Hanoi and Dien Bien Phu
In late February I was in Hanoi and Dien Bien Phu. My friend, Canadian literary critic, publisher and author, George Fetherling suggested the adventure. George is finishing a book on the French colonial period in Indochina. Dien Bien Phu was where it came apart with a massive defeat at the hands of the Vietminh in 1954. We walked the hills where the French had set up trenches and fortifications. They were heavily out gunned and out manned. The surrender after about 3 months of battle remains a historical watershed in Southeast Asian history. I recorded the trip with a series of videos.
I had mentioned to George that in 1990 when I made my first trip to Saigon, it was as if the war had ended a couple of weeks before. Dark, grim, and improvised. There were beggars and homeless people everywhere. No one had any money. It was a nightmarish, noir place. The absence of streetlights made nighttime navigation on the streets a challenge. I saw very few private cars in 1990. But there were UN and NGO vehicles. The Vietnamese were extremely resourceful, crafting vehicles out of spare parts and scrap metal. These Mad Max vehicles belched bluish gray smoke and, of course, had no lights. I spotted a variation of such a vehicle outside the market in Hanoi. Only the vehicle in the video clip is too well made to properly belong in the garage along side of to the old Saigon road warriors but it does give an idea of the kind of transportation that one found on the roads in 1990.
Hanoi was unrecognizable from my first trip in 1991. Modern hotels, loads of second hand book stalls, good restaurants, and a great wet market. I’ll be posting on YouTube street scenes from Hanoi and the market.
Upcountry bicycles provide an important transportation link. I captured three cyclists outside the old airport at Dien Bien Phu.
Our translator and guide saw that we were taken to the airport in Dien Bien Phu. Three brass shell casings set off the alarm. The custom official examined the casings and smiled. No problem. George was certain that a prison sentence awaited him in Canada should custom officials find one of the casings. So I continue to hold one for him in trust.
Our flight from Dien Bien Phu was cancelled. The plane had some mechanical problem, and Air Vietnam promised that they’d send a replacement plane in a day or two. That seemed a little vague and open ended. We ended up, with the aid of our trusty translator, in renting a taxi that drove us 500K plus to Hanoi. Having made that drive through mountain switchbacks and over potholed roads, I can understand why the French in 1954 couldn’t support their troops with ground transportation. I have some good footage of that trip which I will post on YouTube.