, plateaus and waterfalls. Fast-flowing rivers are a potential for hydroelectricity in Lai Chau. Lai Chau has a tropical monsoon climate, divided into two seasons: rain season and dry season. The annual average temperature is 21 degrees C - 23 degrees C.

Places of Interest include the ethnic groups in Sin Ho Village or Tam Duong Townlet, as: Tien Son Cave and Muong Lai Spring. The transportation is mainly by road. National Highway No.12 connects Dien Bien Phu City to Ma Lu Thang Border Gate crossing Lai Chau, and National Highway No.4D links Lai Chau with Sapa Townlet. Lai Chau Town is 406 kilometers from Hanoi.

DIEN BIEN PHU

DIEN BIEN PHU (320 miles west of Hanoi and 10 miles from the Lao border) is the where the Vietnamese defeated the French in a pivotal battle in 1954 that lead to the departure of France from Southeast Asia. Located in a very remote part of Vietnam, Dien Bein Phu is a town of 10,000 people lying at the center of 20-kilometers-long, five-kilometer- wide valley inhabited by 60,000 people, including Thai, Muong, Nung, Khu, Lao and Kinh ethnic minorities.

Dien Bein Phu is popular with French veterans and tourists. Visitors can visit trenches, bunkers and battlefields used in the battle as well as hills known as A1, C3, Himlam and Doclap to Vietnamese soldiers and Beatrice, Elaine, Dominique and Claudine respectively to French soldiers. There is a small museum and memorials to the Vietnamese and French who died. The reconstructed command post of General De Castries was opened in 1994. There are 14 flights a week from Hanoi to Dien Bien Phu Flights on Vietnam Airlines (flights 188 and 303, 1:00pm). Reaching Dien Bein Phu by road is a dicey, time-consuming proposition. It easier to reach overland from Laos than from Hanoi. See History

The historical sites of Dien Bien Phu are located in and around the 20 kilometers-long valley of Dien Bien Phu. Almost all the sites of the battle lying to the east of the Muong Thanh Field have been preserved intact. The valley of Dien Bien Phu was 18 kilometers long and six to eight kilometers wide when the Dien Bien Phu campaign began. On November 20th, 1953, French paratroopers occupied the valley and built 49 strongholds in three sub-sections. Among these sites today are artillery emplacements, the remains of airplanes, Muong Thanh Bridge, the command bunker of De Castries, Hill A1 and the cemeteries. Some 35 kilometers from the center of Dien Bien Phu City, in a mountainous, forested area in Muong Phang Commune, is the Command Post of General Vo Nguyen Giap.

Places to visit in Dien Bien: 1) The Museum of Dien Bien Phu victorious battle: The museum houses a great deal of documents and objects relating to the 55-day arduous battle of Vietnamese soldiers and people to make the glorious victory of the whole nation in spring 1954. The museum exhibits its objects both indoors and outdoors. 2) The cemeteries in Hill A1 (644 tombs) and Doc Lap Hill (2432 tombs): This is the resting place of Vietnamese soldiers who sacrificed heroically in the Dien Bien Phu Campaign. In Hill A1 lie the tombs of heroic martyrs such as To Vinh Dien, Be Van Dan, Phan Dinh Giot and Tran Can.

3) Hill A1: This height stands block the way to the northeast sub-section. It has a significant role, controlling the whole battle of Dien Bien Phu. During 36 nights and days, the fierce battle claimed the lives of 2516 Vietnamese soldiers. Only until the night of May 6th, 1954 did Vietnamese soldiers win this decisive battle. 4) Muong Thanh Airfield: This was the stronghold 206 and the central airport of the entrenched camp of Dien Bien Phu. Currently this airport is renamed Dien Bien Phu and becomes one of the destinations in the flight system of the Vietnam Civil Aviation.

5) The Command bunker of the Dien Bien Phu entrenched camp: De Castries worked inside the bunker. The original shape and size, structure and arrangement of the bunker are kept intact. 6) Him Lam Hill: On March 13th, 1954, Vietnamese troops fought the first battle in Him Lam Hill, which is situated to the northwest of the valley. 7) Doc Lap Hill: Vietnamese troops liberated the hill on March 15th, 1954. 8) Hills C, D and E are well preserved. From afar, one can easily recognize the name of these hills. Atop D1 Hill stands the newly-erected Statue of Dien Bien Phu Victory. 9) The Command post of the Vietnamese soldiers from January 21st to May 8th, 1954

Museum of Dien Bien Phu Victory (opposite the cemetery of Vietnamese martyrs in Hill A1, the center of Dien Bien Phu City) was built in 1984 in celebration of the 30th anniversary of Dien Bien Phu Victory. At the end of 2003, the museum was upgraded and its exhibition sections reorganized. To date, the museum has five exhibition sections, featuring 274 items and 122 pictures, many of which are newly added, about the 8-year resistance against the French colonialists. The five sections have the following contents: A) The strategic location of Dien Bien Phu. B) The enemy's scheme at Dien Bien Phu. C) The Party's guideline regarding preparations for the Dien Bien Phu Campaign. D) Impacts of Dien Bien Phu domestically and internationally. E) Present-day Dien Bien Phu. Open-hours: 7:00am to - 11:00am and 1:30pm to 5:00pm. Admission: There are five places in the museum: 5,000 VND/ person each place.

HISTORICAL SITES AT DIEN BIEN PHU

Command Bunker of General De Castries (in the middle of the Muong Thanh Field) lies at the heart of the entrenched camp of Dien Bien Phu. Although it is a reconstruction the original shape and size of the structure and arrangement of the bunker have been kept intact. In 1954, one could see the top of the bunker from a high hill. To reach there, however, Vietnamese troops had to fight heroically during 55 days and nights, amidst numerous hardships and difficulties. Around the bunker were dense systems of defense lines, including many layers of barbed wires and four tanks. The bunker is 20 meters long and eight meters wide. It consists of four compartments, which serves as both working offices and resident places.

One now can still find the iron vaults and sandbags atop the bunker. There used to be a roofed trench connecting the bunker of De Castries with the blockhouse at Cay Da in Hill A1. French troops piled up wooden planks and sandbags to make trenches. They took the wooden planks from the houses of the Vietnamese ethnic minority groups.

Inside this bunker, De Castries received such high-ranking officers as French Prime Minister Joseph Laniel, Dwight Eisenhower, Winston Churchill, as well as well-known journalists. At 5:30pm on May 7th, 1954, Ta Quoc Luat, head of Company 360, Regiment 209, Division 312 captured General De Castries alive while he was sitting at his desk in the corner of the bunker.

The tunnel-bunker had four compartments as follows: Compartment 1is the office of Lieutenant Colonel Charles Piroth, who was in charge of French artillery in Dien Bien Phu. Prior to his departure to Indochina, Piroth submitted a tactical plan to Henri Navarre, in which he affirmed that "no artillery gun of Viet Minh could fire three times without being destroyed" in Dien Bien Phu. However, after experiencing the fierce attacks of Vietnamese artillery, Piroth committed suicide with a grenade in a tunnel at the end of Muong Thanh Bridge on March 15th, 1954. De Castries worried that his troops would lose their morale if they knew this so he had Piroth buried in the one end of Muong Thanh Bridge. Then he cabled to inform Navarre that Piroth had disappeared together with his jeep.

Compartment 2 is the office of Seguin who was in charge of the French air force in Dien Bien Phu. He was tasked with the protection of the Muong Thanh and Hong Cum airfields. He himself faced shameful defeat. Before attack of Vietnamese troops, the French troops carried out around 100-150 sorties each day, transporting some 100-300 tons of goods to Dien Bien Phu. After assaults of Vietnamese troops, especially when the runways of Muong Thanh Airfield were cut off, French troops had to parachute goods to Dien Bien Phu, many of which came to hands of Vietnamese troops.

Compartment 3 is the office of De Castries's secretary. Upon being promoted to the Commander of the Dien Bien Phu entrenched camp, he required to have this secretary, who was both a nurse and a journalist. When the Vietnamese troops attacked Dien Bien Phu on March 13th, 1954, De Castries asked her to come back to Hanoi by airway. Compartment 4is the information and radio transmission center of the French troops in Dien Bien Phu. When the Dien Bien Phu campaign ended, Vietnamese troops captured only one female French nurse, De Galard. She was among one of the first to be released under Vietnam's policy.

Hill A1 (in Muong Thanh Ward, Dien Bien Phu City, Dien Bien Province) was the strongest post of all the 49 strongholds in Dien Bien Phu fortified entrenched camp. It had three defense lines. The first one, stretching from the Cay Da blockhouse, protected the way to the hilltop. Currently this is the main road leading to the top of Hill A1. The second line was for counter-offensive assaults and the last one was a kind of underground bunker atop the hill. There were trenches connecting these three lines. Unaware of the underground bunker atop the hill, Vietnamese troops assaulted from the dried stream. To occupy one third of the hill, Vietnamese troops lost 2516 troops and discovered the bunker thanks to enemy’s flare.

Then the tactics changed. Despite numerous difficulties, Vietnamese troops dug a tunnel to destroy the bunker with explosive. After 16 days and nights, Vietnamese troops found a brick foundation, which was left from some building built by French troops in 1940. Considering that was the bunker wall, Vietnamese troops brought 970 kilogramsof explosive there and detonated them at 8:30pm on May 6th, 1954. The pressure of the explosion made the ears of the French captain in charge of the bunker bleed. He thought that was a new kind of weapon used by Vietnamese troops and surrendered. The explosion left an enormous hole like a crater, which is rather afar from the top of Hill A1. This hole now serves as a tourist attraction.

Statue of Dien Bien Phu Victory (on top of Hill D1, Dien Bien Phu City) was inaugurated in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Dien Bien Phu Victory (May 7th, 1954 - May 7th, 2004). The statue of Dien Bien Phu Victory represents the images of three Dien Bien soldiers, standing atop De Castries’s bunker, looking at three directions. One of them holds a rifle, one a flag and one holding a child with a bunch of flower. The words “Resolutely fight to win” are put in the flag under the suggestion of General Vo Nguyen Giap.

The statue is made out of bronze by the Doan Ket Bronze Casting Company (Y Yen District, Nam Dinh Province). Nguyen Trong Hanh is the direct supervisor. The casting process of the 12 parts of the statue lasted 153 days until February 19th, 2004. The statue is 12.6 meters high (excluding the concrete pedestal, which is 3.6 meters high, eight meters wide and 10 meters long). Its biggest part weighs 40 tons, the lightest 6 tons. The flag itself weighs 12 tons. The weight of bronze is 180 tons, which is equivalent to 220 tons of raw bronze material. All together, the statue weighs 360 tons.

Command Post of the Dien Bien Phu Campaign (Muong Phang Commune, Dien Bien District, about 35 kilometers, 10 kilometers as the crow flies, from the center of Dien Bien Phu City) is where visitors will find the hut where General Vo Nguyen Giap worked and other huts for information and military operation discussion. Places of interest include: 1) Sentry box No. 1; 2) Information Center; 3) Hut of Reconnaissance Operation; 4) Hut of General Vo Nguyen Giap, Commander-in-Chief of the Dien Bien Phu; 5) The 96 meters tunnel through the mountain, connecting General Giap’s hut with that of Chief of Staff Hoang Van Thai; 6) Area for Chinese consultants; 7) Hut of Chief of Staff Hoang Van Thai; 8) Meeting hall; 9) Political sector.

Major General, Deputy Chief of Staff Hoang Van Thai, deputy head of the Chinese consultants’ group and chief of staff Mei Jiasheng and other officers left Viet Bac for Tay Bac on December 6th, 1953 to make preparations for the Tay Bac Campaign in winter-spring 1953-1954.

On January 5th, 1954, General Vo Nguyen Giap, Commander-in-Chief of the Dien Bien Phu Campaign and head of the Chinese consultants’ group Wei Quojing left for Tay Bac. The General’s first stop was at Tham Pua Cave (Km 15, Tuan Giao-Dien Bien Phu road). This command post had been set up as early as December 7th, 1953. In this cave, on January 14th, 1954, General Vo Nguyen Giap assigned the tactical tasks for different divisions, following the guideline of “sweep attack, sweep victory” under which the battle would last 2 days and 3 nights with the D-Day set on January 20th, 1954. On January 17th, 1954, the Command post was moved to the area beside Huoi He Stream in Na Tau Commune (Km 56+200, Tuan Giao-Dien Bien Phu road). Due to some reasons, the D-Day was changed to the 25th then the 26th of January 1954. At 11:00 hours in the morning of January 26th, 1954, General Vo Nguyen Giap decided to swift from the strategy to “strike swiftly, win swiftly” to “strike surely, win surely”. This military order was sent to all units in Dien Bien. The Command post was situated in Na Tau from January 18th, 1954 to January 30th, 1954.

At night of the 30th and early of the 31st day of January 1954, the Command post was moved again to Muong Phang Commune. It stayed there until May 15th, 1954. This was the third and the last command post of the Dien Bien Phu Campaign. Atop the Phu Ca Mountain, General Vo Nguyen Giap had a watchtower built to get a panoramic view of Muong Thanh Field through binoculars.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, Fox News and various websites, books and other publications identified in the text.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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