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.
Getting There: 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: a couple dollars (for a taxi); Vietnam Airlines Sales Office: 419 Chu Van Thinh Street, Tel: 3858 199; Fax: 3858 198.
Traveling and Transportation in Vietnam: The easiest way to get most anywhere in Vietnam is through a tour organized in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City or another major tourist town. Usually you can work out something with the staff of your hotel. If you want to shop around there are plenty of tour agencies on the streets of the tourist areas or on the Internet. For long distances you are best taking a flight. Air Asia serves many places but the flights often originate in Kuala Lumpur. Vietnam Airlines, budget carrier VietJet Air and Jetstar Pacific Airlines, a unit of Vietnam Airlines, all operate domestic routes. The trains are okay but the destinations they service are limited. It is possible to take local buses and minibuses but traveling that way is hassle and time-consuming: you have to deal with language issues, scheduling, locating where the buses leave and often crowded, hot conditions on the buses.
Son La Town
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 Phu
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, the site of a decisive battle (See Below); 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.
Hill A1 (in Muong Thanh Ward, Dien Bien Phu City, Dien Bien Province) blocked the way to the northeast sub-section. It had a significant role, controlling the whole battle of Dien Bien Phu. During 36 nights and days, the fierce battle to take the hill claimed the lives of 2516 Vietnamese soldiers. It was not until the night of May 6th, 1954 did Vietnamese soldiers win this decisive battle.
Hill A1was 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.
Command Bunker of General De Castries
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.
Statue of Dien Bien Phu Victory
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
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.
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.
Last updated August 2020